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From basic to elaborate, there's a sewing machine for practically every need

With so much else to keep us busy -- video games, endless texting with friends and family, and the explosion of adorable cat videos to search for and enjoy -- it may surprise you to find that sewing and crafting are more popular than ever. There are thousands of sewing machines on the market, some costing less than $100, and others topping out at an eye-popping $13,000 -- enough to buy a great used car (or a very cheap new one). Fortunately, most people don't need to spend anywhere near that much -- even if they can -- to get a great sewing machine that will do just about anything they need it to and make sewing and crafting pleasant and problem-free.

Best sewing machine

Brother CS6000i
Brother CS6000i

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 that 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 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.

In contrast, computerized 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 sub-$150 computerized sewing machine, but ignore them; we found a great one for $145. Some computerized sewing machines can carry stratospheric price tags, but you absolutely do not need to spend a lot to get a machine you'll love.

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 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 cable 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.

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 that 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 opportunities to read in-depth, expert reviews of higher-end sewing machines, although she 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.

Elsewhere in this Report:

Best Sewing Machines: These workhorses can do just about anything. The top sewing machines are highly versatile, computerized machines that will make your sewing or craft project a breeze. We even recommend specific machines for embroidery and quilting.

Best Sewing Machines for Beginners: The popularity of sewing competition shows on TV has resulted in an explosion of interest from curious beginners. Experts say it's a great idea to learn to sew on a mechanical machine. Our top pick is great for preteens to adults; but we also found a great choice for younger children.

Best Portable Sewing Machines: Plenty of people love to be able to pack up their sewing machine and take it along -- to classes, to conventions, to workshops -- or just to their local quilting circle. These machines offer big performance in a smaller package. We found some great sewing tables and cabinets too, for those machines that you may not want to haul around.

Buying Guide: What kind of sewing machine is best suited to your particular interest and skill level? Here is your guide to finding the best sewing machine for the projects you want to create.

Our Sources: We used these professional and user review sites to find the best sewing machines and sewing machine tables. They are ranked in order of their expertise and helpfulness.

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