Sewing Machine Buying Guide
Consumer Reports no longer updates this product category and maintains it for archival purposes only.
What’s the best sewing machine for you? That depends on your skill level and budget. Before buying a sewing machine, assess your needs and skills. Consider, too, how you might use the machine when your skills improve (independent shops often offer a free tutorial; many also have classes).
A few hundred dollars buys a good, basic sewing machine that can handle most clothing and crafts projects or quilting. Spending even more gets you additional automated functions, while a top-of-the-line machine can cost thousands. The best part? It will produce professional-quality designs and you don’t even need to know how to sew.
This information is meant to help make shopping for a sewing machine easier. Today’s machines can recommend the proper presser foot, determine the right thread tension and stitch length, size and sew a buttonhole, and automatically cut the thread.
Note that Consumer Reports does not offer Sewing Machine ratings at this time.
What We Found
Singer, Brother, and Kenmore are long established, well known brands, and Bernina, Husqvarna Viking, and Janome have gained popularity. Choose your retailer wisely. Different retail channels offer different advantages. An independent shop might not have the lowest prices but usually offers lessons, more personalized service, and repairs can often be done in the store, sometimes even on the spot. Note that some models are only sold at authorized dealers (usually independent stores), and they offer instructional classes and repairs.
Ask About the Warranty
What does it covers, and what does it exclude. Look for sales (stores typically discount sewing machines around Mother’s Day and Christmas) and try before you buy. Bring fabric samples and test several machines on a variety of fabrics and settings to make sure that they stitch evenly and are easy to use.
Use the Right Needle
A dull one, or the wrong kind, can bend and damage the fabric and/or machine. Change your needles after every project or when switching fabric types. And at least every two years (more if you sew a lot), take your sewing machine in for a tune-up.
Ways to Save
Search online for coupons and ask about upcoming sales and trade-in allowances. Don’t be shy about negotiating with dealers and asking for free sewing lessons.
Check Repair Polices
Many dealers offer in-store service. If not, they’ll send you to a repair center or to the manufacturer. No matter who does the repairs, ask about turnaround time, which can vary from days to weeks. Remember that repairs made by technicians who are not factory-authorized can void the manufacturer’s warranty. And keep your machine’s box and packaging, in case it needs to be shipped for repairs.
Sewing Machine Types
Mechanical models are still around but more skilled sewers can take advantage of all that electronic and embroidery/sewing models offer. Here are your options.
If you’re an occasional sewer or on a budget, this type should work fine. They require you to manipulate most controls by hand and can handle the basic repairs, hems, simple clothing, and crafts projects.
If you sew frequently or can spend more, an electronic model can be a worthwhile investment. These shift many tedious sewing jobs from your hands to computer chips. A typical machine offers touchpad controls, LED screen, an array of presser feet for challenges such as piping and topstitching, and settings for dozens or even hundreds of stitch types.
In addition to all of the features and options found in an elaborate electronic machine, you’ll also have the ability to do monogramming and embroidery for projects such as garments, bedspreads, and pillowcases.
The machine holds a hoop under its needles and moves the hoop in all four directions as the needle sews. You start by stretching fabric over a hoop. Then, secure the hoop under the needle. Designs are built into the machine’s memory, or purchased on memory cards, CDs, or data sticks or linked from your computer. A touch screen or computer link lets you position the design and specify colors for design elements. Often machines let you resize, reposition and mirror designs and sound an alert to let you know when to change colors.
Sewing Machine Features
Even the most basic machine should be able to handle a variety of fabrics, from satin to denim and corduroy, without stretching or puckering the fabric or producing loose, loopy stitches. Good task lighting is essential, of course, and there are a number of features to consider.
Sew a buttonhole in one step and you won’t need to stop and turn the fabric or manipulate a dial. Some machines allow you to insert the button into a slot so that the machine will sew a buttonhole to fit.
Some machines allow you to drop the toothy mechanism below the sewing surface to do free-style embroidery or darning.
Good Ergonomics and Controls
The machine should be responsive to pressure on the foot pedal, and not stall or growl when sewing thick fabric or multiple layers. The controls should be easy to reach and manipulate, and the symbols on the machine or LED display should be easy to read. Machines that have more room to the right of the needle provide more space for fabric and your hands.
If you’ll be storing the machine in a closet and hauling it out when you want to sew, look for a machine that’s easy to lift and has a handle on top.
This feature allows you to move the needle, and stitching line, from left to right, and to have the needle up or down when you stop. Needle down makes it easy to lift the pressure foot and turn a corner without a jump stitch.
It pulls the thread through the eye of the needle and saves you from squinting and prevents frustration.
Find out how many come with the machine. For basic sewing a multi-purpose foot lets you do straight and zigzag stitches, but you’ll want a zipper foot and buttonhole foot too. An adjustable presser foot regulates how tightly the machine holds the fabric while you sew, preventing puckering in fine fabrics and stretching in knits. You’ll find there are hundreds of specialty presser feet to choose from.
Use it to turn the machine on and off. It’s a safety feature if kids are milling about. If the machine doesn’t have a power switch think about plugging it into a safety strip with a master switch, says the Sewing & Craft Alliance.
Determine the pace at which fabric is fed through the machine, enabling you to sew at a nice, steady tempo rather than stopping and starting.
The number varies wildly, from the basics, such as straight and zigzag, to decorative stitching. When shopping check a machine’s maximum stitch length and width.
You’ll need to change how tight the thread is. When it’s too tight it can result in puckered fabric; if the thread is too loose, the result is loopy stitches.
Unlike older machines, in which you had to thread the bobbin in a recessed compartment, many machines now allow you to simply slide open a panel and drop the bobbin in. A clear cover lets you see when thread is running low.
Sewing Machine Brands
We’ve tested models including some from brands that your grandmother knew and one that’s familiar to project-oriented fashionistas who keep an eye on the runway. Singer, Brother, and Kenmore sell about 70 percent of all units. Brands such as Bernina and Husqvarna Viking are gaining as the market shifts to more expensive, feature-laden machines. Use these profiles to compare sewing machines by brand.
Brother International is one of the leading manufacturers, with a market share of 29 percent of home sewing machines. The company offers basic to top-of-the line combination sewing and embroidery machines. Models are high tech with multiple functions and advanced technology, yet easy to use. Models are available through www.brother.com and a network of independent dealers and mass merchants.
Husqvarna Viking is one of the leading manufacturers of high-tech electronic and computerized sewing machines. The sewing machines are developed and manufactured in Sweden. The company recently launched Designer Diamond, which is the newest addition to their high-end full service computerized line of sewing and embroidery machines. The Designer Diamond and others are available at Husqvarna Viking full-service dealers.
Janome America is one of the top manufacturers of more-advanced and innovative sewing machines. Janome offers electronic and computerized models from entry level to the high end. Its most advanced computerized sewing and embroidery machine to date is the Memory Craft 11000, which has patented stepping-motor technology and computer software.
Kenmore (Sears) is a leading supplier of sewing machines. Kenmore offers a variety of mid- to low-end multifunction models that are available exclusively at Sears and Kmart.
Singer is the leading brand of sewing machines, with more than 43 percent of sales. Singer offers a variety of models with style and features for beginners to proficient sewers. Models are available at specialty stores, mass merchants including Target, Walmart, Kmart, and other national retailers.