Buying your first sewing machine? Here’s my one piece of advice…

My gorgeous Singer 401G, first owned by my great-grandmother.

Apropos of Christmas gifting, a friend feeling ready to take the plunge, and a colleague fed up with disposable technology, I bring you this entirely unplanned article about sewing machine advice!

Questions about what to look for when buying sewing machines have come my way many, many times over the years. I was a bit surprised to discover that I haven’t written a blog post about this, so my one pointer, which I hope stands tall and evergreen, is:

DO NOT BUY A COMPUTERISED MACHINE

Here are five reasons why, in my humble-but-fairly-informed opinion, you should go for a completely mechanical sewing machine.

They are cheaper to service
Engineers charge more for servicing computerised machines. This is handy to know in the long run because a sewing machine is a long-term investment; you can expect to keep it in excellent condition for many years with the correct care and attention. It’s a bit like buying a cheap printer only to find that the consumables (i.e. cartridges) are eye-wateringly expensive. No matter what you pay upfront for your sewing machine, non-computerised ones are more economical to service and repair.

They are easier to maintain on a day-to-day basis
You can feel more confident that routine cleaning between projects is all that’s required to keep your sewing machine ticking over smoothly for years to come. There’s no worry about weird computer problems, and as mentioned, mechanical ones are relatively easy fixes. All it takes is a brush or soft cloth, oil and gentle effort to remove lint from the moving parts. Just be sure to use oil specifically for sewing machines, as others will be too heavy! These specialist oils are often thinned out with elements such as silicone for better lubrication. If you’ve bought an antique machine (manufactured up to the late 1960s or early-ish 1970s), have a look at this helpful article about cleaning and maintenance.

You can escape the planned obsolescence of computing
It’s a well-known fact (or badly kept secret) that most of today’s technology is either a) not built to last, or b) deliberately comes up short in the specifications somewhere so that one part fails whilst the others are still going strong. Combined, this is a tactic to get consumers to pay more, hoping to avoid this pitfall.
Home computers are a good – or terrible, depending on your view – example of this. Many manufacturers build in a slow processor or clock speed (measured in GHz) and skimp on RAM (short-term memory), but will happily give you oodles of storage space and lots of cores (brain cells). However, the 2TB of storage and quad-cores aren’t much cop if the computer takes a long time to process – or think about – any and all information. What use is a big powerful brain if it works so slowly? Nobody enjoys seeing the swirling circle of doom, but its presence is deliberate, and many people are left wondering what on earth they paid for.
A similar thing occurs with computerised sewing machines, which often come with lots of pretty decorative stitches. Unless you’re mad keen on embellishment or want to see if you can start a small business selling napkins and doilies, they’re useless to you. If you’re into sewing, you’ll be doing straight stitching 90% of the time, not watching automated leaves and flowers appear on your fabric. The remaining 10% of your sewing time will be taken up with buttonholes (a 4-step is best) and zigzag stitch for seam finishing options. Don’t pay for programmes you won’t use.
And if I’ve left you hanging with the home computer analogy, buy a clock speed as close to 4GHz as possible and make sure the RAM is no less than 8GB (buy 16GB if you can get it, I did and it’s superb). Specs like that help to vanquish the Swirling Circle of Doom. For additional context, it takes about 1GB of RAM to open Adobe Photoshop, so if you use powerful visual software like that your 8GB computer will begin to feel the strain once you really get going and the layers build up.

Less automation = more control
One of the so-called USPs about computerised machines is not having to worry about things like stitch tension and presser foot pressure. The machine magically knows everything about the fabric being stitched and will adjust accordingly; you barely even have to guide the fabric with your hands, if you’re really lucky. SNORT. No sewing machine is that sentient! A computerised one may well be fine within a narrow range of fabrics (cotton lawn or cotton poplin is usually a benchmark), but if you decide to work with silks or thick coating fabrics you might come unstuck – and you will often find out the hard way. By then, it’ll be too late for an exchange or refund. Before you fall over yourself at the range of automatic features, think carefully about what you might be giving up and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Good, kind salespeople will answer them all and give excellent advice based on experience. And don’t forget fabric shop owners! They are a font of knowledge too.

More confidence in the long run
Learning properly about the functionality of sewing machines will do wonders for your confidence and you’ll be better at troubleshooting. By manually adjusting the settings, you can see the effect of each change upon the fabric you’re using and build up a bank of knowledge about which settings will be best for which fabric. You can test out the recommendations and see what works for you as a sewing machine user; how much you need to adjust the presser foot pressure for thick layers of coating fabric as opposed to a seam in silk crepe. There are many hints and tips about finishing techniques, but you will get the most out of them if you get to know your machine inside out and back to front. This mastery will serve you well in the long run and the resulting independence will mean fewer panicked visits to Google or YouTube in the middle of a project.

So that’s it from me! A snappily-written, opinionated-but-well-intended article about sewing machine advice. The last thing to mention is that I have absolutely no connection with any of the sewing machine manufacturers, hence the absence of affiliate links or recommended models. What I do hope is that you’ll take the essence of what I’ve written here with you when you go shopping for your sewing machine – it can be applied to any brand, so you can look at all of them to see what’s best for you. All the very best with your search 🙂

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