What the best sewing machines have

  • At least three built-in stitches plus a backstitch: You may not need hundreds of stitches, but you should have a straight stitch, a zigzag stitch, a button stitch and the ability to backstitch so you can lock stitches in place at the beginning and end of a seam.
  • The right feet: It doesn't matter if you're a novice or an expert, according to the blog editors at SewMamaSew.com. Some tasks, like attaching cording or zippers, or quilting together layers of fabric, aren't easily accomplished without the appropriate feet.
  • An automatic buttonholer: Opinions vary, but according to Sarai Mitnick, founder of Collette Patterns, the ability to make beautiful and easy buttonholes is imperative. This is precisely what an automatic buttonholer provides.
  • An automatic needle threader: It's not essential, but the freedom from squinting and/or pricking your fingers is worth it, say the editors at ConsumerReports.org.
  • Easy-to-use controls: Symbols on the machine or LCD screen should be easy to read, and controls easy to manipulate, according to ConsumerReports.org editors.
  • A good warranty: You're more likely to find this if you go with an established brand, say the editors at Which? magazine.
  • A lightweight design: Especially if you'll be hauling the machine back and forth from a closet, you'll want it to be easy to carry, say the editors at ConsumerReports.org.
  • Room to grow: Try to think beyond the features you want today to those you may want in the future, advise Which? magazine editors. They say if you choose a machine that's too basic, you won't be able to add extra stitches or different needle positions as your skills increase.

Know Before You Go

What are your sewing goals and expectations? Be honest; otherwise you can easily convince yourself that you'll use every feature and may later regret spending too much, says Debbie Colgrove at About.com. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.)

Is this a long-term investment or a casual buy? The answer can help direct you to the right machine, according to the SewMamaSew.com blog, which helps you narrow your choices with several specific questions.

Will you do basic sewing, specialty sewing or both? Quilting or embroidery machines may not be helpful unless you also plan to use them for hems and mending. According to Overstock.com, a specialized model is best purchased as a secondary machine and not your primary one.

Are you really ready for a fancy machine? Sure, many models are loaded with tempting features, but Overstock.com recommends avoiding the investment until you master the basics of sewing or you may become overwhelmed.

Will you progress to more complicated projects? Many machines offer optional add-on accessories, say the editors at Which? magazine. Choosing a model that's compatible with add-ons can be helpful if you plan to tackle more advanced projects in the future.

Will you travel with the machine? If so, you will want to look for a machine that you can carry and could fit into luggage.

How often will you sew? If the answer is "frequently," consider forgoing mechanical units and purchasing a computerized machine, say the editors at Which? magazine. They point out that being able to program stitch patterns will make repetitive work go faster.

What are your maintenance plans? If you purchase a sewing machine through the Internet, make sure there's a local authorized repair shop, advises eHow.com; otherwise, you may be required to ship your machine for service.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

Novices may not realize that the cost of a sewing machine isn't confined to the price tag. Many manufacturers recommend routine maintenance, and chances are you'll need a repair from time to time. In addition, optional accessories that seem unnecessary now may become more appealing as you become more advanced and your goals expand. One plus: Some dealers may waive the cost of sewing lessons if you give them your business.

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