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Sewing Machine Buying Guide for Beginners (with free download)

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Whether you want to rekindle your sewing passion or are a total newbie, this sewing machine buying guide will help you select the best sewing machine.

My Sewing Story

My Mom

My sewing story begins way back in my childhood. For just about as long as I can remember, my mother sewed. She never had the best equipment and simply used whatever she could get her hands on. The first sewing machine I remember her having was an old International Rotary Sewing Machine. That thing was a beast! It did one thing – sewed a straight stitch. And that is the machine that I learned to sew on.  

By the time I was 11 or 12, I had been sewing purses, scarves and anything I could imagine on that heavy black sewing machine. Then I participated in 4-H and I got to sew my very first dress. I was so pleased with the dress. I followed the pattern instructions to a tee and it, amazingly, turned out perfect. So perfect that I won 1st place in the sewing category that year at the Fayette County Fair.

My mom passed away when I was 18 and she left behind an unfinished three-piece suit that she was making for my Dad. Determined to finish what my mom started, I finished sewing that suit for my dad. It was quite challenging for a number of reasons: the fabric was corduroy, there were buttons, button holes, zippers and lining to contend with. And, the most challenging part was my dad had polio as a child that left his left arm and shoulder much smaller than his right arm.

My dad was so patient with me as I kept having him try on the jacket over and over again, trying my best to get the suit to fit. I FINALLY finished the suit and my dad loved it (or so he said). That just goes to show you what you can do on an ordinary non-fancy sewing machine.

Early On

Although my mom taught me how to sew, she was self-taught herself. Most of my learning to sew came from reading patterns and books I had checked out from the library. I sewed a lot when I was in my 20s and then as my family grew and we became so busy with all our children’s activities, my sewing got pushed aside.  I would typically pull my sewing machine out of the closet to make dresses for my daughters every year at Christmas and Easter. Then I’d sadly tuck my sewing machine back into the closet.

Through the Years

Through the years, I’ve owned several sewing machines. Most of them were not all that great of quality. They were inexpensive and simply what I could afford at the time. However, a few years ago, my husband bought me a Brother HC1850 Computerized Sewing Machine. And even set me up a crafting space in the basement. I thought this sewing machine was just amazing. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of hours I have spent sewing on this machine.

And Present Day

Then, back in November I had the opportunity to purchase a new Janome Memory Craft Horizon 8200 QCP Special Edition Computerized Sewing Machine at less than half the retail price. Oh. My. Goodness! I have never sewn on such an exquisite sewing machine. Why had I waited so long to purchase a really good quality sewing machine? Oh, wait. I know. Money! I hate to spend money. But, I do love to save money and find really great bargains hard to resist.

So, as I reflected on my own sewing journey, I thought it might be helpful to share some of my best tips with you that will, hopefully, help you to pick out the best sewing machine for your needs and budget.

Learn from My Mistake

Don’t do like I did and just settle for whatever you can get your hands on. It will cause you to be frustrated and not enjoy your sewing journey as much as you had hoped or should. I’m definitely speaking from experience!

As you’ll read under my very first tip in my sewing machine buying guide, you want to choose quality over features. Read on to learn more.

Sewing Machine Buying Guide

Like I said, if you’re a beginner or aspiring sewist, there are a few things to take into consideration before you purchase your sewing machine. I want your sewing experience to be as fun, rewarding and non-stressful as possible. Taking the time to consider your needs, features and functionality, while taking your budget into consideration, will help you to select the best sewing machine.

Choose Quality Over Features

When selecting your first or beginner level sewing machine, I’d really advise you to select a quality machine over one that has, for example, 100 stitches. Because, although 100 stitches sounds quite intriguing, you will probably only ever use 3 or 4 of those stitches.

Select the best quality machine that is within your budget.

Consider the Type of Sewing

Before you consider what features you want in your sewing machine, ask yourself, realistically, what type of sewing projects will you be attempting: pillow cases and napkins, home furnishings and pillow covers, apparel and accessories, bags and bins, stuffed toys and dolls or maybe even quilting and embroidering.

If you’re going to want to be sewing on heavy duty canvas and denim, you’ll want to make sure to select a heavy-duty machine that can easily accommodate the weight and thickness.

Consider the Types of Sewing Machines

Sewing machines are categorized based on their functionality or features like sewing, quilting and embroidery. There are basically three types of sewing machines, plus embroidery and overlook/sergers. But, for the purpose of today’s discussion, I’m sticking with the three types of sewing machines.

Mechanical Sewing Machine

Mechanical sewing machines are sometimes called manual, tailoring, treadle or domestic sewing machines. These are your basic models and are considered beginner machines. These machines typically have very few features, are inexpensive and easily repairable. They may have one or more stitch patterns and are not suitable for sewing thick fabrics like denim, canvas or leather. They require a lot less maintenance, if kept clean and oiled regularly. A mechanical machine can last a long time and is also great to have as a back-up.

An example of a mechanical sewing machine would be the International machine that I learned to sew on or machines like the SINGER 4411 Sewing Machine.

Electronic Sewing Machine

As you might imagine, electronic sewing machines have more features than a mechanical sewing machine. The electronic sewing machines are generally light weight and compact in size. You’ll find they come equipped with several, if not many, built-in stitches. They are typically equipped with built-in needle threaders, top loading drop in bobbins, adjustable stitch length and width, adjustable needle positioning and more. Since these electronic sewing machines are typically lightweight, they are great for transporting. They are often considered a hybrid of the mechanical and computerized machines.

They make for a great sewing machine option and usually sew beautifully.

An example of an electronic sewing machine is the Brother XM2701 Sewing Machine.

Computerized Sewing Machine

Computerized sewing machines are typically bigger and heavier than electronic sewing machines. Some can even be connected to the Internet, computer or utilize SD cards or USB ports to connect to software. They can typically handle heavyweight fabrics like canvas, denim and even leather. As you can imagine, computerized sewing machines can be quite expensive. They are designed with the more experienced sewist in mind.

They also have small monitor displays. A computer is used to control several different motors, such as precisely moving the needle bar, tensioning discs, feed dogs and other sewing machine parts. Computerized sewing machines are also equipped with automatic processes which control functions such as speed or even making a buttonhole by pressing a button.

Examples of computerized sewing machines include:

Sewing & Embroidery Combination Machines

So, there are basically three categories for sewing machines: mechanical, electronic and computerized, which I discussed above. But, there are also multi-purpose or combination sewing machines that fall under the computerized sewing machine category.

If you’re tight on space or like the idea of having one machine that does it all, then the sewing and embroidery combination machines might be perfect for you. These machines allow you to sew and embroider all from one machine.

There is a lot to consider when purchasing a sewing machine with embroidery capabilities. Just keep in mind that each machine will have a maximum embroidery area, such as 4″x4″, 5″x7″, 8″x12″ and larger.

Example of a Sewing and Embroidery Machine would be the Brother Sewing and Embroidery Machine SE425

I have never used a combination machine, so I don’t have a recommendation on this type of sewing machine.

Must-Have Features

Once you’ve determined what kind of sewing you’ll be doing, it’s time to think about the features that might be important to you or absolutely must-haves. Here are a few (in no particular order) to consider:

Work Space

One of the biggest differences between a standard sewing machine and a quilting machine is the amount of workspace on the machine. This work space, also referred to as the throat size refers to not only the length of the machine itself, but the distance between the machine body and sewing needle.

If you’re not going to be sewing quilts, blankets or big bulky projects, then the work space and throat size are of less importance to you. However, if you are planning to do quilting, this will be an important feature to consider.

Extension Table

An extension table provides even more workspace on your sewing machine. Extension tables are designed to fit snuggly up against your sewing machine. You may have to remove the accessory tray on your machine to attach the extension table, but the trade-off is a much larger workspace. Again, this isn’t as big an issue unless you’re planning on quilting or working on big bulky projects where having extra workspace is important.

Free Arm

The area under your sewing machine needle that houses the bobbin and feed dog should have an accessory tray that is removable, exposing an “arm” work surface. The free arm is a much narrower working surface and has space beneath it. When you’re sewing garment sections like sleeves or pant legs, the free arm allows you to slide the opening right around the free arm so that the fabric doesn’t get bunched up. Plus, it will keep you from accidentally sewing through layers of fabric when you didn’t want to. (Ask me how I know!)


Although there is no golden rule to go by when it comes to sewing machine stitches, you will want to make sure your sewing machine includes the following stitches. Keep in mind, you technically only need two stitches to sew well: a straight stitch and a zigzag stitch. The following stitches are some that I consider necessities in my sewing:

  • Straight Stitch – Check to make sure the straight stitch is adjustable from 0-5mm. The 0 setting allows you to lock stitches in place, while the 5mm stitch is perfect for basting and gathering.
  • ZigZag Stitch – The zigzag stitch should be adjustable in both length and width.
  • Buttonhole Stitch – Another basic feature to consider is the buttonhole stitch. Keep in mind that some machines will make buttonholes in one step or by literally pushing a button or two. While others may have a three or four-step process. If you’ll be sewing a lot of buttons or using buttonholes for other purposes, you’ll definitely want to consider a machine that makes buttonhole making effortless. If at all possible, try this stitch out before purchasing your machine.
  • Stretch or Knit Stitch – If you’ll be sewing with knits (anything with stretch), you’ll want to make sure your machine comes with the stretch and/or knit stitch. Although you can use the zigzag stitch with knits, the stretch and knit stitches just do such a better job.
  • Blind Hem Stitch – This stitch amazes me. It creates virtually invisible hems. Amazing, I tell you!

Automatic Needle Threader

Back in the day when I had better than 20/20 vision, threading a needle was not a big deal. Not all automatic needle threaders are equal. Some machines/brands do a better job than others. As you age, your eyesight is sure to be something to take into consideration. Or if you’re purchasing a sewing machine for an older adult or child, an automatic needle threader is a must-have.

Bobbin Placement

Sewing machines come with bobbin placement either front-loading or drop-in. Drop-in bobbins provide better stitch quality and are much easier to thread than front-loading. Drop-in bobbins are also made of clear plastic and allow you to see how much thread you have left.

Although I prefer a drop-in bobbin, there is something to be said about a front-loading bobbin. If you’re doing quilting or machine embroidery, it would certainly make it easier to change your bobbin in the middle of your project with a front-loading bobbin.

Needle Position Adjustment

Allows you to move the needle to the left or right – usually just by pushing a couple of buttons. This is great for sewing zippers or trim work close to edges.


Way back in the day, sewing machines were not equipped with lighting. Now, lighting is pretty standard. Some brands/models do a better job at providing adequate lighting. I can’t stress enough to you just how important good lighting is.

Automatic Thread Cutter

With an automatic thread cutter, all you have to do is push a button and the machine cuts the thread for you. I love this feature on my sewing machine. Again, you’ll want to test this feature, if possible.

Knee Lifter

If you’re going to be quilting, you’ll definitely want to consider a machine with a knee lifter. It allows you to lift the presser foot by pressing against the knee lifter bar with your knee. This keeps your hands free to hold on to or manipulate your fabric.

Warranty and Service

If you’re purchasing an inexpensive sewing machine, the warranty and having it serviced probably won’t be an issue for you. However, if you’re purchasing a sewing machine that is electronic or computerized or you’re spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on a sewing machine, you’ll definitely want to consider the warranty and service available.

This is one of the reasons that a lot of people recommend you purchase a sewing machine from a reputable local shop or sewing machine dealer. A quality dealer will help you to select the sewing machine that’s best for you. They also provide great service that will help to keep your machine operating at optimum. Plus, they often times offer free or low cost sewing classes that will help you get started on the right foot and continue to grow your sewing skills.

Sewing Machine Buying Guide Summary

I know I shared a lot of information in this blog post. But, what it really comes down to in considering what sewing machine to purchase is a couple of things: your budget and how you plan to use the sewing machine.

#1 – Consider How You’ll Use Your New Sewing Machine

If you just want to be able to sew some pillow cases and small projects, then look for features that will make it easy for you to do just that. You don’t really need a machine with all the bells and whistles. Plus, the more bells and whistles, the more complicated it will be to learn.

On the other hand, if you’re planning to do quilting or larger sewing projects, then do look for a quilting sewing machine. Once you know how you want to use your machine and have a budget in mind, it’s much easier to narrow down your options.

#2 – Choose Quality over Features

And, remember to choose quality over features. Don’t do like I did and just settle for whatever you can get your hands on. It will cause you to be frustrated and not enjoy your sewing journey as much as you had hoped or should.

#3 – Research & Get Help

I didn’t really mention this, but if you’re reading this blog post you’re already doing some of the research. Just do you research, ask lots of questions and don’t hesitate to get help. You’ll find help in a number of places and formats.

You can always contact me and I’ll be glad to answer questions and give you my best advice. You can watch YouTube videos. And you can attend classes in a local store even if you didn’t purchase your sewing machine from them.

And don’t forget to READ THE MANUFACTURER’S MANUAL; you’ll find lots of important information and sewing how-to in the instruction manual.

Download the Sewing Machine Buying Guide

To make it a little easier to read, I’ve created a PDF of this Sewing Machine Buying Guide that you can download for free! Simply click on the image below to access the Guide or click here.

Most downloads and free printables here on The Birch Cottage blog are available exclusively to subscribers. You can download this Guide without subscribing, but I’d love to have you subscribe! You can do so below:

Excerpts of three pages from the sewing machine buying guide

More Sewing Ideas

If you liked this sewing machine buying guide, you might also like these other sewing ideas from The Birch Cottage:

Good luck on your sewing journey!

Til next time…

Pam from The Birch Cottage

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