Do you remember when you walked into a sewing machine shop and all the sewing machines were quietly and politely sitting on shelves or tables waiting for a salesperson to demonstrate their features to a prospective buyer? I am sure that you have noticed that things have changed a little!

Today when you enter a sewing machine shop you may see some machines sitting quietly, other machines stitching away on their own, rectangular machines with four threads which aren't sewing machines, but overlockers, and maybe even a laptop computer with a screen showing some embroidery. It is all very exciting but a bit bewildering as these machines retail at prices from £100 to over £5,000. As you rapidly retreat towards the door, a salesperson asks if you are interested in a “new sewing machine” to which you weakly reply “yes”! After 10 minutes of hearing words such as “number of built in stitch patt erns, choice of alphabets, speed control sliders, even feed mechanisms and adjustable foot pressure” your legs have turned to jelly and you look around helplessly for a chair! If this sounds familiar read on and I will try and make some sense of it all!

An overview of recent advances

Sewing machine manufactures have not only incorporated all the new technology available in recent years but have also constantly responded to the demands of the users. Many of us will remember when stretch fabrics became readily available but we quickly discovered that they were not as easy to sew as the fabrics we were familiar with. In response to this, ball point needles for sewing machines appeared, special feet for sewing stretch fabrics and machines with stitches designed for sewing stretch fabrics became available. Buttonholes were another challenge as you had to carefully measure the buttonhole, zigzag down one side, turn and do the bar at the bottom and then repeat the process up the other side of the buttonhole. Today even inexpensive sewing machines have one step buttonholes and many have a special foot that measures the button and stitches out the correct size of buttonhole.

Instead of buttons and knobs on the machines, more expensive machines are computerised and controlled by touch screens now. In the last five years as patchwork and quilting has become increasingly popular, manufactures have responded in a number of ways. One feature they have looked at is the distance between the needle and the body (or throat of the machine.) We have all struggled with trying to get a mass of fabric through this gap and so appreciate the distance being as large as possible. New pattern stitches that are suitable for quilting have been added and special feet for quilting are now available.

The 1990s saw sewing machine manufacturers producing embroidery machines that could do more complex embroidery using computerisation and the release of soft ware for a home computer that could covert your own design to stitches or edit embroidery designs and add lettering.

Sewing machine dealers and shops

The first step in choosing a new machine is to find a good “sewing machine shop” as not only will they try to help, and give you the time to choose the right machine, but they also have a wealth of knowledge and expertise which is invaluable. If possible visit more than one sewing machine shop which will give you the opportunity to view different machines but on a much more personal level find the shop who you feel will support you best and which feels right to you. For many of us our sewing machine plays a very important role in our life and there is a real sense of pleasure when you find a shop that you trust to give you good advice, is happy to answer your questions, and will look after your machine and offer you any training or help.

Not all shops stock the same machines as there are a number of different manufactures who each produce a range of machines. Manufacturers appoint shops as agents for their machines and where appropriate train them on the more complex machines before allowing them to stock that machine. Each shop can obviously only carry a limited stock but, if they are an agent for a particular model and there is a particular machine that you wish to look at and they do not have it in stock, they should be able to get it for you.

Looking at a new machine

Although you may feel a sense of brand loyalty to your current machine manufacturer, machines are constantly being refined and updated. Try and look at as many different manufacturers as possible within your price range. More important than how many stitch patterns and other features that a machine has, is how the machine feels to you as you sew with it.

Lower price range machines still have knobs and buttons for altering stitches and tension whereas many of the higher priced machines have touch screens which may be black and white in the middle price range or colour at the high end. Take time to see how these controls feel.

We are all used to using straight stitch and zigzag on a machine so ask to stitch lines of straight stitch and zigzag on all the machines that you are interested in to get a feel of how the machine stitches. Every machine has an individual feel (I have a number of machines and they all feel different!). Don't be afraid to ask to try a machine that is well beyond your budget as this machine should stitch very smoothly and will give you a reference point as to how smoothly the machines within your price range stitch.

Practical features

Take time to look at the practical features of the machines you are interested in. Think about the work you are doing now but also try and think ahead to what you might be doing or would like to be doing in five years time. It is worth remembering that none of us are getting any younger and many machines have features that make life easier. A simple example is a needle threader. If your hands and arms tire easily, push buttons or a touch screen may be worth considering rather than a machine with knobs to turn and grip. A number of machines can be operated without a foot control using the start/button and a slider speed control.

How easy is it to change the needle (some machines are easier than others)? Is it a top loading bobbin or a front loading bobbin and how does loading the bobbin feel? Is the motor of the machine strong enough (or the right type of motor) if you use heavy weight fabrics when sewing? Is the weight the machine a consideration if you want to take it to classes? These are just a few suggestions of things to think about and this is where a good dealer who knows the range of machines available can really advise you.

Tip If there are particular fabrics you sew regularly with, take some pieces with you to do test stitching on

The exciting features

Having thought about the practicalities now look at the more interesting features. To try and illustrate the type of features you might find at certain prices (and to explain them a little) I have looked at machines within the following three price ranges.

£200 - £400
  • Seven piece feed mechanism. This means that the feed dogs grip and feed the fabric through more evenly
  • Adjustable foot pressure. Can be useful when sewing fabrics with a pile, creating appliqué or free machining.
  • Stronger needle penetration. This makes sewing thicker fabrics easier
  • Needle stop up or down. A very useful feature meaning that when you stop the machine you can set the needle to stop in the fabric making pivoting the fabric easier
  • Free-arm makes sewing sleeves and trouser legs easier as the fabric can rotate around the Free-arm
  • Drop feed dogs for free machine embroidery are superior to using a cover plate
  • Single step buttonhole
  • Locking stitch. At the end of a line of stitching it will put a locking stitch to secure the stitching
  • A selection of straight, zig zag and pattern stitches
£600 - £800

As above plus

  • Memory functions for stitches and lettering. This allows you to combine different stitch patterns and then save your new stitch pattern for future use. Similarly, you can use lettering to create words or names and save them
  • Easier monogramming and appliqué. The fabric is not only fed forwards and backwards but also sideways
  • A much wider range of stitches including pattern stitches that use the sideways feed feature
  • Movable needle positions. The needle can be moved to the right or left of the centre
  • Thread cutters. At the end of stitching you press the “thread cutting button” and it does a locking stitch and cuts the thread for you
  • Better lighting with LED natural lights
  • Longer sewing bed. A larger distance between the needle and the neck of the machine
  • Sewing speed can be adjusted using a slider
Over £1000

As above plus many more features depending upon the choice of machine, including:

  • Touch screen control
  • Increased memory functions including saving stitches that you use regularly at the settings that you prefer
  • Sensors that tell you when the bobbin thread is about to run out
  • Sensors for top and bottom thread breakage
  • Even longer sewing bed
  • Separate bobbin winding motor
  • Automatic foot up and down
  • Automatic needle threading
  • Wider zigzag, etc

These are all computerised sewing machines and the above features are only the tip of the iceberg and there are too many features for me to discuss here. Many of these machines have features that are unique to that make or model of machine. They are very exciting machines to use and your dealer should offer you some training as they are complex machines but by fully using their features you will enjoy a new sewing experience!

Accessories

Once you have chosen your machine, there are accessories to consider. One of the most useful accessories is a large slide-on sewing extension table as this can help support the weight of the fabric you are sewing. Th is may come as part of the package with some machines that are specifically aimed at quilters. Look at the feet that come with the machine and that are also available as optional extras for each machine. There are a variety of quilting feet for many machines that make patchwork and quilting much easier. Some machines do not come with a 1⁄4in foot, for example. A good sewing machine shop will be able to advise you and show you how the different feet work and the jobs they are designed for. The correct foot not only makes life easier but helps ensure a better finished piece of work.

Sewing and embroidery machines

These are the machines that are sitting in the shop happily stitching on their own! They are wonderful machines which open up a whole new world of creativity including adding embroidery designs to your quilt, creating easy trapunto quilting and allowing the machine to quilt whole areas with a stipple stitch while you watch with a cup of tea in your hand! The only downside is that they start at a price of just over £600 and can go up to over £5,000.

With one exception you purchase a sewing machine onto which you slide an embroidery module, which depending upon the manufacturer, may be an optional accessory or may be included within the sewing machine package. All makes of machines come with a range of built-in embroidery and quilting designs which can be modified or new designs created by combining design on the touch screens of the machine. There are many designs available that can be purchased on cards or bought over the internet. These sewing machines are all top of the range machines with many innovative features to make sewing easy. When you want to do some embroidery you simply slide the embroidery unit onto the sewing machine, hoop your fabric, and press a button. In recent years manufactures have added many more quilting options including special hoops for quilting, a variety of quilting feet, and quilting stitches, i.e. stipple stitch, and whole designs suitable for quilt projects.Again your sewing machine shop should offer you tuition if you purchase one of these machines.

Embroidery machines

For some people who wish to create machine embroidery, an ideal solution is to have a dedicated embroidery machine. One advantage is that you can be sewing on your sewing machine while the embroidery machine stitches quietly away in the corner. Well that is the theory, but in real life if you ignore your embroidery machine too much it usually responds by breaking a thread to get your attention! There is a choice of several “embroidery only” machines and I met one lady who was using her machine to create beautiful labels for her quilts. One thing that may influence your choice is the size of hoops available for each machine. If you want to embroider large designs then you need a large hoop but again look at several different machines to find the one that suits you.

Embroidery software

If you buy or have an embroidery machine, there is also embroidery software that allows you to create your own designs. This is what you will see on the laptop computer in the shop. Each manufacture of embroidery machines has their own software. This is a very big topic and more than I can cover in this article so ask your sewing machine shop to demonstrate it to you. I have used embroidery soft ware to design my own contemporary embroidery for nearly 15 years and am still learning new ways of using it.

Where to buy your sewing machine

I am frequently asked about buying a sewing machine on the internet and I would never personally advise this. What happens when you need help or advice to use a machine, or if there is a problem with the machine? The answer is that you usually get very little support and end up having to go to your nearest sewing machine shop to get help! To quote a sewing machine shop in Scotland who has been in business for 36 years: “you cannot beat buying a sewing machine from somewhere that offers you help.” Pricewise a sewing machine shop can often be cheaper than the internet as the different manufactures often offer promotional prices and deals to shops to promote certain machines. Over the years I have seen some wonderful deals made available to shops by the manufactures. Certainly the internet is a wonderful way of researching the wide range of machines available but the manufacturers all have a good relationship with their dealers and support them which means that they can solve any problems that you have. Th ere are always new accessories including different feet being produced for machines and your shop can advise you on these, and also are often knowledgeable on new feet or accessories that are not yet available but are soon to be released and it might be exactly right for the job you are trying to do. Remember that it is a pleasure to go into a shop and share your ideas with people who are as enthusiastic about sewing as you are, and as you look around you often see examples of work that inspire you.

First published in Popular Patchwork August 2010