The Quilter’s Toolbox – Sewing Machine 

By  Karen

Once I started working at my first "Quilt" Fabric Store, I established in my mind I wanted to be a quilter. What I hadn't established was how expensive this hobby is and what tools I needed to purchase. I was overwhelmed. This is a natural part of starting any new hobby.

Quilting is expensive. However, by shopping sales and shopping smart and adding tools a little at a time, the breakdown becomes more manageable and that overwhelmed feeling can go away.

What do you need if you want to start sewing or quilting?
First, you need a sewing machine. I have very strong opinions about that and I am sure you will find many veteran and professional quilters that have strong opinions as well. One major point we will all agree on is do not purchase your sewing machine from the Big Box or discount stores. Why? There is no one there to teach you the basics of how to maintain, thread, wind a bobbin, and generally run your machine. (Check out my how to video to learn the basics).

I used to sell machines for a large dealer in Southern California. The brands I sold were, Brother, Babylock, Janome and Pfaff (that is pronounced Fahf). I loved features of each one of them. I often found myself saying "if they could take this feature from this machine and put it on this brand, they would have the perfect machine."

I found the Brother and Babylock machines to be the most intuitive and easiest machines to learn. In fact, all three of my daughters own and sew on Brother machines. I however, chose the Pfaff. There were several reasons but the more I do precision piecing, the more I love the IDT feature (that stands for Integrated Dual Feed).

It doesn't matter which brand you chose. What matters is that you figure out your budget, what features you need and if there are any features you want. You can usually find a very basic, mechanical machine that has a straight stitch, zig zag and maybe a couple of other stitches for not very much money. You DO want to make sure it has a strong enough motor to handle the types of fabrics you will be sewing. If you are sewing mostly cottons it won't matter too much. Just make sure the machine isn't so lightweight it bounces as you sew. If you are sewing with a lot of canvas or upholstery weight fabric, you want a more heavy duty type machine.

Believe it or not, you will be told that certain brands are better than the other brands because, well, the sales associate wants a sale. You will be told things like, "That brand is all plastic". Or, "That machine doesn't have a very good warranty". Truth be told, when you get down to the nuts and bolts of all machines, they run very similarly and have similar parts. When you open the machine up and remove the housing, the parts that need to be metal, such as the frame, are made of metal. There are a lot of other parts that are metal as well as silicone and plastics.
Do you remember lifting grandma's old machine? Probably not because they were bolted into a table. If you did lift one, they usually came in over 30 lbs. Some of the machines available today come in just under 15 lbs. Perfect for taking to a quilting class, retreat or cruise. So, don't buy that line about the other brand being made of plastic. All manufacturers use plastic in order to make these machines easier to move around in our mobile society. Bonus, the plastics used by the manufacturers are the same plastics used in your cars, football helmets and the space shuttle.

Warranties are very important. My experience selling several brands was that the warranties were usually very similar: 2 Years parts and labor, 6 years electronics, 25 year on the chassis. Those are pretty standard warranty items on your sewing machine. Check each warranty because even warranties change within brands depending on how expensive a machine is to purchase. 

Another spoiler alert: While there are many brands of sewing machines, there aren't that many manufacturers. Example: Brother makes Babylock. What? Yup, there is no difference so don't think that one is better than the other here. If you have a Brother embroidery machine, lucky you because you also get to do Disney embroidery designs. No other machine can do those designs legally. Also, Janome (formerly New Home) makes Elna, Necchi and others. Oh, and Singer isn't the Singer your mom or grandmother sewed on. That company has been bought and sold and only the Logo is the same. The company that makes Singer machines, aka SVP also makes Husqvarna Viking and Pfaff (Singer, Viking, Pfaff - SVP)
So, now you know the secrets.

All that is left for you is to narrow down the features you are looking for. I have listed my favorite ones:
  1. Ease of use - how long to figure out where all the buttons or icons are and what they do.
  2. Stitches - what are the basic stitches and how many of those decorative/embroidery stitches will you really need or want?
  3. Mechanical or computerized - personally I like computerized. The more things the machine can do for me the easier and more enjoyable my sewing/quilting experience will be.
  4. How easy to wind a bobbin and then load a bobbin
  5. Ease of threading - does it have a needle threader? Yes, you can have a machine thread that needle so you don't have to rely on those magnifying glasses to see the eye.
  6. Speed control - you can now set how fast the machine will sew no matter how firmly you push the foot control down. That allows you to have more control over the project you are sewing and allows you to build your confidence without worrying the machine will go super fast while you are still at super slow speed.
  7. How many accessory feet and what to they do? you should at least have a straight stitch foot, buttonhole foot, blind hem foot; and if you are going to be quilting, 1/4 inch foot, walking foot (unless you have a Pfaff) and a free motion quilting foot. 
  8. My favorite feature that I must have on a machine these days is a cutting feature. What? the machine will cut my threads with the push of a button or the preset of an icon? YES!
There are other things that you can get with your machine. Many have optional extension tables, extra feet for fancy sewing techniques and other notions that can be included with special promotions. Try to negotiate some of those things at time of purchase.

Decide on the features you want. Visit the websites for the brands you think you are interested in and then go down to the dealer. Yes, your local dealers are your best option to get the best machines at the best prices, and sew on the machines you are interested in. 

The sales person has a demo to show you the features of each machine, but you should ultimately sew on the machine. Bring in the fabrics you sew on and ask if you can sew on the machine using your fabrics. That shouldn't be an issue if the dealer wants you to be happy. You wouldn't buy a car without a test drive so do the same with your machine.

Even though they all work about the same, they all don't handle fabric the same way or have the same features. You should look at several dealers and compare the stitches and how easy the fabric moves through the feed dogs. Where is the presser foot lifter? How easy is it to change the presser feet? Wind a bobbin, thread the machine. Do as much as you can while you are at the dealer with the sales associate there to help you.

That reminds me, make sure you can take guide classes so you know how to use your machine. And also make sure they let you take them more than one time. You won't remember everything the first go around.

This is an important investment. The sewing machine you chose will bring you hours of enjoyment and, let's be honest, hours of frustration as well. It is inevitable as you learn to sew and improve your skills. As a pianist and piano teacher, I can attest to the hours of practice needed to learn new skills and they are not always enjoyable, but the final product is. Therefore, purchase the best machine you can afford. Technology is so wonderful on today's sewing machines. Don't let it intimidate you and be ready for hours of fun. It is therapeutic and rewarding.

Oh, speaking of purchasing that machine. A little hint, the best times to purchase a machine are at an event, show, or county fair. Check out events with your local dealers. Many will have several events a year where you get to have hands on experience, learn a new technique and purchase a machine at a great price with lots of show specials added. 

Special events are craft  and quilt shows. I purchased my most recent machine at HMQS (Home Machine Quilt Show). I got a much better deal there than when I visited the store a few weeks before the show. I even drove over 3 hours from where I lived to get that deal. It was worth it. Just be patient and watch for shows that are near you.

The last is the County or State Fair.  When I sold machines, I worked the L.A. County fair for 5 weeks. All machine dealers were located in one area pretty close to each other. The dealer I worked for was only authorized to sell 2 of the brands he normally carried in his store. That left at least 4 other dealers either right next to us, or around the corner. That makes for even easier comparison shopping, and maybe even deal making. 

If you do your homework first, you will know what you want and can get a great deal price wise at the fair. Overhead is reduced so the prices are reduced. It's a win win for you and the dealer. Bonus - if you wait until the last 2 days of the fair, you can get am even bigger discount.

Like I said, it doesn't matter what brand. They all work similarly, so you get to find the one you like best. Whether it is Bernina, Pfaff, Brother, Janome, Babylock etc. you decide on your favorite. Buy the best one you can afford with the features you need or want. Have fun and if you have questions, please let me know. I am happy to help 


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About the Author

I love crafts in many forms and the freedom to indulge when I please. I really enjoy teaching them as well. My greatest joy happens when I see someone else succeed with something I taught them. I love teaching. I love quilting. I love life.

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