What to look for in a new sewing machine

I may be a Bernina baby but rest assured, this is a pretty unbiased look at choosing a machine.

 

This is a long post but I’m pretty fussy when it comes to good design.  I don’t believe in sewing machine snobs; just that there should be a loving relationship between the sewist and the machine, and the set up and design has to be right for them.  Feel free to print it or put it in a guild newsletter and distribute it (for free only) but please keep my name (and blogpost name) on it as author on it for credit.

Thanks, Fiona Schiffl.

It can be hard coming to the decision to buy a new machine particularly when your beloved has served you for so long and so faithfully, but when it comes to quilting (that uses the machine in a different way), it may not handle it too well. Please note some older machines quilt beautifully, however this article is about what to look for in a new machine.

Note the smoothness of the machine when sewing.  Some can feel clunky when sewing whilst others glide over the fabric with ease.

It’s best to have a machine that can sew one stitch at a time slowly.   If you are going to only quilt random unmarked designs, then a machine that sews only at a fast pace will get those quilts finished quickly!  However marked designs are usually sewn at a more slower pace so you’ll need a speed you are comfortable with.  Quilting machines can sew at slow speeds.  The older standard machines tend to be racehorses.  I found that I was more relaxed at the machine, sewed more accurately and enjoyed it a lot more when I made the transfer from the racehorse to the computerised machine.

Try the reverse stitch—some machines will allow one reverse stitch whilst others will do two or three even if you only want one!  Errr….

Is the machine going to be taken to classes?  If so, then the weight of the machine may be a factor.  Some weigh fifteen kilograms.  There are padded trolleys designed for sewing machines available at most haberdashery stores but you’ll still have to lift them in and out of the car, and there may not be a handsome guy with muscles around to help you out.

The motor size.  The motors come in various sizes.  The larger ones will be better for long periods of use.  Even within one brand, their top machines will have their motors made in one country and their cheaper machines will have their motors made in another country.  This may be important to you…or not.

Pressure dial.  Raises or lowers the presser foot even further when the presser foot is engaged.  It’s very handy and I can’t live without it.  The presser foot is lowered even more for very thin fabrics that slip under the foot or raised higher when sewing thicker fabrics, layers of fabric or quilting. This allows the foot to glide easily over the quilt or layers. Some pressure dials will have one setting, some many more. My machine has 11, and I use them all—sometimes I sew over 10 layers of fabric at once.

Sewing lamp.  Some machines have a fabulous fluorescent lamp on three sides around the needle.  It makes a huge difference from the old style.  The longer arm machines i.e. 10-12 inches long will have another light under the arm.  If you find these lights reflect too much light in your eyes when in use with a clear Perspex table, buy a Teflon easy slide mat to go on top of the table.  It sits around the feed dogs.

If the presser foot lever is located on the right hand side of the needle, tucked in under the sewing arm, it will get in the way when sewing mid to large size quilts.  They are also extremely annoying for a left hander! Try a machine with a lever centrally located behind the needle or has no lever at all.

The distance between the main body of the machine and the needle.  Quilts need a lot of room and this century has seen a lot of manufacturers increase this area up to 10-15 inches.   It makes a huge difference to your sewing experience.  If you are ever going to repair or make sleeves for clothes on the machine, check to see if the actual machine sewing bed will accommodate it (without the extension table on it).  One popular brand has a model with a fixed bed that is too wide for this process.

A machine that has a removable bobbin case so that you can have for quilting and one for normal sewing is advantageous. This is another thing I can’t live without.  If you are going to be doing a lot of embroidery with thicker threads, it will be worthwhile investing in a third bobbin case so you don’t have to change the tension on the other cases.  At least one manufacturer has made a bobbin case specifically for thicker threads!

If you’ll be changing the case often according to your type of sewing, make sure it can be changed quickly with little hassle as several machines have to have the throat plate taken off to change the case.  If you have to unscrew a throat plate, it wastes a lot of time.  Bobbin cases are either fitted vertically or horizontally depending on your machine.  If you have to change the bobbin tension on the case due to using different sorts of threads, you may have to unscrew the throat plate to get the bobbin case out to do so.  In a vertical case, this takes about five seconds to take out the case, change the tension and put it in the machine again.  A very quick process and a major advantage over the horizontal bobbin system.  The horizontal systems may have changed over the years so check out how fast and easy it is to take out the bobbin if the machine you’re looking at has this system.

I don’t really recommend machines that need a screwdriver to put the feet on or take off the throat plate.  Having to use a screwdriver makes a simple task time consuming, and difficult if you have arthritis or other conditions affecting your dexterity.  The screwdriver never fits the space—usually it’s too big and doesn’t fit the slot, making it difficult to use.   This makes it more likely for you to accidentally burr the side of the screw which may cause your quilt to catch on it, tearing a hole in it.  If you do have one of these, invest in a 7mm off set (right angle) screw driver.  Instead of having a straight handle all the way to the important part, it has a right angle bend in it as shown below.  Pressure release throat plates are quick and easier to use, having no screws in them.  Of course if you have any hand issues, please try the pressure release throat plate before buying the machine so you know if it is the right system for you.

A set of three offset screwdrivers and the 7mm offset screwdriver below.

A set of three offset screwdrivers and the 7mm offset screwdriver below.

 

The presser feet are a very important factor in buying a machine.  Some are fiddly to get on and off, especially ones that require a screwdriver each time. Some are just impractical and don’t offer visibility for the task they are supposed to do.  Try all versions of the feet you are looking at obtaining, in store, before buying the machine.

The most important ones are the quarter-inch foot, the walking foot and the free-motion foot.  The quarter-inch foot, should be opened toed (meaning there is no metal bar blocking your view).  No marking of the seams on material is necessary as the quarter inch is the standard patchwork seam.

The walking foot should also have an open toed sole.  If it doesn’t, you can modify it by cutting out the sides of the foot and sanding them down for greater visibility.  If the machine has a dual feed mechanism built in, which does the same job as the walking foot, check that when it is disengaged, that it isn’t in a position to catch on the safety pins in a basted quilt.  Some sit way too low and will cause problems, some don’t.  The only way to avoid that is to spray baste your quilts.

The free-motion foot is the other important foot for a machine quilter.  The open toe free-motion foot is similar to the darning foot but has roughly three quarters of a metal ring for the base instead.  This means you can see when you are sewing.  When looking at the free-motion feet, take a look at all types of these feet especially the embroidery foot as the best one for machine quilting may not be the one promoted for “machine quilting”.  If you have a closed toe free-motion foot (meaning an enclosed circle at the base of the foot), I recommended cutting out at least a quarter of it in front of the needle.  Sand down the cuts so they don’t damage your quilt top.  Visibility is the most important factor in machine quilting.

Freemotion-foot-Fiona-Schiffl-web

I personally consider this Bernina foot to be the best on the market. Its sleek design has the best visibility and it’s easy to remove and put on the machine. Many free-motion feet have the spring column on the right of the shank. This greatly reduces the amount of visibility around the foot. It doesn’t have a high plastic toe on it that may distort or hide a marked sewing line below it.  You may have a different experience but test any foot at the dealer’s shop before buying.

 

There are new types of feet coming out at the moment including ones to be used with longarm rulers, ones that a marker pen can be placed in to draw (instead of sew) a design on the fabric and ones that cut a design into the fabric (again, instead of sewing one).

Horizontal and vertical spool holders. Cross wound threads prefer to be in a horizontal position whereas straight wound threads prefer a vertical position.  Some machines have extra thread guides for threads that are renowned for getting a little tangled on the way to the needle.  You may wish to see if a thread spool extension accessory is available if you intend to use thread cones with a wider base.

Multiple machine speeds.  Some machines have a 2 or 4 different speeds. Personally, the 4 speeds (¼, ½, ¾ and full) on my machine are perfect for all sorts of sewing.  I can also change the maximum speed my machine is set at any time. Most machines now have a sliding speed control.  You may or may not like this feature.  I would explain why I like the dedicated 4 speeds on my machine but it sounds totally nuts when trying to put it in words.  Let’s just say I’m not a fan of the sliding speed control and leave it at that—all I’ll say is that it’s to do with muscle memory.

Check the speed pedal size of the machine.  If your whole foot isn’t resting on the foot, it may cause an aching foot as part of your foot will be flat on the floor and the front part will be up at an angle over the pedal.  I prefer the larger pedal where my foot is all on one angle.  Regardless of what style of speed control you get, the most important thing to check is the slowest speed.  My foot will allow me to stitch a single stitch as slowly as I like.  I love that.

Stitch length – Most machines have 0.2mm stitch length increments i.e. 2mm, 2.2mm, 2.4mm etc.  Some have 0.1mm increments which is best—yeah, it makes a difference.  At least one brand has 0.5mm increments (even in their top machines) so there isn’t much room to play—it’s either a small stitch or large stitch.  I personally prefer a length of 2.3mm—it gets me right to the end of my line on the dot 99% of the time.  I love a 1.7mm for a small stitch length too.

A needle up, needle down button is fabulous for quilting.  It means that when you stop the machine sewing, the needle will automatically be in the up or down position depending on what you have the machine set to do.  Quilters often need the needle in the down position.  It saves turning the flywheel at the finish of every piece of stitching.  Once you have this feature, you won’t be able to sew without it.  One brand of machine has this feature set into the foot pedal as well so the machine will leave the needle up or down as usual but you can raise or lower the needle when depressing the heel of the foot pedal without changing the button on the machine – an incredibly handy feature.  Some machines will lower or raise the foot automatically when the button is pressed before sewing despite whether you want it left where it is at the start of your sewing.  This can be annoying!  Some machines can be programmed to raise or lower the needle so you don’t need to check that every time you turn on the machine.

You may be able to move the needle position from left to right.  This is very handy.  Check how to do this on the machine though.  I found on one cheap machine that the only way to do this was to move the machine speed control slider bar.  We had the machine set up for free-motion quilting but the needle position had moved and it wanted to hit the side of the foot instead.  There was no needle position feature on the machine either. Go figure…

Some machines have a presser foot knee lift operated by pushing your knee against a lever, which has been inserted into the machine, on the right hand lower side.  This leaves your hands free to hold the work instead of having to take your hands off your quilt to raise the presser foot.  Many quilters can’t live without this device.  This feature is being replaced by pushing a button to raise the foot and there is not presser foot lever at all.  If you’re anything like me, it takes a little getting used to not knocking your knee on it…but I love the lever!

Newer machines may have a touch screen to adjust everything from stitch style, length, tension to speed, etc.  If you look at one of these, take the time to go through the menu with the sales assistant as some are more user friendly than others.  For one particular machine, you have to scroll through menu after menu to get to the function you want. No, thank you!  If the machine has a quilt mode, find out how to engage it and exactly what it does.

Most machines are able to drop their feed dogs. Some machines come with covers to go over them.  When looking for a new machine, ask the sales assistant to show you what system the machine uses.

If you want to use a fake hand quilting stitch on your quilts, some machines have this feature.

Some machines allow you to change the width, balance, direction of the decorative stitch whilst sewing or beforehand.  Computerised machines can program multiple different stitches to be sewn in one line.  Quilters are using decorative stitches more often these days on their quilts.  If you like to use blanket stitch, make sure you can change the direction and width of the stitch to avoid having to have most of the quilt under the sewing arm.  If you are going to use a machine’s alphabet stitches, check the size of the alphabet is suitable for your needs.

Certain models of machines will have an embroidery module as an option.  These can be expensive so ask a lot of questions and for a demo when looking at purchasing a new machine.  You can purchase these at a later date provided they still make that model machine.

Some machines have magnifying glasses of varying strengths that attach to the machine that enlarge the view of the sewing area.

Another great accessory to look for is a single hole throat plate.  The zigzag throat plate comes with the machine.  It has a wide hole for the needle to go through the base of the sewing bed.  The single hole throat plate has a small hole for the needle so only straight stitching can be done.  It means that delicate fabrics or small patches of fabric cannot get pushed through the throat plate and get wrecked by the sewing process.  If you accidentally use a twin needle or do any other stitch than straight, you’ll break the needle and possibly damage the throat plate.  A damaged throat plate should be replaced immediately as the fabrics or thread can be caught and ruined.  This kind of throat plate can save a lot of frustration.  On machines that do not have a computerised security system that protects you from doing any other stitch than a straight one when using the single hole throat plate, it is best to stick a piece of cardboard over your touch screen or stitch width selector.  Other top end computer machines have a throat plate adjuster instead of having to switch the plates over.  Change the plate as soon as you have finished sewing that part, or for the day as you may forget that it is on there, or someone else may use the machine ignoring the cardboard.

Throat-plates-Fiona-Schiffl-web

Left: The single hole throat plate.  Right: A normal zigzag throat plate.

 

The shape of the machine’s body in front of the needle, should be flat.  There are a few which are curved which can make it hard to have a flat area or an extension table around the machine.  This rounded area makes you force the quilt and sew uphill. Why???

 Side profile of machine with curved front

 Side profile of a machine with a curved area in front of the needle.  You can remove the curved piece on some machines but not others.  It is worth while checking this before purchasing.

 

Machines have been getting larger in size lately to accommodate large quilts with ease.  If you are of a smaller stature, you may find it annoying to reach all areas of the machine without standing up to do so.  A friend of mine who was willing to spend top dollar on a new machine based her decision on this factor.

Large extension tables are made for most machines.  They are a bigger version of the table that comes with the machine.   They can be expensive to buy but do a fantastic job in lieu of the machine being set into a sewing table.   Home-made versions are much cheaper and are just as good.

Tables that house the machines don’t have to be expensive either.  Homemade versions can be better than the bought ones.  One thing to watch out for is where you need to sit to be in front of the needle.  Some tables have been designed to sit the machine in the middle of the table about six inches from the front.  This means to be in front of the needle, you are sitting at the very left of the table.  The machine should be located to the right of the table.  Having the table set back around 10 inches from the front of the table allows you to put your forearms on the table top comfortably, dramatically reducing the amount of neck and shoulder strain.  You will have to get used to the machine sitting further back but what a difference it makes!  The extra room between you and the machine allows the quilt to rest on the table top and doesn’t have to be drooped all over you to accommodate the weight of it.

You may find that many shop assistants aren’t quilters and don’t know what features you should be looking for or what the machine feels like to quilt with.  They see the word quilt on a machine and automatically think that it is made for serious quilters and some of these machines do not have the features commonly found on quality quilting machines.  Of course, there are also many outstanding assistants out there that know their stuff.  Try the top of the line models as well as the ones in your price bracket to see what features make a difference to your sewing.  Take along a small quilt sandwich to try free-motion quilting on.  If in doubt, take along a quilting friend to help you out.  Schedule a day at least to try out as many brands of machines as possible.  You may get overwhelmed so make sure there’s a nice coffee shop nearby!

Always buy the best machine you can afford.  Would you believe that I had a sales assistant try to talk me out of buying the best machine I could afford???  The machine companies tend to have major specials throughout the year around the major craft exhibitions, Mother’s Day and Christmas.  Some major brands are owned and made in the same factory like electronics and kitchenware are.  This means they may all share the same good or bad design.

Quilters spend much more time on their machines then other types of sewists, so pick out the features that are most important to you.  People do become brand loyal but when searching for a new machine or find it hard to go from a mechanical style machine to a computerised one, so keep an open mind, but… remember the only person it has to please is you.

Good luck and happy shopping!

Fiona Schiffl

fionaschiffl.com

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