Thursday, July 26, 2012

How to Start Sewing Part One: Buying a Sewing Machine

I talk a lot about how I had never used a sewing machine before two years ago. It's something I point out whenever people tell me I'm "such a talented seamstress." Not because I'm bragging, but because I want people to know that it doesn't take that much or that long to do what I'm doing. You can do it, too! So I figured I'd finally write out some advice for how to go from a non-sewer to a sewer.

Step One: Get a Sewing Machine

I know that a lot of people who have not used a sewing machine before are kinda afraid of them. I was. I thought, well I can just hand-sew something if I need to. Nevermind that I hate hand-sewing and am really bad at it. I still somehow imagined it was easier than using a sewing machine. I was SO WRONG.

So yes, you need a sewing machine. You might already have access to one. Maybe a relative or friend has one you can borrow (or have?). If so, great.  Free is good.  But if someone says, "You can come over to my place and use mine," I, personally, would hesitate.  I am much more stressed out by making mistakes when someone is looking over my shoulder.  And I learn best by figuring things out for myself rather than having someone teach me.  YMMV.

Buying something new and cheap?
Ok, let's say you need to buy a sewing machine.  Easy, right?  Go to your local Wal-mart or other discount store and buy the cheapest one, right?  WRONG WRONG WRONG.  Seriously, don't do this.     Low end sewing machines are VERY low-end.  They are made with plastic internal parts, which will break under stress.  No matter how cheap you think that sewing machine is, you are basically throwing your money away.  The machine will break with use, and it won't be worth it to get it fixed.

Don't necessarily believe that just because a machine is a certain brand that you've heard is good that it means it is a quality machine.  Singer, for example, was a byword for a quality sewing machine for probably a hundred years.  Not anymore.  I don't know about their high-end machines, but the low-end ones are crap.  They trade on their name by selling really cheaply made machines.  Brother also makes a bunch of cheap machines.  If you are trying to decide if a machine is decent quality, try picking it up.  It should be heavy.  If it is light, it has plastic parts.  You want a heavy machine because you don't want it to walk itself across your table while you are sewing.  It should stay in place on its own.  Alternatively, if you are buying online, make sure you read the specs and get a machine with all metal internal parts.

Picking up a vintage machine for cheap?
So, if we don't want to go buy a cheap, brand-new machine, then we should start looking for old machines, right?  I mean, we all know that old sewing machines were made to withstand nuclear blasts and are awesome, right?  We should be looking at garage sales and thrift stores, right?

Well, I actually have a problem with this sewing-machine-buying-philosophy as well.  I once had a sewing machine from a garage sale.  It was a heavy duty old Singer, something I'm sure hipsters would fall over themselves for.  But I couldn't figure out how to use it.  There was no manual, no instructions.  How do you even thread it?  Are all the parts there?  How do I know if there's something wrong with it?  I maintain there was something wrong with that machine, but since I had never used a sewing machine before, I had no way to know if that was the case or what to do about it.   There are a lot of small things that can go wrong with a sewing machine, and it is nearly impossible to tell if there is something wrong if you're not familiar with them or how sewing should work.

So I'm not saying DON'T buy an old machine at a garage sale or thrift store, but I don't think it's the best option for someone entirely new to sewing.  If you have a super knowledgeable friend to go with you and help you figure out how to use the thing afterwards, great.  If not, maybe consider option number three.

Factory Refurbished
So what does that leave?  Don't buy a cheap new machine and don't buy an old used one?  What do I buy?  My personal recommendation is that you buy a factory refurbished machine.  A factory refurbished machine has the best of all worlds.  It's guaranteed to work.  It comes with a warranty.  It comes with all the parts, and hopefully a manual (if not, you should be able to download one for your model on the company website).  It is used and therefore more environmentally friendly and a much better bargain than a new machine.  You get all the features that an old machine doesn't have.  It's probably not a cheap piece of crap because those are not even worth refurbishing.

I bought my current machine from  (Or or whatever the hell they are calling themselves now.)  It is a Janome heavy-duty model, probably a $400-500 machine new.  I paid $125 for it.  I've had it for over a year and I LOVE it.   So I do highly recommend  They have a wide selection of sewing machines, both new and refurbished.  You get a lot more for your money with the refurbs.  And you don't get killed on shipping, which you have to look out for with sewing machines.    There are other sites that offer refurbished machines, I just can't personally speak to them.

You local sewing machine store may offer refurbished models.  I'm not sure how their warranties work, but it's worth checking out.  Especially if it means they are willing to personally repair anything that goes wrong.

You can also buy discounted machines that are new.  Again, this is really a matter of doing your research about each model to make sure you are actually getting a quality machine.  Read user reviews on multiple sites, read all the specs, see how much it's selling for elsewhere.  All the usual careful consumer things.  There are some models of sewing machines that are cheaper but solid quality.  My first sewing machine was a Janome Hello Kitty machine that's about $100.  It was an awesome little machine, very solid and good quality (I think it's hard to go wrong with a Janome).  But there are features it didn't have, things that couldn't be adjusted, so I moved up.

What features do I need?
Speaking of which, what features should a machine for beginners have?  First of all, I have never used a computerized sewing machine and am not sure that they are really a great idea.  I guess you get more stitch types, but for average sewing all you really need are a straight stitch and a zigzag.  Plus a computer just seems like something else that could go wrong or need repair.  So I prefer the mechanical models.  Like I said, I don't worry about how many stitches it has.  Straight and zigzag, good enough for me.

The one feature I was looking for when I bought my current machine is a one-step buttonhole.  Most machines have a buttonhole feature and it's one you'll use pretty often.  A four-step buttonhole isn't that difficult, and in some ways is better than a one-step because it's easier to make a custom sized buttonhole when you are doing it manually.  But once I learned how to use my one-step buttonhole I can never go back.  It automatically makes the length right for your buttons and all you have to do is feed the fabric through straight.

Features that are nice: a needle with multiple horizontal positions, meaning you can shift where the needle is.  I don't use this a lot, but sometimes it comes in handy.  Once that IS really nice is an adjustable presser foot so you can shift how high the foot is depending on the thickness of your fabrics.  Also, because I was comparing it to my Hello Kitty machine, it's nice to have fully adjustable stitch lengths and widths.

One feature you will probably see advertised is a "drop-in bobbin."  I personally don't see that this is THAT much of an improvement over a side-loading one.  I guess it's very slightly easier.  Not something that would make or break a machine for me.

And that's my advice on buying a sewing machine, when you're a complete beginner.  I'm by no means an expert, but I've done research and am working off what other people have told me and my own experiences.  If you have additional considerations or tips, please share them in the comments!

The next post in this series will be about how to actually start sewing once you have the machine.

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