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Choosing a Sewing Machine

There's a huge range of different sewing machines on the market and it can be hard to know where to start, so begin by narrowing down the options by bearing in mind a few key factors. The first thing to consider is what kind of sewing you plan to do, not just immediately but in the future, and then look at machines which are appropriate to your aims: for example, if you plan to make curtains you will need a sturdy machine which will cope with heavy or thick layers of fabric; for dressmaking you need a machine suitable for various fabric types and which will produce good utility stitches as well as buttonholes; don’t buy a machine which offers many embroidery stitches if you are unlikely to use them, as you will pay extra for these.


Electrical/Mechanical Machines

These are powered by an electric motor which operates the action of the needle together with the feed mechanism, which passes the fabric through the machine. They are operated by a foot pedal, leaving the hands free to manipulate the fabric, which also controls the speed. The electronic foot control also allows the machine to sew slowly without losing needle penetration. However the selection of stitches is mechanical so you do this by turning a dial or knob.


Computerised/Digital Machines

These are controlled by several motors working together, to allow very precise control of the needle action, speed and other functions of the machine, which are selected using touch pads or screens. The variety of stitch options can run into hundreds, including embroidery and monogramming. Some have a memory facility which stores embroidery designs that have been created for future use or can produce designs downloaded from the internet or from a CD. These machines all have other useful features such as a button which allows you to choose whether the needle is left in the down position every time you stop sewing – useful for curves and corners.


Overlockers (also known as sergers)

The main application of these is to give a neat and professional finish to seams and hems, operating at high speeds. They have a moving blade that cuts off excess fabric as the machine stitches, and they operate with up to 5 threads so that a seam can be stitched, trimmed and overcast in one operation, thus saving time, especially on long seams. They work well with stretch fabrics. However, they are no substitute for a sewing machine, as they cannot deal with more intricate work, or sew zips or buttonholes. Only worth buying if you do a lot of garment sewing (and many sewing machines today provide excellent seam finishing stitches).



A huge range of options are available, from under £100 to several thousand. When looking for a machine research the market, then set yourself a price range, and try not to be persuaded to go too far outside it. Shop around for the best prices. Very cheap machines (under £100) from catalogue stores or discount supermarkets are best avoided as the quality and after sales service can leave a lot to be desired. Some cheaper machines will probably have components made of plastic rather than metal, making them less durable and unable to cope with heavy work such as curtains or jeans. The stitch quality may also not be very good, and problems may occur with tension or the machine jamming.


Type and Frequency of Sewing

Don’t be tempted to buy a machine with more stitches and features than you are ever likely to use. A basic machine is perfectly adequate for a beginner who intends to do only simple sewing tasks; someone with a little more experience wanting to work with a wider variety of fabrics and applications could trade up to something more versatile. For more creative and advanced sewing, a machine offering embroidery and quilting facilities could be justified.



If you don’t have the luxury of a place where your machine can be left permanently set up, make sure it is not too heavy to lift from floor to table, from storage to work place, or possibly up and down stairs or to sewing classes and groups. However, some cheap machines are very light if they are mainly made of plastic and can shift around during use. A machine weighing around 7- 8kg will be quite sturdy yet portable.


After Sales Service

Consider guarantees, servicing and availability of spare parts and extra accessories.



A machine should come with a set of essential accessories such as spare bobbins, a cleaning brush and presser feet for inserting zips and sewing buttonholes. Check what is supplied with a machine, as additional accessories can add a lot to the final cost.



Ideally, a prospective buyer would seek a demonstration of a shortlist of machines. Unfortunately, this service is now very hard to come by, and tends to be offered only by specialist independent retailers. The way many machines are sold nowadays – boxed to take home, or by mail order – makes this impossible, and we take a chance on what we are getting. Online reviews or personal recommendation can be helpful. If you do arrange a demonstration, take along samples of the types of fabric you hope to sew, especially “difficult” fabrics, so that you can see how a machine performs.


Bobbin loading

The bobbin carries the lower of the two threads which form machine stitching and is loaded into the machine in one of two ways:

BobbinAndCaseForWebFront loading: the bobbin is placed in a separate casing which has to be removed from the machine  
BobbinCasingForWebBobbin case in machine.   
DropInBobbinForWebTop loading: the bobbin case lies inside the base of the machine and the bobbin is simply dropped into place. This method is easier to use and has the advantages that the machine runs more quielty and tangled threads are less likely  

Range of features

Many machines these days make a point of highlighting the number of stitches offered, especially for embroidery. Sometimes a larger number of fancy stitches can come at the expense of good quality utility stitches and other features. Remember that the basic stitches are likely to be the ones you use most of the time.


Features to look for:

Basic utility stitches to cope with most types of sewing: straight stitch, zig zag stitch, buttonhole.

Separate stitch width/length controls: some cheaper machines have only one control knob with pre-set stitch lengths and widths, giving less choice of stitch combinations than with separate controls.

AccessoriesForWebEssential accessories: presser feet for straight stitch, zig zag stitches, buttonholes, and zips  
FreeArmForWebFree arm. This is created by removing part of the flat bed (lower part of the machine) leaving a narrow section around which trouser legs and sleeves can be sewn more easily.