How to choose the right sewing machine (a beginner's guide)
Sewing machines are incredibly useful tools for creative projects, but trying to decipher the range of stitch lengths, stitch styles, features, and accessories available can be overwhelming. In this guide we’ll help you decide whether a manual or computerized machine is a better fit, how many built-in stitches you need, and just how many automatic features (like threading and bobbin winding) you need to make your sewing experience enjoyable.
2. Mechanical vs. computerized sewing machines
It wasn’t so long ago that manual sewing machines (and manual everything, for that matter) were the only option. Like most appliances, however, sewing machines have gone digital in the last decade. Both mechanical and computerized machines are available, and each category has its pros and cons.
Elephant sweatshirt made by Elizabeth Hudy. Photo by ElizabethHudy
As the name suggests, manual sewing machines require the user to operate every control by hand. That means that you’ll guide the fabric under the needle, turn dials to adjust speed and stitches, and be entirely in control over the quality of work that you produce.
If you’re a back-to-basics craftsperson or use your sewing machine for simple projects, manual machines will save you money and allow you to enjoy the hands-on experience of sewing. Manual machines are beneficial when:
- You’re on a budget—they’re typically cheaper than computerized machines.
- You’re a hobby or as-needed sewer—they have all the basic functions you need to make quick repairs, construct clothing, and work on personal projects.
- You’re a beginner—having more functions than you need or understand (even if they’re computerized) can be overwhelming when you first dive in to sewing.
- You want a long life expectancy—As with cars and cameras, totally mechanical machines simply have less that can go wrong with them and are easier to repair. The more electronics you have, the more customization options and automation modes you have—but you also have complicated (and expensive) parts that could break at any moment.
Keep in mind that, when you choose a manual machine, you’ll need to know what you’re doing when it comes to simple tasks like changing the needle’s position or creating a buttonhole. You’ll also need to invest more time and focus into completing each task than you would with a computerized machine.
A computerized sewing and embroidery machine with a digital display. Photo by Nayuki
When you sew regularly, want to experiment with more complex projects, or even work with fabric for a living, you’ll almost definitely want a computerized machine. Like most digitized machines, “automatic” sewing machines:
- Are generally more expensive and, thus, should be considered an investment for the dedicated sewer.
- Do much of the work for you, making your work go more quickly and efficiently and lowering the chance of mistakes. This includes automatically adjusting thread tension, threading the needle for you, and suggesting the ideal settings for the type of stitch or type of project you’re working on.
- Offer a greater variety of pre-sets, including stitch types and lengths.
- Often remember designs or allow you to import interesting designs from the internet.
Like a digital camera, a computerized sewing machine will be equipped with touchpads, labeled buttons, and LED screens instead of a large variety of knobs and levers.
Use your preferred working style, how often you sew, and your level of sewing knowledge to determine whether a manual or computerized sewing machine is right for your needs.
3. Number of stitches offered
Photo by Suzette
Once you’ve settled on the type of machine you need, which narrows you down to about half of the market, it’s time to start looking at features. The first and most important of those is the number of stitch patterns offered by the machine. Stitches are, in essence, the pattern that your thread makes on your fabric (like straight, looped, and zigzagged).
Zigzag control button on a sewing machine. Photo by timlewisnm
If you’re looking for a machine to hem pants, make button holes, and enable basic crafty projects, it’s likely that a beginner machine with a straight stitch, reverse, and zigzag function will be all you need.
If, however, you like to immerse yourself in intricate projects, you sew for a living, or you’re an experienced sewer, you’ll probably want something with a little more variety. Look for more intricate or decorative stitch options if you want (or need) to get more creative.
Sewing machines offer anywhere from 3-1,000 stitches. While it’s common to think that “more is better”, those sewing machines with hundreds of intricate stitches will absolutely come with a higher price tag. For an enthusiastic hobby sewer, a machine with 20-30 stitch options is a fantastic place to start.
4. How flexible are the stitch lengths?
Patchwork pincushion sewn together by machine. Photo by Audrey B.
Choosing a machine with the right variety of stitch lengths is just as essential as choosing the right amount of stitch patterns. Like other functions, picking the right variety requires thinking about how you plan to use your sewing machine.
- Securing seams requires only a short stitch length (1.0 mm or less).
- Creating seams requires a medium stitch length (about 2.5 mm).
- Basting and gathering fabric requires a long stitch length (about 5.0 mm).
- For zigzag patterns, the stitch length determines how far apart your “zigs” and “zags” will be.
Keep in mind that the longer the stitch length, the looser the seam will be. Most basic machines won’t ask you to set the precise seam length in millimeters; instead, they’ll offer you three or more “sizes” to choose from using a knob or LED screen.
For most projects, you won’t need more than 3-4 stitch settings, and the machine’s recommended setting will work for the majority of anything that you could ever need to do. However, if you have designs on extremely intricate projects or working with difficult fabrics, you’ll want a machine with the most stitch length options possible.
5. Available features
Features on sewing machines range from the essential to the downright luxurious. We’ve compiled some of the basic necessities and niceties below.
Photo by Lenore Edman
- Buttonholer: This feature allows you to sew a buttonhole in one step instead of stopping to turn your fabric.
- A responsive foot pedal: The foot pedal should be responsive to pressure. If it takes too much pressure for your sewing machine to respond, it’s easier for it to move too fast or too slow without warning. This can lead to mistakes.
- Needle threader: Machines with this option move the thread into the eye of the needle for you and save you from one of the biggest frustrations of sewing.
- Auto tie-off: Tying off your seams and stitches is one of the most important steps in making sure your hard work lasts, but it’s also time consuming. The auto tie-off function creates a sewn “tie” for you and often has a more professional look.
- Multiple speeds: This option lets you control the speed at which fabric moves under the needle and helps you maintain a constant speed beyond the use of the foot pedal.
- Tension options: It’s crucial that you be able to control how tight your thread is pulled to avoid sloppy stitching. Generally, beginners will want three options and the more advanced may need up to five settings.
- Bobbin winding: Choosing a sewing machine that winds bobbins automatically and refills thread when it runs out saves a lot of time and frustration.
- Clear bobbin covers: These let you see when a bobbin is running out of thread.
- USB connection: This allows you to import designs and patterns from your computer using a memory stick.
- Thread tension control: This feature controls the tension—or amount of pull—in your thread to avoid botched stitching.
- Internet connection: Keep in mind that a computerized sewing machine is a computer of sorts. As such, it may need updates, and an internet connection will allow the machine to download updates as necessary. And, of course, this also means that you can download patterns directly onto your machine.
Know that, typically, the number of computerized functions you have will directly correlate to the number of dollars you spend. A few basic computerized functions like tension control or auto-winding might still fall into the budget-friendly category, but a fully computerized and automated top-of-the-line machine may run you well into the thousand-dollar range.
6. Accessories and add-on items
Photo by photographerpandora
Many sewing machine models come with a storefront’s worth of accessories, but the vast majority of these won’t be necessary for beginner and intermediate users.
Many machines come with:
- Basic bobbins and needles
- Cleaning tools
- Screwdrivers and other maintenance tools
Photo by Lenore Edman
Extra presser feet
Extra presser feet for your needle will save you shopping time when you’re ready to expand to more complex projects, and there are feet out there that improve precision for nearly every need.
Extra presser feet come in handy with more complex sewing projects. Photo by Ryo FUKAsawa
If you plan to use your sewing machine for more than one type of project, be on the lookout for models that include these common feet:
- Zipper feet are designed to allow for smooth zipper functioning and to prevent sewing machines from jamming on the zipper.
- Walking feet allow you to move thick thread (for thicker fabrics) through the machine without bunching the fabric up.
- Buttonhole feet allow users to create more even buttonholes.
- Blind hem feet create a less visible hem and produce more professional results.
7. How loud is the machine?
You will spend a lot of hours behind your machine, so be sure it has an acceptable noise level. Photo by Katherine
Sewing machines are notoriously loud. The amount of noise produced by your machine determines how comfortable it is to use and how much it disrupts others in your home. The average sewing machine produces at least 60 decibels of noise.
- 60-80 decibels is considered loud but is the typical range for sewing machines. At 80 decibels, you’ve reached the average amount of noise emitted by an alarm clock.
- 80 decibels and higher will drown out all other noise.
- Beware of devices over 85 decibels if you plan to use them for extended periods of time, as long-term exposure to this level of noise can lead to hearing loss.
Some level of “noise pollution” is inevitable for sewing machine users, but those with children or very close neighbors will want to stay as close to 60 decibels as possible for minimum disruption.
8. Buying tips
A Singer sewing machine getting an upgrade. Photo by Micah Elizabeth Scott
Sewing machines are endlessly useful creative and professional tools, but their various forms, functions, and terminologies can be overwhelming. We’ve compiled a list of the must-have features that make a sewing machine worthwhile, the good-to-have features that make them easier and less stressful to use, and the great-to-have features that make a sewing machine a best-in-class machine.
Must have features:
- You’ll need at least three stitch options: straight, reverse, and zigzag.
- Choose a machine with at least three stitch lengths (or the ability to adjust your stitch length from 0 to 5 millimeters) to accommodate a variety of projects.
- A responsive foot pedal is a must for control of sewing speed. Otherwise, you risk running into issues like jams and bunching.
- Look for at least three tension options to avoid bunching, jams, or too-loose stitching.
Good to have features:
- If you dread the frustration of poking a tiny thread into an equally tiny needle eye, an automatic needle threader will be just the solution you’re after.
- For the sake of safety and comfort, look for machines with a noise rating under 80 decibels.
- An auto tie-off feature saves you time by tying off your seams and stitches for you.
- Pre-set needle speeds take some of the pressure off of the user to maintain perfectly uniform speeds.
- 20 or more stitch options will give you the flexibility to get creative and find the stitch that perfectly suits each individual project.
Great to have features:
- Bobbin winding and threading is a strong contender for the most frustrating sewing experience, but machines that automatically wind and thread bobbins for you can save both time and frustration.
- Machines with noise levels at or under 60 decibels will cause the least disruption in your home.
- Large sewing tables will allow you to tackle larger and more complex projects.
- Extra presser feet with your machine will allow to you work on a variety of products from the get-go with more precision and ease.Extra presser feet expand the capabilities of your sewing machine. Photo by regan76
- Computerized sewing machines offer everything from LED screens to touch screens and fully automated stitch-making. The more digital controls you choose, the more expensive the machine, but the highest-end models just require you to press a few buttons and let the machine do its work.
Sewing machines are complex and come in nearly endless varieties. Use your needs regarding noise level, stitching options, level of digitization, and number of automatic functions to make an educated choice that fits your budget and lifestyle.