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

There are thousands of sewing machines on the market today, ranging in price from less than $100 to more than $6,000. Most models fall into one of two categories: mechanical or computerized. Mechanical styles, which start at about $50 and top out around $150, use knobs, dials or levers to change or adjust stitches and settings. They make good starter models for beginners, and are fine for mending or crafting simple Halloween costumes for the kids. Interestingly, some owners praise mechanical models for what they can't do. Many 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 machines. Sewing also tends to be faster, and outcomes are more precise and predictable. While some computerized styles carry stratospheric price tags, we did find some choices for less than $200.

As you move up in price, the complexity and range of functions offered also increase. 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. Some computerized units 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 and sewing generally come with one or more embroidery hoops, plus an extension table for working on larger items, embroidery designs and multiple alphabet styles for monogramming. 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. Such aspirations don't mean you have to spend thousands, however; several machines priced below $500 can tackle such tasks.

No matter what type of sewing machine you choose, rest assured that they're safe products, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website. In fact, the only machine to be recalled since 2006 is the Janome Elna eXcellence 740, which poses a potential fire hazard. This model was sold in stores from September 2010 through April 2011.

To find the top-rated models, we analyzed expert and user reviews of sewing machines, specifically seeking information about performance, ease of use and noise. We also considered price in relation to the value offered. Our research includes professional test results and reports from general-interest and specialty online publications, in addition to data from online forums and blogs. We also consider user feedback on retail and consumer-opinion websites, which are often more timely than professional reviews and provide real-world perspective.

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