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Buying a Sewing Machine

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I have been using a vintage (I mean antique) straight-stitch Singer sewing machine for years. I love this little work horse, but recently, I had to have it cleaned and the tension adjusted for the third time in a year -- after working on a lot of polar fleece Christmas gifts. Apparently, these old machines can't handle many of the new fabrics.

So, I'm in the market for a new sewing machine and don't have the first idea what to look for. I'd prefer something quite basic -- maybe with a zig zag stitch and button-holer attachment. I don't really feel I need 18 stitches and computerized systems. I will use it mostly to make clothes for the family and curtains, pillow covers, etc.

Can any adept home-sewers out there recommend some brands, models, or at least a basic set of features to look for, as well as ideas of where to get a bargain on a new machine? What about buying a used machine -- how can I be sure it's in good shape?

Advice from a Seamstress

I am a professional costume designer and seamstress. This is what I reccommend buying for a sewing machine. I have sewn for many years and I have had good luck buying used Bernina's from an authorized dealer. He has given me a three to five year warranty depending on the machine. I have had very good luck with these because the older Bernina's were made very well. I also sew a lot and the only stitches that I use are straight, zigzag, and the blind hem.

Finding a Good Used Machine

I worked for several years as a sewing machine sales and repair person besides sewing for my family. In my experience, most people are not happy with cheap sewing machines. They tend to be difficult to thread and adjust and are generally not very strong for mending jeans and such.

A used sewing machine would be an excellent frugal way to go. You should take a variety of samples to sew on including old jeans to hem or a similar heavy fabric. Second, if you have a friend who is very experienced with machines take her or him with you to give their opinion on the machine. Better used sewing machine brands that used to go through our shop included Berninas, Vikings, Husqvarna's, White's, and some Singers (but the quality is not standard). Keep your eyes and ears open--I got my Bernina for $35 with the table. I love this machine.

A machine with a blind hem stitch is worth learning how to use and an easy-to-use buttonhole feature is worth a great deal.

The stitching, both straight and zig-zag stitches, should be straight and even on the top and bottom. Take a new machine needle with you (buy Schmetz brand--the universal one--much better than Singer or off-brands we used these exclusively in our shop) and see if a new needle fixes any stitching. If the machine skips stitches it has a big problem and you should pass it by. A machine whose stitching loops or has a loose stitch may be improperly threaded or in need of an adjustment. This is where that experienced friend would come in handy to make the adjustment. If you are looking in a shop and the machine does not work properly pass it up. People in these shops are professionals at getting the machines to look and work great. Don't necessarily believe the salespersons spiel about childen touching the machines--the demonstrator should be able to get the machine to run great by re-threading or a similar move. If the machine cannot live up to the demonstration it will never work right for a part-time user.

Likes Viking

I have been sewing all my life and have owned several sewing machines, the worst one being one of the newer Singers, the best one is made by Viking. They come in several models from low end to very expensive. I would recommend for a general sewer the low end ELECTRONIC (not to be confused with electric) machine from Viking. Electronic machines simply sew faster, more effeciently and give a much better stitch, I have found. I believe Consumers Reports Magazine rated them very highly. I have subjected my Vikings to the worse possible wear and tear, such as sewing over 8 layers of heavy vinyl. Sewing "pedal to the metal" while I am making fast quilts has never been a problem. These machines simply do not break down, no matter how much abuse you heap on them. Whatever machine you decide on, I strongly suggest you do not buy a Singer. I owned 3 of the newer models and was never able to finish a project without visiting the store for repairs to be made. The very old ones are still good machines, but they can sometimes be difficult to get parts for, and the attachments for buttonholes etc. leave a lot to be desired. Vikings are also very user friendly, unlike many others I have tried at the store. You do not need to look everything up in a manual every time you want to try something you haven't done in a while, the buttons and functions are very clearly delineated on the front of the machine.

Ask Repair Shop

The most reliable place to purchase a used machine is from a repair shop. Alot of times they take in trades when people buy new machines, they clean the machine, and make any needed repairs. The nice thing is they can give you a warranty. 18 different stiches is not a whole lot, some are for stretch knit fabrics, some are for making blind hems so that no one can tell it was "homemade". This shop would be more than willing to help you with its different functions, and how to use the machine, which may not seem like much in your pricing, but I have purchased machines and found it frustrating to the point of giving up. The company I purchased it from was in NY, I was 3,000 miles away. I found a local repair shop that was more than willing to take their time to help me. I later upgraded the machine as my experience level grew, Guess who I bought the upgrade from. I also took several of their sewing classes, to gain some much needed experience.
Kathy A.

Used Buying Tips

I often see older, functioning sewing machines at estate and auction sales. My experience is probably not totally typical as to price. I am still using, eleven years later, a machine I purchased at an auction for the princely sum of two dollars. Currently, I see prices under $35 regularly for older Singers--the notable exception is the small portable straight stitch machine which is VERY popular with quilters.

  1. Watch for a machine from a company that is still in business. At least, if something goes wrong, there is a good chance of getting it fixed.
  2. There probably isn't a good way to really put a machine from an auction, garage sale, or estate sale through an exhaustive test. If you plug it in and operate the foot or knee control and everything moves freely, take a chance. Almost anything else is a screwdriver adjustment or replacing a slightly worn part (see comment #1)
  3. Shop home improvement for great prices at

  4. If there isn't an instruction booklet, write to the manufacturer. Most are very cooperative in giving out information on their older models. Alternatively, go to one of the internet auctions--many times you will find accessories and instruction booklets on sale.


Buy a Bernina

Buy a Bernina, used if you can get it. I've worked with Brother Sewing Machines, Singer and Sears and they all have frustrated me with lousy tension adjustment. My Bernina is wonderful and I bought their cheapest model.

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