Not Martha

your first sewing machine

Advice on getting your first sewing machine is something that gets asked a lot and is awfully hard to answer. I certainly don’t want to encourage somebody to buy a machine that they end up leaving in a closet, or worse, one that does not work very well and only leads to frustration and more expense. Somebody recently emailed asking me for sewing machine advice and this is what I came up with. (I have some book suggestions below, so if you already own a sewing machine, you might want to skip down there.)

– You can learn to sew from a book but taking a class will give you a better feel for what is normal, like how you should (almost) always backstich at the beginning and end of a seam, how fast you can expect to go, when you really need to iron before proceeding (almost always). You can also get a feel for this by watching old Martha Stewart sewing segments, or sewing shows on PBS or HGTV.

– A lot of new machines appear to be expensive because they contain computers that are capable fancy stitches and embroidery, and are able to use a lot of software. Unless you’re a hardcore textile geek who is moving past the basics, I don’t think these are necessary. Beyond using the buttonhole feature and the occasional zig-zag stitch, you’re unlikely to use many fancy stitches.

– Having a free arm is worth spending a little bit more, in my opinion. A free arm allows you to hem cuffs and finish the tops of bags easily. My own machine does not have a free arm and I found I was at a disadvantage when making sturdy bags as gifts this past Christmas.

– A common theme for new stitchers is fear of the tension knobs. This leads to a near religious fear of touching or changing them, and lots of fretting over broken threads being your own fault, not the machines. I am guilty of his myself. But the owner’s manual will show how to use these and one should adjust them whenever needed. Throwing your own machine out of sync is frustrating, but understanding how to get it to work again is important.

– Do you need a serger? Really, not until you’re making a large part of your own wardrobe.

– See this diagram understanding a sewing machine at MarthaStewart.com, a machine manual and any basic sewing book should also have this.

– See this animation of how a bobbin works at Craft, it’ll keep you from wondering and possibly help you untangle threads if they get stuck.

– What sewing machine brands are good changes all the time, so it’s difficult to recommend one company. Viking, Pfaff and Bernina are good names, but these can be pricey machines for a beginner or occasional stitcher.

– Cool Tools gave a recommendation for this small Brother machine, which has gotten pretty good reviews on Amazon.

– A while back Craft did a round up of sewing machines and got these beginner sewing machine recommendations from the girls at Stitch Lounge. Craft also has this mid-range sewing machine round up.

Here are some books you might find useful or inspirational.

Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing
When I entered college as a costume design major, this was the book we were instructed to bring to draping class. Well, mine was an older edition with hilarious 70s clothing and housewares projects in the back. This book has complete instructions for all sorts of clothing construction and I still use it as a reference.

Vogue Sewing
I’ve seen this referred to as the bible.

Sewing 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Sewing
Start at the beginning.

Sew U: The Built by Wendy Guide to Making Your Own Wardrobe
Built By Wendy shows you how to create your own wardrobe.

Bend the Rules Sewing: The Essential Guide to a Whole New Way to Sew
By Amy Karol, the loveliness behind Angry Chicken and Kingpod.

Lotta Jansdotter’s Simple Sewing: Patterns and How-To for 24 Fresh and Easy Projects
This book comes with patterns tucked away in a special pocket, I love this book. You can read what I wrote about it here.

Amy Butler’s In Stitches: More Than 25 Simple and Stylish Sewing Projects
This book also comes with patterns tucked away in a special pocket, you can read why I love it here.

Sew Subversive: Down and Dirty DIY for the Fabulous Fashionista
They start with the basics of sewing and show you how to alter your wardrobe. Read more of what I had to say here.

Simple Sewing With a French Twist: An Illustrated Guide to Sewing Clothes and Home Accessories with Style
I’ve only peeked inside this book but it had plenty of inviting projects.

· comments [37] · 05-11-2007 · categories:books · craft · sewing ·

37 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Seattlejo // May 11, 2007 at 6:53 am

    Let me just comment that Sew U is beautiful and all, but the sizes are limited. :-)

  • 2 becky // May 11, 2007 at 7:34 am

    I second your recommendation on Sewing 101. I’ve been stitching since childhood and learned a lot from it when I picked it up a few years ago.

    As for machines, I stand firmly in the Viking camp. Yes, they are expensive, but used machines can be found at reputable shops and they last forever. Newer models are fancier but personally, I’d rather have a mechanical machine than one with electronics that will eventually go bad.

  • 3 Melanie // May 11, 2007 at 7:43 am

    Thanks for the info! The Purl Bee had a short post dealing with sewing machines, found at the following link:
    http://www.purlbee.com/display/ShowJournal?moduleId=515416&categoryId=83125

  • 4 amanda // May 11, 2007 at 7:50 am

    But don’t underestimate the value of the support you get when you buy a machine like a Bernina. The people who work at the Bernina dealership are amazing! If I have questions, I just bring in what I’m working on and they usually can help me on the spot if it’s something easy like changing to a different presser foot or needle or something. If it’s a more in-depth issue, they have drop-in sessions that last a few hours. I love the fact that they are there to help me and encourage me if I’m struggling with my machine. You’re not going to get that if you buy your machine at Target or Best Buy or something. I really do look at my sewing machine as a long term investment into one of my favorite hobbies so the value I get from my Bernina makes the price seem really reasonable!

  • 5 Celeste // May 11, 2007 at 7:54 am

    I go to a lot of yard sales, thrift stores, rummage sales and so on, and it seems like I see nice sturdy, simple, straightforward sewing machines all the time, for $5.00 or so. My advice for anyone wanting to try sewing, see if they like it, etc., would be to get one of these first and only then spend more once you know you are going to stick with it.

  • 6 fbz // May 11, 2007 at 9:00 am

    I just wanted to note that I had a small Brother machine as my first machine “away from home” and it hated me. The tension was whacktastic no matter how much I fiddled with it, and trust me I am not afraid of hardware. I ended up buying a Singer Featherweight off of ebay, I even found the model with a free arm, the Singer 222K. I wrote about it on my blog. I payed under $500 US for it with zigzag attachment and hard case and all. Frankly, some of the older metal machines if you can find them, are sturdier and have less tension problems than the brand new entry level ones.

  • 7 Carrie // May 11, 2007 at 9:05 am

    This is a very timely post for me, since I’m visiting my family this weekend and plan on picking up an old sewing machine of my mother’s. She’s always said that I shouldn’t bother to take it until I take a class, but I’m too much of a cheapskate, so I figured I’d just learn from books. I never thought of watching videos online, so thanks for that idea, as well as the book recommendations.

    Here’s to hoping my sewing phase lasts a little bit longer than my knitting phase did. :)

  • 8 lena // May 11, 2007 at 9:05 am

    i am a big fan of vintage sewing machines. they weigh a ton but they are work horses. i have a japanese juki from the 60s that kicks a but learned to sew on a a singer from the 50s. get a new pedel and cord and it will literally last for a hundred years with a good tune up every couple of years. i’ve sew everything from lace curtains to denim on it and never had a problem. my sisters has a viking that rules that is probably forty years old.

  • 9 athena // May 11, 2007 at 9:16 am

    i have a janome machine and am happy to see janome rec’d by craft. i don’t remember the model i bought, but i got it for $280 + tax. it is exactly the type of machine a beginner should use if they think they will actually continue to use it. a few somewhat fancy stitches, zigzag and button hole.

    but the best part is… i was used to using industrial machines (and i own a juki that has been languishing in my friend’s garage for years now because i don’t have the space) and i was afraid that home machines wouldn’t give me the same quality of stitch. well, the janome makes beatiful stitches. it “rides” like butter, and i can actually handle the pace (even though i got used to the juki, harnessing all that power was exhausting for me).

    also, i really second buying a machine from a dealer/quilt shop/fabric shop. the personal service you receive is worth it. some places offer free classes. my friend bought a bernina from a quilt shop and all classes for bernina buyers are free. they showed her how to use this machine (she had had a cheap secondhand machine from a neighbor) for free and she can upgrade for really good deals.

  • 10 Tin-Tin // May 11, 2007 at 9:18 am

    I recently bought a Huskystar E20 for $199. It’s got a little more than the very basic E10 which was going for $150. I bought it on some blog suggestions that it was a good brand (Husqvarna-Viking) and good for beginners who plan on doing more than just hemming pants and whatnot.

    Also, I really really like Sew U for teaching basic sewing. It was so fun to read! I just bought the new Reader’s Digest Guide and it is very very thorough so I will probably not read it cover to cover like Sew U. Or maybe I will. hehe.

  • 11 susan // May 11, 2007 at 10:40 am

    I bought a Kenmore three years ago since it was the brand of my mom’s machine (a true workhorse, still going strong from 1975). It took me a little while to get the tension right, but it’s a great machine and a little bit more reasonable in price. I particularly like the free arm option.

  • 12 Ahava // May 11, 2007 at 11:26 am

    The first sewing machine that I bought for myself (ie. not a hand-me-down) was a Kenmore. It was under $100, has 34 stitches, and a free arm. I sew every day and I couldn’t be happier with it. I’d definitely recommend it for a beginning sewer. Of course, if they’ve had absolutely no experience and aren’t even sure if it’s something they will stick to, I’d say buy second-hand. Heck, I learned most of what I know about tension and maintenance from those hand-me-downs given to me, because I had no choice.

    Sew-U is on the top of my birthday wish list. I think I’ll have to add a couple more of your suggestions to it though.

  • 13 Miss Sassy // May 11, 2007 at 12:16 pm

    What a great subject and very good advice. Wish I had it when I bought my machine.

    I bought a Brother CS-8150 Free-Arm Computerized Sewing Machine from Wal-Mart for about $300 3 years ago after reading reviews about it on Amazon. I love my machine. I bought the Brother when I found out Brother makes the computerized parts for the Berninas. It has been an awesome, portable machine. I do tend to use some of the fun stitches for quilting.

    My only complaint is the automatic needle threader does not work anymore but I’m sure I could easily get it repaired if I could part with my machine.

    I recommend testing out a machine before buying. I learned to sew on my own with a 1/2 hour tutorial from my Mom. I read tons of books and watch shows like Sewing with Nancy. I think a class is a great idea to get started and get inspiration.

    I like the idea of picking up a machine at a garage sale. I just saw a great, sturdy machine yesterday that I’m sure would work fine.

    I second Sewing 101, In Stitches, and Simple Sewing with a French Twist.

  • 14 Miss Sassy // May 11, 2007 at 12:20 pm

    I forgot to say that the Brother Manual is awesome. I have learned a lot from that.

    Also, one of the features I never thought of but really love is that I can move the needle. This way I can line up my seam to the edge of the pressure foot rather than try to line it up to a line on the machine.

  • 15 Lenore // May 11, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Nice post, Megan! I love my huskystar, my first and (so far) only machine, and have put it through its paces!

    I would not recommend buying used for a first machine unless it comes with support (aunt, mom, friend, shop staff, etc.) or if you are really comfortable figuring out machines out on your own. New machines generally come with manuals, and if you purchase at a sewing maching/quilting/fabric store will usually come with support as well.

    I use my manual a lot, because even though I have had the machine for years, there are features I don’t use very often. And, of course, I look up the tension information every time I adjust it because I can never remember what the higher and lower numbers mean.

    If you are in the Bay Area, the Tech Shop (http://techshop.ws/) in Menlo Park offers sewing classes and has machines for member use (and you can get day-, month- or year-long memberships).

  • 16 Karen // May 11, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    Just bought a Janome DC2007LE (first machine!) 2 months ago and wanted to share a couple things that would probably make a difference to you if you are getting a sewing machine to make clothes-get a machine that has the seam allowance guides pre-marked on the plate, some of the cheaper ones won’t have this. also 2 great features that i love on my Janome are a button that automatically makes locking stitches so you don’t have to backstitch at the beginning/end, and also a button that lets you switch between the needle stopping in the “up” or “down” position which is good for corners. I think it was worth the $480 because there’s a lot of room to grow with the functions, and the shop does all the free lessons and 20 year warranty stuff too

  • 17 Ellen // May 11, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    Megan,
    You totally rock! I was one of those people asking for sewing machine advice.
    Now I can digest all of this great info and make a decision soon. We just moved and have an extra room, perfect for a new machine. Thanks again!

  • 18 Wendelynn // May 11, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    You might want to give these two articles a read if your trying to decide which machine is right for you:

    1. http://www.evidently.org/2007/he-said/bernina-pfaff-viking-oh-my/
    2.http://www.evidently.org/2007/he-said/too-much-information/

    They’re both really well researched and makes the maze of machine buying comprehensible.

  • 19 Aloe // May 12, 2007 at 4:56 am

    The complete book of sewing by constance talbot (and the vogue) are my favourites. Left over from the time when people still sewed *everything* it’s got all sorts of useful useful mending information, and basic sewing ifo, and is esp good for the times when you need to fix the treasured hand knitted sweater or batman cape.

  • 20 Nia // May 12, 2007 at 6:49 am

    If you’re going to buy a machine and have a limited budget, go to a nice mom and pop place that sells PFAFFs or Elnas etc. (I have a thing about the way berninas are sold) A good store will have a range of machines and if you buy a new one they will give you a lesson or two for free. The best part is that they will also have a bunch of used machines. I used a fabulous 50 yr old Pfaff until recently. The only reason I upgraded was for the the automatic button hole feature. Also, old machines can be repaired easily. Save your money, buy an old machine because you’ll upgrade later, or more likely you’ll realize that you’d really like to have a serger too.

  • 21 Meegan // May 12, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    If you’re in the Seattle area, North Seattle Community College offers a great beginners sewing class, inexpensive and very knowledgeable teacher. I picked up an old Kenmore machine on craigslist for my first machine, which did everything I think as a beginner I need a machine to do.

  • 22 Pixie // May 12, 2007 at 9:37 pm

    I got that Brother machine you mentioned for Xmas (2005!) & haven’t yet set it up, but it’s reassuring to see that it still gets recommended. Maybe I will get over my fears this summer & set it up & check out some of those books, too!

  • 23 ks // May 13, 2007 at 9:34 am

    Thanks for this information — it’s helpful and inspirational. I want to sew!

  • 24 heather // May 13, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    I have a 10-yr old baby lock that I love. It’s simple to use and has all the major features. Whatever your price point, I highly recommend getting a machine with 1-step buttonholes, it saves a lot of aggravation.

    someday I’ll bring home my singer slant 6, which was my great-grandmother’s machine and stitches beautifully…

  • 25 Cinnamon // May 13, 2007 at 7:49 pm

    My first machine was purchased at a yard sale for $10. A $35 tune-up, cleaning, and oiling and it ran great for what I needed for about 10 years. And then the timing got off and I broke a piece and it wasn’t worth getting fixed. My guy replaced it wtih a Bernina from the 60′s that had been used in a high school home ec class for 15 years. It saw a lot of use, but it still works great for me when I am sewing lighter-weight, apparel weight fabrics. If I hadn’t needed something to sew heavy layers of fabric, it would still be the only machine I use. It’s only fancy stitch is a zigzag which makes it great for buttonholes. It is a heavy, solid, workhorse of a machine. I’ve tried out newer plastic machines to help friends decide what they want and they seem so light and flimsy that I always suggest hitting a yard sale. Ask to try it out with some scrap fabric and as long as it makes stitches but it and then pay to get it serviced.

    I also recommend the Sew U book. While her included patterns unfortunately don’t cover larger sizes, she does do a decent job explaining how to alter the pattern so it does fit you. But the instructions are excellent, the descriptions of tools and short cuts are amazing and the book is bound to be used for a long time. It is what I recommend to people just starting to sew. It will provide a base level of knowledge that can be experimented with and expanded upon later. So many other of the hip sewing books are all style and no substance.

  • 26 Amy Lu // May 14, 2007 at 9:41 am

    I recently got a second-hand Bernina, new in the box. I L-O-V-E it. It’s way more machine than I need right now, but I’m glad I got something I can “grow into.”

    I was a knitter first, and I would always encourage people that were just learning to knit to buy the best needles and wool they could afford. Sometimes when people are just starting out, lesser quality tools will be more difficult to work with and most people quit in frustration.

    I took my own advice when I wanted to start sewing a few months ago, and I’m glad I did. (Although money spent on crafty things is seldom regretted!)

    Now I’m off to add the books you recommend to my wish list! Thanks! Your timing couldn’t be more perfect!

  • 27 pascale // May 14, 2007 at 10:03 am

    Hello Megan,

    Thank you for that great post, very interesting. My very old aunt gave me recently her Thimonnier sewig machine and I love it because I used to see my grandmother and later my aunt sew on that machine but I can’t backstitch correctly with it, it always ends in a big fuss, like a giant knot, so I have to cut some thread and finish by hand. My aunt is too old to show me, I have to learn by myself and I live 5000 kilometers away from my family, so I wondered if you had any idea of what I do wrong, or where I can find specific info on that. Thanks a lot. Your blog is the first craft blog I read a long time ago and it opened a whole new world to me!

  • 28 miranda // May 14, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    Good advice! I am not in the market for a sewing machine – I have a White from about 1990 that everyone but me has used successfully (I’ve never tried, but should be taking classes soon).

    The one thing I disagree with is the rec on “Sew Subversive.” The info about sewing machines at the beginning is great, but what you liked about the book is something I hated – how generally unfinished the garments in the second half of the book look – I thought most of ‘em looked messy and unflattering. And, realistically, some of the projects (the collar & tie for wine bottles) would be considered cheesy by most people if they weren’t in a hipster sewing book. It’s not a book that I would rec to people for the projects in it, but that’s a personal-taste-based thing, so YMMV. The content in the first half of the book did help me understand how machines work, and I think it would have had me up and running if I weren’t so gun-shy about it.

    A book that I did really like is by E. Dubricki and is called something like “101 Things To Do With Your First Sewing Machine”. Has a spiral binding inside a hardcover and, while not so much “patterns”, definite easy instructions for most basic projects of the pillow/curtain/apron variety. It came out last year.

  • 29 g. // May 15, 2007 at 8:07 am

    Thanks for sharing.
    This post is really great !
    g.

  • 30 Michelle // May 15, 2007 at 1:50 pm

    Oh, I have just started sewing, love it! I have the book on the bottom and I highly recommend for people who like visual representation of instructions. Great post, thank you!

  • 31 Anabell // May 15, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    I have a Janome sewing machine. It’s my first one and it’s pretty good. Mine is larger and has more options but I’ve heard the Hello Kitty version sold at Target is pretty good for a begginer. Don’t let the kitty fool you.

  • 32 Bonnie // Jun 18, 2007 at 11:01 pm

    Since you’re are suggesting cool sewing books, you might want to check out and possibly review — the new book Jeaneology: Crafty Ways to Reinvent Your Old Blues by Nancy Flynn.

    Nancy has a column on GetCrafty.com, but her personal crafty blog is rather inspiring too:
    http://www.belleepoquewhimsy.com/

    When I picked up her new book, I was happy to see that she has all kinds of sewing projects in the book and not just really advanced stuff — especially since I don’t sew that much.

    Her book has around 25 cool sewing projects that help you find uses for old jeans you’ll never fit into again, or were ruined, or you bought and never wore. For the projects jeans are reinvented as other clothes, bags, wallets, jewelry, coasters and pillows. And there’s some pretty cool projects that guys can do to like wrist cuffs — which is nice to have a book that isn’t just for the crafty ladies.

    You can find the book here on Amazon:
    http://www.amazon.com/Jeaneology-Crafty-Ways-Reinvent-Blues/dp/0977266036/

    And the book is on Myspace with blog updates in case you want to see what Nancy is working on lately — she often links to DIY projects both in the book and new stuff:
    Jeaneology book on Myspace:
    http://www.myspace.com/jeaneologybook

  • 33 megan // Jun 19, 2007 at 11:31 am

    Thanks Bonnie! I’m also hearing really great things about the book Sew What Skirts.

  • 34 Teri Pittman // Jun 20, 2007 at 4:49 pm

    Check your local vacuum cleaner/sewing machine place to see if they have an old sewing machine guy running the place. I picked up my Viking at such a place. The guy’s son now runs it but he was a sewing machine repair guy for Jantzen. I’d bought a new Elna from him a few years before but just wasn’t thrilled with it. I love the old Viking. It’s a great machine. I also have an old Singer that I picked up at a pawn shop. Check around and try an older machine if you can find one.

  • 35 shelterrific » Blog Archive » help! what sewing machine should i buy? a guest post by not martha // Aug 14, 2008 at 5:28 am

    [...] That said, the lure of a shiny new sewing machine is understandable. People have favorite brands — Kenmore, Pfaff, Bernina, Singer, Janome, Viking and Brother are mentioned a lot. Your quilting shop can also point you toward local dealers; these are often the shops that sell and service vacuum cleaners as well. There you can take a test drive on the machines and get a feel for how easy it is to control the speed as well as what features you might like. You don’t need too many fancy stitches; zig-zag and buttonholes will be used most often. I tend to avoid sewing machines that have computer screens because I suspect it’ll just be one more thing that could go wrong. I talk about this a bit more here: Your First Sewing Machine. [...]

  • 36 Elizabeth // Oct 16, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    I borrowed a Brother EX-660 computerized machine from my friend, which she bought at Costco last year for around $250. I was using it for some basic applique on curtains, which required a zig-zag stitch.

    Initially the machine seemed perfect–versatile, light-weight, smooth sewing. However, I was about half way through the job and the machine broke–wheel on right wouldn’t turn, so needle wouldn’t go up and down. I have since heard from another friend who has a window treatment business, that these machines are not up to using them for too much stuff like zig-zag stitches–they just break down.

    I tried to have it fixed but the local sewing center said that the parts were plastic (that’s why it was so light), and that it is basically non-repairable. They refer to these machines as “disposable.” I called the nearest store that is an authorized Brother repair site and they confirmed this–said it would be around $400 to repair, more than the purchase price.

    Frankly, I am pretty mad that our disposable culture has extended now to include sewing machines. My advice is — before you buy a machine, make sure it’s repairable (unlike these cheap plastic Brothers)!!!

    Now I need to replace my friend’s machine–needless to say, she agrees that she would like the next one to be repairable. Anyone know a decent repairable model that I can buy for around $250 +/-? Thank you!

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