From basic to elaborate, there's a sewing machine for every need
With so much else to keep us busy -- video games, endless texting with friends and family, and the internet putting the world of entertainment at our feet -- it may surprise you to find that sewing and crafting are more popular than ever. To indulge that interest, there are thousands of sewing machines on the market, from simple to extremely fancy. The good news is that most people can get a terrific machine for $150 or less that will do just about anything they need it to and make sewing and crafting pleasant and problem-free.
What makes a great sewing machine? For starters, good tension is critical. Tension controls the stitch quality and consistency. Having a thread or stitches that bunch, snarl, or break, is a giant headache and makes sewing much more difficult than it needs to be. It also can ruin fabrics and projects, which wastes your money. In our research on sewing machines, we read many stories of people who tried to take up sewing, thought it was just too difficult so gave it up, then went back to it later with a better machine and found it was their machine that was the problem, not them.
That's why it's important to try a few sewing machines before you buy. You can test many machines, such as those made by Brother, Singer and Janome, at your local fabrics store. Higher-end sewing machines such as Baby Lock and Pfaff will have authorized retailers where you can do the same. In addition, authorized retailers often offer extended warranties and special accessory packages that offer even more value.
The types of sewing machines
Sewing machines fall into two main categories: mechanical (also known as manual) or computerized. Mechanical sewing machines use knobs, dials or levers to change or adjust stitches and settings. You can get a durable, well-performing mechanical sewing machine for $150 to $300 and expect that it will last for years.
Manual sewing machines are particularly good starter models for beginners or children. Many experts recommend mechanical machines if you just want to do simple, basic sewing, such as mending or crafting simple Halloween costumes or doing easy interior design projects. Interestingly, some owners -- even expert sewers -- praise mechanical models for what they can't do. Plenty of users aren't looking for fancy or expensive machines, and don't like the distraction of hundreds of stitches or a dozen buttonhole options.
Computerized sewing machines have LCD screens that let you push buttons to navigate through settings and select stitches and functions. For this reason, many owners find them much easier to use than mechanical sewing machines. Sewing also tends to be faster and outcomes are more precise and predictable. Some sewing snobs sniff at the idea of a $150 computerized sewing machine, but ignore them; we found one model that gets tons of love from owners -- and has a great durability record too.
As you move up in price, the complexity and range of functions offered increases. For example, while a mechanical machine may offer between 12 and 25 stitch choices, you'll find hundreds of stitch choices in computerized models starting at about $400. Similarly, a lower-priced budget model may make one buttonhole style while upper-end machines offer as many as 12, with different shapes and sizes. Some computerized sewing machines come with a USB input for downloading stitch styles and other design features from the internet.
If you want to embroider or quilt, you'll need to look for a machine that supports these functions. Machines designed for embroidery come with one or more embroidery hoops, embroidery designs and multiple alphabet styles for monogramming -- plus an extension table (that's sometimes optional, though) for working on larger items. Models capable of quilting generally have a "walking foot" that evenly feeds multiple layers of material through the machine, and some units include a "knee lifter" for lifting the presser foot with your knees so you don't have to let go of your work.
A lot of serious sewers prefer to sew on a serger -- and many people own both a sewing machine and a serger. Serger sewing machines give your projects a professional finish and are especially useful for sewing stretch fabrics. If you are in the market for one, head over to our separate report on sergers for our recommendations.
You need somewhere to store your machine, too
Many dedicated sewers and crafters use their sewing machines every day, sometimes for many hours a day, and packing it up to put everything away can chew up precious time you could be using to move forward on your project. The right sewing machine table or cabinet also keeps your work from taking up family space at the kitchen table, stores everything right to hand, and are ergonomically designed to reduce fatigue. With this in mind, we also recommend the best sewing machine tables and cabinets; that discussion can be found at the end of the best portable sewing machines section.
Finding the best sewing machines and sewing tables
There are very few professional tests of sewing machines -- we found only one: a roundup of 11 tested models at TheSweethome.com; it is aimed at machines for beginners, but is quite comprehensive. However, there are a number of sewing and crafting blogs that encourage their followers to weigh in on the pros and cons of the machines they own. These reviews tend to be very thorough and informative, and often give excellent insight on the type of machine that is best for various projects and interests. We also found individual reviews of sewing machines -- as well as a top 10 roundup -- at SewingInsight.com, a sewing blog run by Vernelle Nelson who personally tests all the machines she reviews. This is one of the few places to read in-depth, expert reviews of higher-end sewing machines, although Nelson tests widely available machines as well.
To learn more about sewing machines from popular brands -- Brother, Singer and Janome, for example -- we turned to retail sites such as Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Joann.com, analyzing thousands of reviews for insight into long-term, real-world experiences with sewing machines. Owners tend to be passionate about their preferred machine, and the reviews we read were detailed -- some were even updated after several years of the sewer using his or her machine. The result of that research is our recommendations for the best sewing machines for any user, from beginner to expert.
The best sewing machines
Don't listen to sewing machine snobs -- you CAN get a darn good computerized sewing machine for less than $200. If this were not true, the Brother CS6000i (Est. $150) would not get the glowing reviews it receives from thousands of happy owners. Often described as a "workhorse," the CS6000i sewing machine features 60 stitch styles and a one-step buttonholer with seven different buttonhole styles -- including an eyelet and a keyhole shape. Stitch settings are displayed on a small LCD screen, and buttons instead of dials allow you to change stitch type, length and width quickly and easily.
In fact, the CS6000i gets particular praise for how simple it is to use in general -- suitable for both beginners and experienced crafters. If you begin a project and set up the parts incorrectly, an error message will appear, enabling you to reset before ruining your fabric. Nine presser feet come with the machine and it will tell you which foot you need for each project. One of the most popular of the included presser feet is the walking foot -- which quilters love. It also has a wide work surface and an extension table for bigger jobs. A button on the chassis controls the start/stop functions and speed, and we saw several comments from sewing teachers that this is a great machine for using in classes with people who have physical limitations that affect their feet or legs.
While there are a (very) few reports of jams and needle breaks, most say the CS6000i is a sturdy, durable machine. Among the CS6000i's many included accessories is a hard shell case that makes it easy to transport. However, if you want a truly portable sewing machine, visit our discussion of the Best Portable Sewing Machines. If you are a true beginner, you may want to check out our recommendations for the Best Sewing Machines for Beginners.
The one feature the Brother CS6000i lacks is an automatic embroidery function, so if embroidery is your thing, we recommend you take a look at the Brother SE400 (Est. $320). It gets very good reviews as both a sewing machine and an automatic embroidery machine. This model includes 67 stitches and 10 buttonhole styles, but the two features that stand out at this price point are an embroidery hoop and USB input for downloading designs and stitches directly from the Internet.
Users rave about the SE400's many features, and about how simple it is to learn and use. They say the LCD screen is easy to navigate, and many report making and/or decorating a range of items including clothing, pillows and blankets. We also saw many comments about how quiet and durable the Brother SE400 is, with a number of reviewers saying they've had it for five years or more; they just get it serviced every few years and it keeps going. The major complaint about this sewing machine is that its 4-by-4-inch embroidery hoop is too small, but keep in mind that embroidery machines with larger hoops and more specialized downloading capabilities can cost more than $2,000.
Baby Lock Aria is a high-end quilter
It's quite a bit more expensive than either of the Brother sewing machines profiled above, but the Baby Lock Aria (Est. $3,500) is the dream machine of many sewers and quilters. It's a computerized sewing machine that expert reviewers love for its ease of use and excellent stitch quality.
The Aria has 573 unique stitches, including embroidery stitches, and is almost fully automatic in all of its many functions. It has an extra-large LCD color touch screen that reviewers say not only makes it easy to select stitches, but also offers step-by-step videos to guide you through any process. The package includes a plethora of handy accessories and there are even more available as options.
Like most very high-end machines, the Aria can only be purchased through an authorized retailer, so user reviews are few and far between. However, Baby Lock is a very well-respected manufacturer of sewing machines, and we read several reviews that say the Aria performs as well as commercial-grade computerized sewing machines costing twice as much. In addition, with its digital dual feed, independent bobbin winder, pivoting feature and large workspace, some reports say that it's a particularly great choice for quilters. One caveat: in spite of its reviews for being easy to use, at least one well-respected expert suggests that this machine is better suited for intermediate to advanced sewers, not for beginners who may be better served by gaining experience first on a more basic machine.