What the best sewing machines have
- Enough built-in stiches for your needs. You may not need hundreds of stitches, but, at the very least, 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. Beyond that, look for stiches that fit with whatever type of project you think you'll be doing the most, such as embroidery or cross stitch.
- A good selection of presser feet. It doesn't matter if you're a novice or an expert, the right presser foot, such as a walking foot for quilting or a zipper foot, can make life much easier for you.
- An automatic buttonholer. It's a valuable skill to know how to make your own buttonholes, and many Sewing 101 classes insist on teaching this, but it's wonderful when your machine can do it for you. The best machines make consistent buttonholes with a simple adjustment (or a couple of simple adjustments). Many can even make several styles of buttonholes.
- An automatic needle threader. This is not essential, but many sewers love the freedom from squinting and/or pricking your fingers. It also saves time if you can just push a button or pull a lever to thread the needle on your machine.
- Easy-to-use controls. The guides on the machine, such as the thread or stitch guide, should be easy to follow. The LCD screen on computerized sewing machines should be easy to read, and have enough built-in tutorials to walk you through just about anything. All controls should be easy to manipulate.
- A lightweight design. If you'll be hauling the machine back and forth to a class, or if you have to lift it from a shelf every time you need to use it, you want it to be easy to carry and, at the very least, have a handle on top.
- Room to grow. Try to think beyond the features you want today to those you may want in the future. 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? If you're a serious sewer or crafter who does all kinds of projects on your machine, spring for a computerized machine with a plethora of features. If you just need to do basic tasks (hemming, for example, or making simple costumes), go for a sturdy, mechanical machine that will last you for life.
Are you really ready for a fancy machine? Many models are loaded with tempting features, but it's easy for novices to become overwhelmed. Stick with a simpler -- and less expensive -- sewing machine until you are confident that you've mastered the basics. Good sewing machines lose very little value over time, so you'll probably be able to resell it for enough of the original retail price to make it worth your while if you decide to upgrade.
Will you travel with the machine? If so, you will want to look for a machine that is highly portable, yet can perform like a regular sewing machine. Cases are best, but even a carry handle will make it easier to transport.
Where will you stow it? The more often you use your sewing machine, the more crucial it is to have a dedicated area for your sewing and crafting. Consider a sewing machine table or cabinet to keep all of your projects organized and easy to access.
How often will you sew? If the answer is "frequently," consider forgoing mechanical units and purchasing a computerized machine. The ability to program stitch patterns will make repetitive work go faster.
Try before you buy
There are a lot of very expensive, high-end sewing machines out there, and they are wonderful. These sewing machines -- made by companies such as Pfaff, Baby Lock, Bernina, and Elna -- can run you into the thousands of dollars, and plenty of owners say they're worth every penny. However, they are sold only through authorized retailers and we strongly recommend that before you spend the money, you spend the time to travel around and try a few of these premium machines. It's a terrible shame to read sad, buyer's remorse tales from people who bought a $1,000-plus machine sight unseen and found that it was well beyond their skill or interest level.