Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Buying a Sewing Machine: a primer for the overwhelmed and under-experienced

Whether you’re buying a holiday gift for a budding fashion enthusiast, outfitting one your kids for the years away at college, or setting yourself up for a new or resurgent pastime, here are some tips for making a painless purchase and a sound investment.

Who is using the machine?

The features of the machine need to be ones that are important to the user of the machine, not necessarily the buyer. For example, a 12 year old does not have the experience of controlling acceleration with a foot pedal, as all adult drivers of cars find second-nature. One feature some machines have is a control to adjust the maximum speed of the needle. No matter how hard you press the pedal, the needle speed will not go any faster than what you set it for.
Likewise, who will need to learn to operate the machine, and who will maintain it? Although sewing machines can be purchased from lots of places; a sewing machine shop or dealership, a big-box store, online, or from an individual, it’s best to set yourself up for success in terms of correct operation and maintenance.
Unless you’re intimately familiar with sewing machines already, and can troubleshoot , adjust, and repair one yourself, you’ll definitely either want to purchase it from a place that offers support, service, warranties and advice, or know where you can go for lessons (sewBoise) and service (Johnson’s Sewing Center).

What for?

It makes a difference what someone’s main sewing projects will be as to what features will be useful, and what level of quality can be produced by a certain machine. Many sewing machines come with hundreds, or even thousands of decorative stitches. To someone who does machine quilting, that’s a fantastic feature, but of the 100 stitches available on my Bernina, I use 4. Decorative stitches are of no use to me, because I sew almost entirely on garments. The features that are critical to me are a quality straight stitch, adjustability in my needle position and stitch length, and workhorse innards that will hold up to my many hours of sewing every single day. I also appreciate features like good visibility (which can be accomplished with after-market presser feet), a knee lift for hands-free presser-foot lifting, an upper feed dog for moving unfriendly material through the machine, a nice machine buttonhole, and an alarm that sounds when my bobbin gets low. Unless you are me, the features you care about most aren’t likely identical. Sure, everyone needs a quality straight stitch, but does anyone NEED a bobbin alarm? No. Just pay attention.
New sewists won’t know what features they like until they have experienced some of them. Go to a sewing machine dealership and test drive different models with common fabrics and projects to you. It’s important that you test the machine with the actual fabrics you’ll most frequently be using. A machine that is great on 2 layers of cotton might not be the best for sewing nylon webbing to a backpack or doing a narrow hem on silk chiffon (though the correct needle and thread combination and the right presser foot certainly come in to play as well). Don’t be shy about bringing samples into the store. A reputable dealer will happily demonstrate and let you test several machines.

What’s your budget?

Though there are always “deals” to be had, you should resist the lure of a “bargain” and buy the best sewing machine you can afford. 
The following analogies and cautionary tales are intended to warn you of the hazards of buying a sewing machine based on price alone.  A very common, unhappy decision is to buy a cheap machine at a big-box craft store or online. What can be purchased for $99 at these merchants is best described as a toy sewing machine. It looks like a sewing machine, but won’t act like one.
The better your tools are, the more enjoyable your work will be, and the better the result. Our couture instructor, Barbie, puts it this way, “Can you make dinner with an EZ Bake Oven? Certainly. But it’ll take forever, it’ll be smaller than you want it to be, and it probably won’t turn out as well as if you used a full-sized oven and an actual pan instead of a light bulb and miniature spatula.” 

sewBoise’s resident gentleman sewist, Frank, shares this anecdote about buying his first sewing machine.
One experience that is sometimes hard to appreciate second-hand, is the difference ease-of-use makes. I remember when I purchased my first sewing machine, I had pretty much decided against the model that was on the high end of my budget and had decided on a less-expensive machine that I was assured would give me the same high stitch quality. The (quilting store/machine dealership)  I was shopping at encouraged me to take a class there so I could use both machines before making my final decision. I used the more expensive machine first, and sat next to a lady that was using the machine I had planned to buy. During the first few activities of winding the bobbin and threading the machine, I noticed how hard every step was for her, and how easy it was on the machine I was using. Throughout that entire class I continued to notice the same thing…everything took so much extra work for her, and required help from the instructor. On my machine, everything was so intuitive and easy. Despite the higher price tag, it was clear to me after that night that I was going to buy the machine I used in class. I knew I was not going to appreciate having to learn all the special information needed to operate the cheaper model.

 All of this extra time, work and special knowledge is something that can impact how much you enjoy sewing. The frustration of a poorly engineered and designed machine can be enough to turn a new sewer away from sewing altogether.

Now that you’re fully preached to, let’s talk numbers.

The machines we use in the classroom at sewBoise are the Brother Innovis-40 model (Project Runway Edition). They’re a good middle-of-the-road machine. We find them adequate for most tasks and most fabrics, they have a good repair record, are incredibly user-friendly, and have a couple of invaluable features (like speed control and multiple needle positions). This machine costs about $400.
$400 is a pretty significant investment, especially if you suspect the machine’s recipient may not stick with sewing as a primary activity, but I again urge you to consider how much more enjoyable sewing on a good machine is than sewing on a bad one. It’s also true that a decent machine holds its value much better than a cheaply manufactured machine. Should the hobby fall by the wayside, a good machine can always be consigned at a dealership (yes, many take trade-ins, just like cars), or sold on craigslist. There is always a market for good, used sewing machines – and the only place suitable for a crappy, disposable machine when you’re done being frustrated by it is the landfill…and you have to pay to put it in there.
Obviously, even though a $99 Singer is no substitute for a $400 Brother, many budgets place a brand new sewing machine of quality out of reach. For those with a budget under $200, we highly recommend a quality used machine over a new machine. Again, try machine dealerships where people are trading-in and upgrading. If you are a savvy garage sale or craigslist shopper, have at it! Ask to test-drive the machine before you buy and have it looked over and tuned up by a reputable technician.
We always recommend Vern Johnson and Johnson’s Sewing Center in Nampa as a machine-shopping and machine-repair destination. Vern and his wife Teresa are friendly, honest and pretty much know everything about sewing machines and accessories. Their shop carries new and used machines, sells on consignment, and Vern is the repair and maintenance man for the entire sewBoise staff (I think there are over 35 sewing machines across 9 brands among us). 

If you’d like more specific advice about brands and models, we’re happy to help you at sewBoise, though we’ve obviously not had experience with EVERY machine out there. Give us a call or e-mail, or pop by when we’re open. Best of luck with your sewing machine shopping! You’re probably still overwhelmed, but at least now you’re (over) informed.

Happy Hollidays!