Unless you've been very lucky, most of us start out learning to sew on quite a basic machine. It may have been a shared machine at school, an old machine from the 60's your mother used to use when you were a child or even a vintage treadle machine your grandmother used to use! All are great options when you are simply learning the basics.
Every year new and improved sewing machines come to the market, but do we really need all these features, bells, and whistles they offer and entice us with? Maybe yes, maybe no. Let's take a look at some of them and tell me what you think are essentials:
The basics – the MUST-HAVE features
How many different types of stitches do we really need? Think about your machine. How many stitches does it offer? 20, 50, 70, 200+ And now many of those do you actually ever use? Your machine should probably have as a minimum:
- variable length straight stitch including a long length for a basting stitch
- a variable zig-zag stitch where you can vary both the stitch length and width
- some kind of stitch for sewing with stretch fabrics, perhaps a ‘lightening stitch' or a triple zig-zag
- a backstitch – is usually a button you press on the machine to reverse your current stitch
- a buttonhole stitch
Not I suppose an essential, but as your eyes can tire when sewing, this can keep you on track longer and make it less of a chore to change threads or unthread the machine to wind a new bobbin. These come in two types – an automatic usually found on higher-end machines, and a manual needle threader.
Sewing in a gloomy corner or late at night? Then you'll need a light and most machines would come with one as standard. These days, you can also buy additional lighting such as desktop daylight lights, or even additional strips of LEDS you can add to the machine to make sewing clearer.
Computerized or not
The lower-end machines tend to come with dials you turn to select your stitch type, stitch length, and stitch width. I started out with a machine just like this and it worked perfectly. Even some of the budget-friendly machines are now computerized and come with a small LCD screen and the ability to select stitches and features with the push of a button. But remember, the more fancy features you have, the more there is to go wrong!
A good paper manual
Even if you have been sewing for a while, you should always read your new machine manual as there may be great features on there you would be missing out on otherwise. Having a good paper manual that explains all of the stitches and when to use them gives you the opportunity to get the best out of your machine now, and as your skills grow in the future.
Does the company have a customer support phone line? You'll most likely never need it, but if you get stuck, have a problem you can't solve, or just need some advice, it's good to know there are people at the end of the phone who can help you. Look for phone support for the life of your product and you'll never be left in the dark.
If you are buying your first machine, learning to sew, or teaching someone else to sew, you might like to print these sewing machine practice sheets to keep your stitching on track.
The middle ground – good to have
Sometimes called a dual feed foot. This presser foot has feed dogs built in so the top layer of fabric is pulled through the machine at the same rate as the lower layers. Great for sewing knits, quilts, bags, and anything with several layers of fabric that you want to keep even.
Automatic thread cutter
Cuts both your top and bottom threads after you stitch with just the touch of a button. No need to keep getting up to go fetch the scissors that you left over by the ironing board. ( I need this on my next machine – I'm forever leaving my scissors everywhere except by my machine.)
Once your sewing skills improve, you may find yourself looking for additional stitch options. Maybe for overcasting, blind hemming, embroidery, quilting, or decorative stitches. Look for the extra utility stitches first as you'll use these more often.
Assortment of extra feet
If your machine already comes with an assortment of feet, then that will save you both time tracking them down, and money, later on. You'll need a zipper foot as a basic, but also look out for a walking foot, blind hem foot, button, and buttonhole foot as a minimum.
Needle down selection
A button that allows the user to select the position of the needle when they finish sewing. You can decide if the needle should always be up for quick removal of your project, or always down so you can pivot and turn easily.
Variable speed control
Helpful when you are just starting out, or when working on a special project if you can select a lower speed, so even if you stamp on the foot pedal, you'll still be sewing under control. Higher speeds are useful for free-motion quilting or yards of straight lines like curtains.
Taking your machine to class or to your local sewing group. A hard case will protect it on the way, and also keep your machine clean and shiny at home too.
Select your buttonhole style, slide your button into the special guide on the foot, and press the button. Let your machine beautifully and accurately sew your perfect-sized buttonhole. Some machines will come with a 4-step buttonhole function, but fully automatic makes the whole process a breeze.
Adjustable feed dogs
Most of the time you want your feed dogs to gently pull your fabric through the machine, but there might be times when you don't such as for darning or for free-motion quilting. Being able to lower those feed dogs is great to have as an option.
Adjustable presser foot pressure
Useful for differing thickness and weights of fabric and also for reducing the pressure when sewing knits, or to prevent puckering when sewing in zippers. Usually a light, medium, and regular pressure setting.
The top-of-the-range features
The machine shown above is pretty modest. The sky really is the limit when it comes to machine features, and price, for the top of the range sewing, quilting, and embroidery machines. They usually have take-your-breath-away features you never knew you ‘needed' until you see them in action. Here are just a few of the hundreds of features on these dream machines, that can easily cost you more than your car!
LCD touch screen
Access all of your stitches and settings, information, memory, and favorites by way of a nifty touchscreen display. Full-color display – even better.
Computer-controlled automatic tension
Never have to worry about getting things just right. Let the computer make all the correct settings and adjustments for you. In fact, almost everything is automatic and computer controlled – you just have to sit there and choose the fabric!
Add in your own designs, use a flash drive, attach your machine to your laptop, or sew from the included library of designs and fonts.
The harp size of the machine is the space between the needle and the main body of the machine on the right. Some machines specially designed for quilting are wider to accommodate the volume of the quilt as you stitch.
Found only on a few domestic sewing machines, this lever can be pressed with your knee to lift the presser foot and drop the feed dogs without taking your hands off your work. Popular with quilters, and gives you an extra hand for fiddly jobs.
Laser guidelines for sewing, embroidery, needle placement or just to keep you sewing in a perfectly straight line. Some machines will even feed the fabric for you and keep it perfectly placed through individually computer-controlled feed dogs. Sigh, no more slightly wonky seams.
In our sewing dreams
If you had a dream sewing machine that could do anything, what features would you look for?
My dream machine would have a ‘back in time' button. When I'd done something silly, sewn a seam back to front, put on a sleeve inside out, I'd press this button and the machine would take it ‘back in time' completely removing my mistake and unpicking for me. Like it never happened 😉