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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you're thinking about buying a sewing machine, the most important thing to understand is that a bad sewing machine can lead to more frustration than fulfillment. Poorly made machines usually don't have good tension, which makes threads and stitches bunch, catch and snarl -- which is enough to make anyone quit before they've even finished their first project. Fortunately, we have seen a growing number of reviews that specifically recommend sewing machines that make it easier for beginners and kids to dive in to the craft.
Speaking of sewing machines for children: It's important to buy a "real" machine if your child is seriously interested in learning to sew. Toy machines don't actually allow kids to make very much. A "real" sewing machine is also a decent investment. If your child doesn't stick with sewing, you won't lose too much on the resale of the machine.
If you're not a beginner, check out our picks for the Best Sewing Machines, these fully-featured workhorses will do whatever you need them to do. If you're a teacher, student, or just like to take your machine to conventions or other craft gatherings, head on over to our discussion of Portable Sewing Machines -- we recommend a great sewing machine table and cabinet there as well.
All of the machines in this report are said to be easy to use, including our including our Best Reviewed Brother CS6000i (Est. $150), but many experts and experienced sewers say that everyone should learn on a mechanical (manual) machine. Among those, they agree, you can't match the Janome Magnolia 7318 (Est. $250) for its very low learning curve coupled with its powerful performance and even, consistent stitches. It's great for crafters because it works particularly well on heavy fabrics and thick layers -- ideal for making items like purses or working with leather. We saw a number of reviews from the parents of infants who use the Magnolia for making their own diapers.
Where the Janome Magnolia 7318 really shines is its intuitive controls. Many first timers say that they were sewing almost immediately after unpacking their Magnolia. Its four-step buttonhole feature, while not as quick and simple as a one-step buttonholer, is still said to be very easy to set up and use. The controls are well-marked, so there's very little opportunity for confusion. The bobbin drops in from the top and it includes onboard storage for the included accessories. Its extra-wide work surface features easy-to-see ruler marks.
Janome is a highly respected name in sewing machines, and the Magnolia 7318 is reported to be an extremely durable, reliable model and owners say it lasts for many years. It does not have the hundreds of stich options and downloads of a computerized machine, of course, but if you just want to have a machine around for basic sewing jobs, this is one that will last you for life.
The chief complaints we saw about the Magnolia were some barbs about its "girly" pink and flower design. Plenty of boys sew, too, reviewers lament, and they'd like it if sewing machine manufacturers, not just Janome, would stop that type of gender stereotyping on their sewing machines.
If $250 is a bit of a stretch for your budget, consider the Singer 4411 (Est. $150). It's a heavy duty, mechanical sewing machine that experts and owners love for its great value and durable construction. It features a tough steel frame that won't wobble even when sewing canvas or layers of denim -- and the souped-up motor and extra high presser foot setting makes those tasks even easier. It's particularly popular with sewing teachers, who say it takes a licking and keeps on ticking -- for years. We saw a few comments from people who say they purchased this machine because they couldn't afford to repair their higher-end sewing machine and this was a good, comparable replacement. However, although many laud this Singer 4411 for its heavy-duty capabilities, plenty of users say it performs equally well as an all-around sewing machine for even delicate fabrics.
The Singer 4411 is a basic machine -- as one would expect from a manual sewing machine -- but has a good range of features nonetheless. Those include 11 built-in stitches, a 4-step buttonholer, a free arm option, three needle positions, and a very good array of included accessories. It also offers onboard storage to keep everything organized. Some note that learning to thread the machine and bobbin has a bit of a learning curve, but that it's otherwise easy to use. Most agree that the Singer 4411 is a top choice for anyone, not just beginners, if you just need to keep a basic machine around for hemming, easy crafts and clothing making, or simple interior design projects.
While these Magnolia and Singer sewing machines are extremely well-suited for any beginner age about 10 and up, for younger kids, say about 7 to 10, or for teens or preteens who like a bit of color and whimsy, we highly recommend the Janome 11706 Hello Kitty Sewing Machine (Est. $110). It's a Janome, which means it's a high quality, durable and sturdy little workhorse. It features 11 stitches as well as an automatic buttonhole feature. At 12 pounds it's portable enough to take to school or sewing classes and it gets raves for how simple and intuitive it is to use.
The Janome 11706 is a three-quarter-size machine, which means that even smaller kids can use it comfortably, but don't be fooled by its compact footprint. Plenty of adults buy the 11706 for their kids and find they're "sneaking" to use it because it performs so beautifully. And it's built to last -- to the point that your kids might be able to pass it along to theirs.
Pretty much everyone loves a portable sewing machine, but they're particularly beloved by sewing teachers, sewing students, and those dedicated sewing fans who attend conventions and/or belong to quilting groups. Many of the other sewing machines in this report have a degree of portability, from our Best Reviewed Brother CS6000i (Est. $150) that comes with a hard shell case, to our suggested sewing machine for kids, the Janome 11706 Hello Kitty Sewing Machine (Est. $110), which is lightweight and has a handle for portability.
However, those who want a sewing machine for maximum portability yet with all the functions of a high-end machine say the Pfaff Passport 2.0 (Est. $700) is the gold standard. It's the most expensive machine in this report (though we've seen some discussions of occasional discounts or package deals), but it's the darling of sewing teachers because they can tote it around to their private and group lessons and it will do anything a heavier, full sized, high-end machine can do. Some dedicated sewers buy it as a second machine just to travel with.
The Pfaff Passport 2.0 has 70 stitches as well as four one-step buttonhole settings. Users rave about the integral, pull-out stitch selection guide, which, we agree, is pretty brilliant. Its ease-of-use is almost unsurpassed, with on-board guides for everything from threading to bobbin winding.
What sewing enthusiasts really adore about the Pfaff is the proprietary IDT system, which stands for Integrated Dual Feed. This technology smooths and feeds the fabric simultaneously to provide for perfect stitches on a variety of fabrics, from super flimsy to heavy-duty. Although reviewers do say that the Passport 2.0 doesn't perform well on the heaviest fabrics -- so don't buy it if you're planning to make sails. (Don't laugh, the Janome 1600P (Est. $1,200) is top rated for repairing sails and is a favorite of soldiers who need to repair rucksacks or heavy uniforms.)
The Pfaff is not just for travelers either, many sewers who have limited work or storage space buy the Passport 2.0 because they can tuck it away on a shelf. This is a fairly new machine -- it was released in 2013 -- so there isn't a lot of input into its long-term durability, but Pfaff is a very well-respected sewing machine company and the Passport 2.0 comes with a two-year warranty. It must be purchased from an authorized retailer for the warranty to be valid, however. Many Pfaff dealers will extend that warranty period as well.
Even if you're only a casual sewer, a sewing machine table or cabinet will make any sewing task so much easier. These give you a dedicated area to store your machine and to keep all the fabric, accessories and associated paraphilia you need to create your projects. It also saves time on set up and tear down, and keeps your sewing activities from spilling over into family areas like the dining table.
One of the highest-rated sewing machine cabinets we saw anywhere is the Sauder Sewing Craft Cart (Est. $120). Owners love it because it's highly affordable, very attractive, and has great organizational options. It includes a shelf for storing a sewing machine and bins and shelves in the cabinets for other items. To use it, you open the main door and lift out the sewing machine and set it on the desktop. That leaves plenty of room for your legs as you sew. When you're done, just put the sewing machine back on the shelf and fold it up to make an attractive cabinet. It measures 19.5- (d) by 28.5- (h) by 38.5-inches (w) when folded. Unfolded, it's 63 inches (w). It comes in three finishes, Cinnamon Cherry, Amber Pine and Soft White.
If you have a dedicated craft or sewing room and don't need to disguise your hobby, the Arrow Gidget Sewing Table (Est. $125) gets great reviews from quilters and those who work on larger projects. They say it's a great height that helps to ease strain when sewing and quilting. It measures 20- (w) by 40.5- (l) by 29.5-inches (h). Reviewers say it can accommodate all but the largest, heaviest machines.
Christine Cyr Clisset tests 11 sewing machines after narrowing down available models through research and their popularity in reviews. She interviews experts and enlists the assistance of sewing writers, teachers and bloggers to test the machines. The name of each machine is hidden so that no preconceived notions affect the testing. Clisset ultimately chooses the Janome Magnolia 7318 as the best sewing machine for beginners. She also recommends a budget pick and alternatives for various sewing needs and budgets.
Vernelle Nelson, the owner of this sewing blog, personally tests dozens of sewing machines at all price levels and brands, including some very high-end models. Her reviews are extremely thorough, and she is very consistent in her testing -- making sure, for example, to test the same stitch types from machine to machine. She also notes what skill level each machine is best suited to. In addition, she has "Best Of" lists of sewing machines and sergers.
Amazon.com carries hundreds of sewing machines, and many popular choices attract hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of reviews. Brother and Singer rule the roost here, with Janome also making it into the ranks of the top-rated machines. User feedback is often detailed, providing information on long-term durability as well as ease of use for beginners.
Brother, Singer and Janome are tops at Walmart.com as well, which also carries hundreds of sewing machines and sewing notions and accessories. Many machines get hundreds or thousands of reviews, and there are quite a few that earn close to 5-star ratings.
Joann.com, the website for Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores, has fewer reviews (and fewer sewing machines) overall than either Amazon.com or Walmart.com, but write ups tend to be very detailed and knowledgeable. Reviewers can also say if they would recommend the sewing machine to a friend.
At PatternReview.com, experienced sewers can post reviews of their sewing machines, giving an overview of how they use them, any pros and cons, and if they would recommend them. This is a great source for reviews of sewing machines that you can't easily find online, including reviews of machines from higher-end brands such as Baby Lock and Pfaff. Note that reading reviews posted more than six months ago requires a free membership to the site.
SewMamaSew.com asked readers to fill out a survey about their favorite sewing machines, giving the answer to specific questions that give a good overview of the machine and how it's used. Like PatternReview.com, this is an excellent way to read individual reviews of machines that are only sold in retail stores and are usually not reviewed online.
ConsumerReports.org has discontinued their testing of sewing machines, but this sewing machine guide is still available and free to the public. It's an extensive look of what you need to know before shopping for a sewing machine. Brands are mentioned but not rated.