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Sewing is usually thought of as a traditional skill — especially as home economics classes have slowly faded away. Still, it can be useful for patching clothes up, mending a broken button or a hole at a hem. A sewing machine, however, is more expensive than just a needle and thread, which can be used to achieve workable results, not to mention it’s “great for precise details like decorative embroidery, sewing on a button or doing minor repairs,” explained Carolyn Heitmann, owner of Brooklyn Craft Company. So why consider buying a sewing machine at all?
SKIP AHEAD Best sewing machines for beginners
“Sewing with a machine is much, much faster than hand sewing, and the stitches created by a machine are stronger and more consistent than what can be done by hand,” Heitmann told us. “When it comes to creating garments, accessories or decor from start to finish — in a reasonable amount of time — you’re going to want a machine.”
A sewing machine can help keep consistent stitch lengths and strong seams, said wedding dress designer Samantha Sleeper. “Whereas with hand sewing, the sewer must manually attempt to mimic the machine’s reliability in stitch length, spacing and tension,” Sleeper noted.
Whether you are looking to learn how to sew or already know how to hand sew, a sewing machine could be a worthwhile investment — but as a novice, you might not know what to look for before buying one. To help, we asked sewing experts about the best sewing machines for beginners — and got tips on how to get started working with them.
Should you buy a sewing machine?
Much of the past year has been dominated by DIY projects — whether that’s tending to a backyard garden or making ice cream on your kitchen counter. Crafting saw a big boom in popularity in particular — some turned to sewing for solace, others made their own face masks from scratch (or scraps). There was even the supposed “Great Sewing Machine Shortage” last year when some machines were seemingly sold out. While searches for sewing machines waxed and waned in the past year, interest in sewing has remained relatively steady since the end of 2020 and start of 2021. And you might feel tempted to buy a sewing machine given its recent popularity.
But it’s not the only tool you need as a beginner — in fact, most of the experts we consulted agreed you should buy a sewing machine if you’re planning on making more projects that are harder to do by hand. Many shared the same sentiment as Sandra Markus, chair of the fashion department at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who recommended that “anyone interested in developing apparel skills should buy a sewing machine.”
On the other hand, the experts recommended hand sewing as easier for mending like patching up a pocket or fixing an out-of-place stitch. “Hemming a pair of pants or attaching a button are projects that can easily be sewn by hand” but a sewing machine can help save time and frustration, noted Mary Button, the crafted content planner at JOANN. “Using a sewing machine will save you time when working on longer rows of stitches, and will also achieve sturdy, long-lasting results.” But that’s not to say you can’t hand sew clothes — it might just not be worth it.
But knowing how to hand sew could be useful when finishing up designs like sewing linings into clothes, added Jayne Cooper, one of the founding partners of pattern shop Blooming Gorgeous Patterns.
Types of sewing machines — and which is best for beginners
Generally, sewing machines will fall into two broad categories:
Industrial, or commercial
And home, or domestic
As the name implies, an industrial sewing machine is meant for professionals in the apparel industry — they are fast and precise and sew many materials without much of a hitch, according to Kristine Frailing, owner and creative director of The New York Sewing Center. This type of machine is pricier than the standard sewing machine you’ll probably see — some go well into four digit price points, like this one from Consew that’s almost $1,800. Experts advise beginners avoid these machines.
Instead, a beginner should search for a home sewing machine. “These are the most basic machines and you can find them at hobby shops, online and in most hobby sections in stores. These are great because they’re beginner-friendly and good to use for almost any project,” Frailing explained.
Home sewing machines can differ dramatically in price — this Singer sewing machine runs under $100 and this one from Brother costs almost $650 — and come with all sorts of speed settings and stitches to choose from. “When buying a sewing machine, one should consider what type of investment they want to make. You can buy a $99 machine, and you can buy a $5,000 machine. They both essentially do the same thing,” Markus said.
The most common kinds of home sewing machines can be categorized mainly according to what they do.
- A mechanical sewing machine has “more hand-controlled features but will give a sewist more nuanced control over functions. Mechanical machines typically have less settings and stitch types than electronic machines,” Button said.
- An electronic sewing machine, which is also referred to as computerized, features automated controls that function automatically through touchpad screens or dials, according to Button.
- An overlock machine (or serger) is meant for more advanced garment production to “sew seams together,” especially when it comes to stretchy materials, explained Marissa Likar, who runs a sewing and knitting blog called Stitch Clinic. “Just look inside a T-shirt at the seams to see what they can do.”
- An embroidery machine is designed to help with decorative details and can only embroider, Likar said. “Want to add a letter, name or shape to a garment? This is the machine for that,” Frailing added.
- A coverstitch machine is usually used to help create hems like the ones you see on commercially made clothes (like the bottom of a T-shirt), Likar told us. These are also common for athletic wear to allow for stretch, Frailing said.
As for which one of the above is best for a beginner, almost all the experts we consulted recommended the mechanical sewing machine. “Machines with lots of bells and whistles can be tempting, but for most home sewing projects, you don't need many fancy features or endless decorative stitches — especially when you're just starting out,” Heitmann pointed out. “Simple mechanical machines controlled by knobs and dials will be less intimidating for newbies, easier to understand and maintain, and are typically less expensive than their computerized counterparts.”
You’ll also probably see the words “basic” or “heavy duty” when it comes to mechanical machines (and also with computerized models). “Basic machines are great for cotton projects, most apparel and light upholstery. If someone is planning to work with heavier weight fabrics or projects with multiple layers of fabric, a heavy-duty machine will achieve the best results,” Button explained. Most of the experts also agreed that a basic› machine is best for beginners.
Best sewing machines for beginners, according to sewing experts
When it comes to sewing machines, there were four brands that almost all the experts approved of: Janome, Singer, Brother and Bernina. Cooper called the four “reasonably reliable.” Among Frailing’s favorites are Janome, Singer and Brother, saying they were “easy to learn with” and “well known in the industry.” Likar personally uses a Bernina machine and called Brother and Janome “higher quality brands.”
“Better quality machines have more metal parts and a stronger grade plastic on the outside,” Likar added. “Sewing machines are meant to last a very long time, so it is important to get a good quality machine from the beginning.”
Likar’s choice for beginners is this machine from Bernette. “Bernette is the daughter company of Bernina and their quality matches that of the Berninas,” Likar explained. The machine features 23 stitches to use. You can adjust the width, length and pattern of a stitch by turning one of the three separate knobs at the top of the machine.
If you’re set on a computerized machine, Likar recommended the Bernette 37, which includes a few more stitches and can sew wider stitches than the 35 model “that an advanced beginner would appreciate.”
Cooper has been using her Bernina 1008 for over 20 years (it’s no longer available). But for beginners, she recommended this sewing machine from Brother. “I’d be happy to buy and use one of these if I didn’t have a machine already but had a small budget,” Cooper said.
This model comes with 37 built-in stitches and an LED work light. The brand says the machine includes a jam-resistant top bobbin to hold a spool of thread and an automatic threader that the brand says is meant to easily push a thread through a needle. It’s a popular pick on Amazon, earning an average 4.7-star rating over close to 2,500 reviews.
Heitmann called this sewing machine “a good workhorse” that can handle heavier fabrics. “It's a mechanical, user-friendly machine that offers more stitch types than similar machines around the same price point, has metal working parts and comes with all the accessories you need for a wide range of home sewing projects,” Heitmann said. It offers 10 stitches, along with attachments to help sew on buttons and zippers.
Sleeper’s pick is this model from Janome, saying it’s meant for “someone learning to sew extra stitches for both functional and decorative use.” The machine offers 19 stitches and is designed to sew up to 850 stitches per minute, according to the brand. “It's great for someone looking to create a project start to finish without having to worry about using multiple machines,” Sleeper explained.
Sleeper mentioned that this could be pricier for a beginner. For a more affordable alternative, she recommended this model from Janome. It’s also a favorite of Frailing. “It’s affordable ($189) and has all the features you need to get your sewing hobby started,” Frailing said. “This machine will also last through the years and has the ability to sew lots of different materials and projects.” It includes 12 built-in stitches, a dial for pattern selection and adjustments for the width and length of stitches.
How a sewing machine works
Using a sewing machine isn’t “unlike driving a car,” Heitmann explained. “You use a foot pedal to control the speed of the machine, you steer the fabric like you'd turn a steering wheel and you tell the machine what to do by pressing buttons or adjusting levers along the way,” she said.
A sewing machine works with two threads simultaneously — one of them travels through the needle, moving up and down a fabric, while the other picks up a second thread beneath the fabric — and the two threads lock together in order to make a “sturdy stitch,” Heitmann added.
Likar also likened a sewing machine to a car, saying that you lay the fabric underneath what’s called a presser foot (which is right near the needle) where you want stitches to start and control the stitch speed with the foot pedal (an attachment that actually looks like a pedal).
Features beginners should prioritize in a sewing machine
As experts said above, beginners should stick to basic sewing machines. Heitmann advised not to “feel like you need to get the most high end machine on the market when you’re first starting out” as you’ll figure out what features are important for projects as you learn more.
Both Cooper and Button mentioned that beginners generally need two stitches in particular on a sewing machine — a straight and zig-zag stitch. “Don't be swayed by lots of fancy stitches if you want to make things, not decorate them,” Cooper said. Button also advised looking for an automatic buttonhole (to make a buttonhole in one move) and speed control, along with a “comfortable handle or carrying case” if you’re planning on attending sewing classes in-person.
And be wary of mini sewing machines, according to Frailing. These are usually much more affordable compared to other machines.“The mini home sewing machines are not the same, so don't be fooled. These machines are very small, inexpensive and only for very minor use like fixing a hole or something small on the go,” Frailing said. While price points on a mini sewing machine can be under $100, a “quality” sewing machine will range from $180 to $400,” she added.
Advice for beginners, according to experts
“Learning to sew sounds easy enough, right? That is usually what I hear from someone that purchases a machine for the first time,” Frailing said. “It can be, but it really takes practice, patience and time to learn how to do things properly and efficiently.” Before turning on your sewing machine for the first time, here’s what sewing experts recommend doing.
- Watch tutorials: Find videos about specific models or from the brand you buy from for best practices, said Button and Cooper.
- Don’t throw away your user manual: “Take your time setting up your machine properly, practice threading it and stitch on some scraps before diving into your first project,” Heitmann said.
- Start with smaller, simpler projects: You can’t expect to make boned ball gowns right away, Cooper cautioned. “Make mini-win projects to build confidence.”
- Check the thread: “If your machine isn’t sewing the way you expect, chances are there is something wrong with the way it is threaded,” Button explained. “When troubleshooting, the first thing I do is re-thread my machine and make sure everything is in the right place.”
- Guard your fingers: Likar repeatedly emphasized to beware of putting your fingers under the needle to avoid accidents.