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 fingertips -- 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.
Types Of Sewing Machines
Manual Sewing Machines
Also known as mechanical sewing machines, these are particularly good starter models for beginners or children. Many experts recommend manual machines if you just want to do some, 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. You can get a durable, well-performing mechanical sewing machine for $150 to $300 and expect that it will last for years.
Computerized Sewing Machines
These high-tech marvels 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. There is a big price range when it comes to electronic sewing machines. High end models can cost upwards of $5,000, although the priciest one we cover here is around $3,500. These are machines that can do it all and will last a lifetime. At the other end of the spectrum, sub-$200 computerized sewing machines often gets tons of love from owners, and almost equally good reviews for durability, too.
Features are the only other consideration
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 an optional purchase, 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. These machines can come in either manual or computerized models.
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.
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.
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
There are very few professional tests of sewing machines -- we found only two, both at TheWirecutter.com, where they recommend machines for beginner and intermediate sewers. 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, interests and ability levels.
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 (Est. $160) 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 portable sewing machines elsewhere in this report.
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 (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.
The best sewing machines for beginners
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.
All of the machines in this report are said to be easy to use, 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 (Est. $300) 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.
Singer makes a tough, heavy-duty, manual sewing machine
If the Magnolia is a bit of a stretch for your budget, consider the (Est. $160). 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 its 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.
Young sewers need a "real" sewing machine, not a toy
If your child is seriously interested in learning to sew, it's important to buy a "real" sewing machine. Toy machines don't actually allow kids to make very much, and do little more than snarl thread in uneven stiches. 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.
Both the Magnolia and Singer sewing machines profiled above are extremely well-suited for any beginner age about 10 and up, but 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 (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.