A Quick Guide to Buying Your First Sewing Machine

Sewing machines look complicated, don’t they? And the prices can range from under $100 to thousands of dollars. Buying your first sewing machine can be a confusing and frustrating experience, but this guide will help you in selecting a machine that will do all the things you need it to do – and without making a huge investment.

A guide to buying your first sewing machine

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I used two of my machines for the photos in this article – the Juki HZL-27Z (the updated model is the HZL-29Z) and the Singer Stylist (the updated model is the Singer Sew Mate 5400). The Juki is a very basic machine, and is the one I use on a daily basis. The Stylist has more features – as in 100 different stitches! Either machine is great for a beginner.

Three basic sewing machine functions you need

With the absolute minimum features of sewing forward & backward,

a zigzag stitch,

and the ability to make a buttonhole,

you will have everything you need to make your own wardrobe, clothes and costumes for the kids, gifts, and home décor items like curtains and pillows. 

You can get a decent, basic sewing machine like this for around $125-$190. 

Features to look for

So let’s go over what to look for, since each brand and model is a little different.

Zigzag stitch

Most machines will have this feature, but be sure to check.

If you have a very old machine that you are thinking of using, it may not be able to do this stitch, which is crucial for the next “must have” feature.

Some machines will have a dial or knob to adjust the width of the zigzag stitch, and others will be computerized, where you press a button for the size of the stitch. Either method works fine, so don’t base your buying decision on the method for this stitch.

A manual stitch dial on a sewing machine
Manual stitch selection dial

Buttonhole making

In order to make a machine-stitched buttonhole, your sewing machine has to have a zigzag stitch. 

A buttonhole is made up of 4 rows of tightly spaced zigzag stitches, but the method of making those rows varies from machine to machine. One method is a knob, dial or switch marked with steps 1-4 of the process. I have a few machines that use this method, and the machine that I use on a daily basis (the Juki) is also like this.

Stitch selection on a computerized sewing machine
Stitch and buttonhole selection on a computerized machine

Another method is one where you take the button that you need the buttonhole for, and place it into an adjustable holder at the back of the buttonhole foot. 

Once you start making the buttonhole, the machine will automatically make it to the size to fit the button. Pretty cool, huh? 

One of the drawbacks though is that sometimes the button pops out of the holder, and messes up the size of the buttonhole if you don’t notice that the button has moved. Another thing to keep in mind with this method is that some buttons will be difficult to fit into the slider – for example geometric-shaped buttons like a triangle or an oval.

Free arm

If you have a choice between free arm or not – go with the free arm! Machines with this feature have a piece that you can remove that makes it easier to hem tricky cuffs and pant legs.

The machine piece that pops off is usually the part that has the little accessory drawer in it. Some are a little harder to remove, so if you are in a store where you can try it out, you might want to do that. Don’t worry if you can’t try it out though – with a little tugging, it will come off! Also, you won’t be using this feature a lot, but it sure is nice to have when you need it.

Computerized sewing machine with a free arm
Free arm sewing machine

Bobbin case placement

The bobbin case is the part of the machine that holds the bobbin. 

There are two styles – top-load/drop in and front-loading. 

I happen to prefer top-load drop in with the clear plastic window, so I can see how much bobbin thread is left. It never fails that the bobbin runs out of thread in the middle of a long seam, so it is a handy feature when you want a quick glance to see how much thread is left on the bobbin. I also find it much easier to load the bobbin from the top.

Close up of a sewing machine's front loading bobbin case
Front loading bobbin
A sewing machine with a drop in bobbin
Drop-in bobbin

That’s it for the basics!

If you are just getting started with sewing, you really don’t need much else. Of course there are other features that are in the “nice to have” list – a stretch stitch for working with knit fabrics (when you have a little more experience) and also a seam finishing stitch that does a “mock overlock” for keeping seam allowances from unraveling. That can be done with the zigzag while you are learning, and when you get serious about making clothes, I recommend that you invest in a serger.

My recommendations:

And if you think you would like a serger, I have the Juki MO644D Portable Serger.

When you get your new machine, it should come with a seam ripper, a few bobbins and maybe a few different sewing feet. 

For other supplies that you will need, I’ve discussed them here: 15 Essential Sewing Supplies

Hopefully, this has made shopping for your first sewing machine a little easier!  Just remember to:

  1. Unpack and inspect the sewing machine ASAP
  2. Read the owner’s manual
  3. Start sewing and have fun!
15 sewing supplies that are essential for anyone who sews
How to Finish Seams
Restoring a vintage sewing machine

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