Whether you’re a new sewist, or you’re buying your first sewing machine after learning with a borrowed or classroom sewing machine, or you’re looking to upgrade an older model, this guide to how to buy a sewing machine for beginners will walk you through what you need to know to choose the right machine for you!
This post contains affiliate links. I may receive compensation (at no added cost to you) if you make a purchase using these links. This post is sponsored by Baby Lock and is part of our ongoing collaboration. All opinions and words are my own.
How To Buy a Sewing Machine (for Beginners)
Buying your first sewing machine can be intimidating, but this guide will help you make the right choice! In this Sewing Basics post, I’m going to share everything you need to know about how to buy a sewing machine from a beginner or newbie perspective. Even if you’ve been sewing for a while, but haven’t upgraded your machine in years, this guide is for you because much has changed in the world of sewing machines! Read on for more details including:
- Biggest Myth About Buying a Sewing Machine
- Questions to Ask Yourself
- Understanding Sewing Machine Features
- Working with an Authorized Dealer
- Putting It All Together
Biggest Myth About Buying a Sewing Machine
When beginner sewists ask “what sewing machine should I buy?” I often hear people advising them to buy an older machine for a low price, supposedly because those machines are “built to last” and more affordable. But is this really true?
This is a little bit like telling a teenager who is just learning to drive to get a used car from the ‘70s. Such a car would be much harder to drive and maintain, with less available information online about how to use it, fewer spare parts available for repairs, and lacking safety features like seat belts or air bags. Do you really want a newbie driver learning in that car?
Instead, new sewists (and new drivers) should buy the best machine that you can afford. In most cases, this will be a newer sewing machine. Newer sewing machine models have convenient features, are easier to maintain, and let you spend more time sewing and less time fiddling with the machine. Additionally, newer machines often come with more online support so that you can learn about your machine while at home. For example, Baby Lock’s YouTube channel has tons of videos about using and maintaining your machine, and you can also purchase a two- or four-year Love of Sewing Membership including access to over 1,000 SEWED videos by experts.
Questions to Ask Yourself
Before trying to decide which is the best sewing machine that you can afford, you’ll have to figure out a few things. Start by asking yourself these questions.
- What is my budget for a sewing machine? While most entry level models are priced below $500, you can get a more advanced, high quality sewing machine in the $500-$1,000 range. If you will be sewing a lot, consider whether a model over $1,000 is an option as most of these will have more features that you may want to consider. If your budget is over $2,000, there are even more machines with specialized features you might want to play with.
- What type of sewing will I be doing? Basically all machines are capable of straight stitching on most fabrics. But if you plan to do a lot of machine quilting, or garment sewing, or bag making, for example, there are specific features you should look for to make sure you have a machine that is optimally designed for your needs. (If you’re buying a sewing machine primarily to sew bags, see Notes for Bag Makers, below.)
- How much space do I have? If you have a spacious, dedicated sewing area, you generally do not need to think about the size of a sewing machine. If you have space limitations, or if you will be packing up and putting your machine away after each use, you may prefer a more compact machine.
- Does this machine need to be portable? This question is similar, but not identical to the last. Some people have a sewing room at home, but want a machine they can bring to sewing classes, sewing circles, or other activities outside the home. Portable sewing machines are smaller, lighter weight, and easy to set up on the go.
Answering these questions will give you a budget, size and weight guidelines (if any), and a preliminary list of features to look for.
Understanding Sewing Machine Features
Once you’ve thought about the type of sewing you’ll be doing, there are a lot of features to consider. Most sewing machine companies, like Baby Lock for example, have a page where you can search and compare different machines. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Recommended features for new machine sewists
If you’re new to owning your own machine, or haven’t bought a machine in a long time, all of the features can be daunting. Here’s my list of the most important features for new machine sewists to think about.
- Computerized machine – Unless you have already been sewing on a mechanical machine and prefer it, I recommend buying a computerized machine. (If you’re buying a sewing machine primarily to sew bags, see Notes for Bag Makers, below.) Even the simplest computerized machines have built in “help” for sewists – such as error messages to explains what you are doing wrong. While critics will say that computerized machines are more expensive and don’t last “as long” (15 years instead of 25, for example), the benefits of convenience, in-machine help, and sewing precision far outweigh the downsides for most sewing machine beginners.
- Drop-In Bobbin Case – I recommend a drop-in bobbin case for sewing machine beginners. They are much easier to load, as you literally “drop” the bobbin into the case. Front-loading bobbins, on the other hand, require a bit more finesse to load. It’s also easier to see how much thread you have left in the bobbin with a drop in bobbin case. You can find out more about bobbins in this blog post.
- Stitch Selection – Lots of stitches are fun to play with (as in these Stitch Sampler Ornaments)…
- …but most beginner sewists need just the basics, like straight stitches and zig zag stitches. If you’re a garment sewist, you should also have at least one buttonhole stitch, stretch stitch (preferably a blind hem stitch), and overlocking stitch. If you’re a quilter, you may also want a decorative “hand-look quilting” stitch.
- Presser Feet Selection – Presser feet can be expensive, so take a look at the ones that are included in your machine. You may also be able to negotiate for additional feet when buying your machine from an authorized dealer (see Working with an Authorized Dealer below for details). You’ll want feet to match the type of stitches and fabrics you expect to use. For example, most garment sewists will need a zipper foot and buttonhole foot as well as the appropriate feet for the straight, zig zag, overlocking, and stretch stitches on your machine. Quilters will want a 1/4 inch foot and walking foot as well as a leveling foot for sewing through layers of fabric. A free motion foot is also great to have for free-motion quilting. If you plan to regularly sew with “sticky” fabrics like leather, pleather, suede, and vinyl, you’ll want a teflon foot. You can find out more about different types of presser feet in this blog post.
- Free Arm – The free arm is a narrow surface on the sewing machine that allows you to sew tubes, like sleeves, pant legs, or even the inside of a tote bag as shown below. Many sewing machines have a free arm that you can expose by sliding off another part of the machine. For example, in my Baby Lock Jubilant, the free arm is exposed when you remove the storage tray as shown below. For garment sewists, a free arm is an essential feature.
- Creative Space – If you plan to do machine quilting, you’ll want to learn more about the “creative space” on the machine, or the distance between the right of the needle and the rest of the machine. This is also sometimes called throat space. A larger creative space makes machine quilting larger projects much easier, as you don’t have to spend a lot of time trying to “squish” your project into a too small space.
Nice to have features if your budget permits
- Lights – Many new machines have on-machine lights that make it much easier to see your needle and bobbin thread, change presser feet, and troubleshoot.
- Start/Stop Button – I love the Start/Stop button on my Baby Lock Jubilant. It means I don’t need to use my foot controller (foot pedal) to start or stop sewing. This is super helpful if you have small children or pets underfoot while you’re sewing. It also makes the machine more portable, as you don’t need to carry the controller and cord when you’re sewing on the go.
- Machine Storage – It’s helpful to have some storage in the machine itself, especially if you are tight on space or are getting a portable machine. This allows you to keep essential tools with your machine at all times.
- Extension Table – If you plan to do machine quilting, an extension table can expand your sewing space significantly. This is especially helpful if you don’t have a sewing table that has an adjustable platform and insert for your machine. Extension tables are often optional accessories that are more affordable when bought at the same time as you purchase your sewing machine.
- Knee Lift – Some sewists love using a knee lift. You can “lift” this bar with your knee and it will raise the presser foot on the machine. This is helpful if you need to pivot your work but are using your hands to hold the fabric in place, for example while sewing garments or quilting.
- Vertical Thread Spool – If you’re a garment sewist, you may find the option of using a vertical as well as horizontal thread spool helpful for even feeding of embellished threads.
Notes for Bag Makers
If you’re buying a sewing machine specifically for making bags using thick and “sticky” fabrics like leather and vinyl, you likely have different needs than other sewists. Bag makers should look for a single-stitch sewing machine that is designed for working with heavier fabrics, like the Baby Lock Accomplish, rather than a computerized machine with a broad array of stitches.
Working with an Authorized Dealer
Today, there is no reason not to buy a sewing machine from an authorized dealer. Even if you don’t have a sewing machine dealer in your local area, since the pandemic started in 2020, reputable sewing machine manufacturers like Baby Lock allow authorized dealers to sell machines online or via phone order.
If you can, visit a local dealer and “test drive” the machines you are considering. Before your trip to the dealer, visit the Baby Lock website to search and compare different machines so you have an idea which one(s) you’d like to try out. If your budget is tight, ask to try the machines in ascending price order, starting with the most affordable machine. If your budget is flexible, you may want to start with more expensive machines as you may fall in love quickly!
If you can’t visit a dealer in person, do a Zoom conference, phone call, or live chat so you can make sure the machine you are considering is right for your needs. Find out more about how often the machine should be serviced and how to work with the dealer to maintain your machine, especially if you don’t live close by. Often, you can negotiate with dealers to include extras like specific presser feet, an extension table, needles, or other tools and notions at a discounted price if they are purchased with the machine.
Putting It All Together
In conclusion, if you’re a beginner wondering how to buy a sewing machine, I recommend starting by determining your budget, space, and weight needs; creating lists of “must-have” and “really-want” features; exploring the Baby Lock website to find out more about a handful of machines in your prize/size range; and then connecting with a dealer to make sure you haven’t missed any key features, learn more about servicing plans, and see if you can include any extras with your machine at a lower cost.
As I mentioned in my review of the Baby Lock Jubilant, I’ve been using Baby Lock machines exclusively since 2005, and even though I’ve been known to be “tough” on my machines – carrying them on public transportation to classes, not realizing (confession time) for many years that I was supposed to be changing my needle after every six to eight hours of sewing (rather than just after the needle broke!), leaving the machine on a table where cats would rub on it, etc. – my first Baby Lock machine is still in great working order and that’s because I got it regularly serviced. When it was time for me to get a new machine, I was able to pass mine along to my mom and she is still using it. If you spend time planning for the best machine you can buy, it will last a long time and you’ll be able to give it to someone else or trade it in when you upgrade to your next machine!