This post is part of the series Learning to Sew
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If you want to learn to sew, it is ideal to own a sewing machine. I emphasized that when learning to sew, it could be a very simple machine. Let me reiterate again, you do not need a fancy machine to be an amazing sewer. Your sewing skill set will not immediately become star level when you get that magical dream sewing machine. Your skill set will only improve with practice and familiarity. We are going to stick with the basic sewing machine features. Personally, I do not use every single decorative stitch on my sewing machine and I would rather have other features instead. Do not let the awe and wonder of all the fancy features make you lose sight of your intentions and desires – to learn to sew.
This is a follow up post to: I want to learn to sew, where do I start? In that post, I broke down a list of the basic items that are needed to easily learn to sew. I felt that while I touched on each of the items, some people might benefit from further information, recommendations, and product suggestions. These are by no means the only products endorsed. In fact, I would not call them screaming endorsements at all. The products you will find featured here are products that I personally own, have personally used, or have discovered while researching options. Do not be afraid to do your own research.
Sewing Machine Feature Variety
Sewing machines come in a variety of styles and price ranges. Each brand and model will feature different sewing machine features. You are welcome to spend as little or as much as your budget allows. Set a budget before you go shopping. Do some research about what is available and then set your budget and go shopping even if it means you have to wait a little bit longer. Just plan for the purchase and it does not have to become a burden.
A working sewing machine is better than nothing
Please note that I am in no way encouraging anyone that owns a sewing machine currently to go out and buy a brand new machine. Let your budget decide what is best for your personal needs and wants. However, I do not feel that you need to buy a new sewing machine if you already have a working sewing machine. Even limited sewing machine features will allow you to get started on your learning to sew adventures. The best sewing machine is a working machine.
Mechanical vs Electronic Sewing Machine
While sewing machines come in a variety of styles, they all stem off the basics or being either mechanical or electronic/computerized. Note that I am combining the electronic and computer machines into the same “lump category” for simplification reasons. The difference comes in with what causes the machine to do its thing. Many basic sewing machines are, in fact, mechanical machines. There are pros and cons to each type of machine. You just have to compare and decide what you feel will be the best fit.
Your older and/or vintage machines were mechanical machines. Do keep in mind, however, that computerized/electronic sewing machines have been around for well over 35 years at this point. Age is not an accurate determination for if your machine whether it be new from the box or simply new to you.
If the sewing machine has knobs, dials, or levers to adjust settings on the device, the chances are that it is in fact a mechanical machine. These machines are typically easy to maintain as there is simply less that can go wrong with them. They do not have the fancy computer boards and circuits integrated into them thus their maintenance and repairs often come at a lower price point. Mechanical machines are often slim on sewing machine features, but they often perform sewing tasks like a heavy-duty workhorse. They are designed to get the job done.
If a sewing machine, has an LCD panel, it is a good indication that it is an electronic machine. These are largely automatic and can offer a more precise sewing result as the settings will be always be set correctly to create the plethora of stitch options. The number of tasks that the machine automatically does for you, is largely dependent on the amount of money you are willing or wanting to spend. The higher the price point, the higher the number of built-in automatic features.
You personally will have to make your choice based on what you intend to sew. Think about what kind of sewing you will be doing. Are you ever going to sew with more than a straight stitch? Will you ever use a zig zag? Make a list of what is important for your intended sewing tasks.
Many machines manufactured today are not made the way they were 10, 20, or even 50-100 years ago. Newer machines are often made with more plastic parts. This is a feature that many people do not like. I have learned to appreciate it to some degree. Unfortunately, if you are sewing heavier materials or excessive layers, the machine with plastic gears and parts may not be considered “heavy duty” enough to get the job done efficiently. This is why it is important to have some idea of what you will be making with the machine.
Check out the article: Three of the Best Mechanical Sewing Machines for a further comparison of mechanical machines. I am not payed to send you to this article, I just felt that it was timely and informational about what experts are considering the best rated machines for consumers.
Available Sewing Machine Features
Now that we know machines are either mechanical or electronic, we can talk about the various features that are available on the machines. Please note that this article was not intended to be 100% all inclusive. I will touch on the most frequently sought after features available on the market today. Picking a sewing machine is like picking a car – it needs to fit you, the driver. Buy what you need/want, not what your friend finds the neatest or uses most frequently. Your mileage may vary largely from your friend.
Sewing machine features include (in no particular order):
- Bobbin winder
- Thread cutter (automatic vs manual)
- Needle threader (automatic, semi-automatic, manual)
- LCD panel/screen
- Start/Stop button
- Knee lift
- Working space (throat/harp space)
- Decorative stitches
- Automatic buttonholes
- Walking foot availability
- Pressure foot adjustments
- Feed dog adjustments
- Utility stitches
- Embroidery capabilities
- Speed control
- Drop-in bobbins
- Maximum stitch length
- Maximum stitch width
- Number of stitches per minute (speed)
- Automatic thread tension
Be sure to check out this article: “We Review the Best Sewing Machines for Sewers of ANY Skill Level” for a comparison chart of a variety of machines that were tested/compared in 2018.
If you do any amount of sewing, you will want an efficient bobbin winder. Not all bobbin winders are created equally. The one that is on your machine is usually the one set/adjusted to correctly load the bobbin with the correct amount of density. I have heard very mixed reviews on consumer grade, stand alone bobbin winding devices. It is my opinion that you should learn the nuances of your machine’s bobbin winder and make the most of it. These stand alone devices are available, however. They come in handy if your machine’s automatic bobbin winder ever stops working.
Most lower end consumer machines, however, you are going to have to stop where you are on your project to wind bobbins if you did not wind an adequate number before starting your project. This is just an inconvenience in my opinion. I do own a machine that has a separate motor mechanism built in just to wind bobbins with. It is independent from the actual sewing motor. It is a very nice feature. Incidentally, this is not my primary sewing machine.
Thread cutter (automatic vs manual)
If you are sewing, you are going to have to cut your thread. Most machines come with a small, built-in thread cutter on either the back or side of the machine. It is placed their for convenience. This does not mean that convenience is a one size fits all thing for every sewer out there. If it is not in an ideal spot, look for a different machine or perhaps find other ways to cope.
I like to keep small scissors next to my sewing machine. I find it easier to use over the thread cutter. I feel that the thread length is too short for my liking sometimes. I do use mine on both machines. I do not use it all the time.
These thread cutters can be automatic or manual. Your machine may utilize both an automatic and a manual thread cutter.
The automatic thread cutter is pretty awesome if I do say so myself. When you are done sewing, you simply push a button, and the machine does its thing and clips off the thread allowing you to remove your work from the machine without any further stress. Please note that not all automatic thread cutters are created equally. On my machine that does have one built-in, it only cuts the bobbin thread and leaves the needle thread in tact. Make sure you read up on the automatic thread cutter feature on your choice of machine before purchasing.
A manual thread cutter is usually nothing more than a little bracket that has a little razor blade safely protected away from little fingers. You just pull the thread up and through the little bracket and up against the razor. This cuts your thread.
Needle threader (automatic, semi-automatic, manual)
Take the needle threader with a glass of apple cider vinegar in most instances. Many machines state that they have an “automatic needle threader” only to find out that it is not really automatic at all. You still have to physically thread the machine. The only thing that they have going for them is that they do “automate” the process of getting the thread through the eye of the needle. It is not automated in the sense that most of us would expect when reading the word “automatic.” It is simply you feeding the thread through a hard to reach little hook that then pulls the thread through the eye of the needle. This is assuming that it works the first time. I don’t know about some of you, but my eye sight has been decreasing for years. Seeing that microscopic hook is near impossible sometimes.
If you are lucky enough to get a machine that truly does have an automatic threader, count your lucky stars! These are a dream. Well, they are a dream when the work every time. In my experience, this is not always the case. Most of the time this is an added bonus feature and a very nice one to have especially if your eyesight is not what it used to be. The truly automated threaders will take your thread and feed it where it needs to go and stick that end right through the eye of the needle leaving you to wonder how you ever lived without one before.
If this is something that is important to you, then you need to be prepared to do a lot of research and ultimately pay for the feature.
I personally have opted for a third party, external threading tool. I will feature it in a product review in the near future. Keep your eyes open for this review.
The LCD panel/screen needs to be easy to read. It is that simple. If you cannot read it, it does you know good. Most of the electronic and/or computerized sewing machines have all the settings for the stitch selected right in that little LCD panel. If you can’t read it, you have no idea what you are going to get when you actually sew.
Some machines have the ability to start and stop the sewing action by simply pushing a button. This is super nice if you suffer from a lower body handicap or if you are injured and are unable to use the machine pedal efficiently.
I personally prefer the control that I get by using the foot pedal. That is a personal preference. I have used the push button on occasion. Not often. This would be more useful on a machine that has an attached embroidery unit, however. It has its use cases. It is just not one that I use a whole lot.
The knee lift is a feature that is not readily available on many introductory machines. It is a nice feature if your hands are full or you have a handicap of some form. The knee lift simply allows you to lift the presser foot of the machine by pushing on a lever attached to the sewing machine. The lever usually hangs down under the table at knee height, hence “knee lift.”
Working space (throat/harp space)
The working space on a sewing machine is referred to as a variety of terms. The most common are: working space, throat, or harp. Whatever you call it, know what you intend to sew with the machine before making a final decision. Large projects are going to call for a larger working space. Smaller projects will work with your typical introductory machine regardless of the size of the working space. There are a variety of options.
A common misconception is that larger is better. Yes and no. For some projects it is just simply overkill. For some projects the smaller working spaces will leave you dreaming of more. This does not necessarily mean that you need more, it just means that you have this feeling that it would be easier or better if you did have a larger working space.
Your typical introductory machine is going to have a working space that is 5-7″ to the right of the needle with a height of 4-6″ below the top of the machine’s opening to the bottom of the opening. There are some machines that have openings that are 9″ wide and 6-8″ tall. These are nice machines but you are usually going to pay a premium for them. The larger the working space, the more premium the price tag in most cases.
When a machine states that it has 130 stitches, these stitches often have different purposes – utility, decorative, etc. The utility stitches can cross over into the decorative category, however, typically a utility stitch is used in the construction of a garment or other item.
Decorative stitches are intended for decorative purposes. They can be used in some construction, but their construction use will be limited. They are most useful in the finishing touches on the garment or item.
In my opinion, an automatic buttonhole stitch is an amazing use of a sewing machine. It takes all the stress and fuss out of putting in buttonholes on a garment. You do not need 14+ different buttonhole options, however, each one has a different look and use case. If your machines with the ability to do just 1 buttonhole option, it is a good feature to have. The average number of buttonhole stitches available on your introductory sewing machines is between 5 and 9. Make sure the machine comes with a buttonhole foot in the box or research the cost of the buttonhole foot before purchasing. Sometimes these utility feet can be a bit costly. If the price difference between two machines is less than the cost of the foot, opt to spend for the machine that comes with the desired foot.
Walking foot availability
A walking foot is often the saving grace of the machine. The foot is designed to work with your feed dogs on the machine. It helps to pull the top and bottom layers of fabric under the sewing machine needle evenly. This is especially useful if you are sewing on a slicker fabric which can creep.
I will be honest, I miss the built-in walking foot of my old trusty dusty Pfaff sewing machine. It was something I should have appreciated more while the machine was still alive and working. I had the built-in walking foot on the Pfaff engaged most of the time. Fast forward to today where I rarely use the walking foot on my brother machine. Personally I feel that it is bulky and clunky. Not only that, but it slows down my machines overall stitches per minute. The faster I sew, the louder the machine is. I do not put it on the machine unless I have to.
That being said, however, I would not buy a machine that did not include one in the box if I was purchasing new. This foot can be quite expensive. Again, I reiterate that you should research the cost of this foot if you were to buy it separately. It would be a foot that I would expect in the box with the machine. It can be expensive. If the difference between two machines that you are considering is less than the out of the box purchase price of the foot, opt for the machine that includes the foot.
Pressure foot adjustments
The ability to adjust the pressure on the pressure foot is very nice. It is not a deal breaker for me. Often using the walking foot will improve the ability to pull fabrics through the machine. However, this feature allows you to apply more pressure with the pressure foot if you are sewing thinner fabrics for example. Or counter that, lower the amount of pressure if you are sewing heavier, thicker, or bulkier fabrics.
Unfortunately, many introductory machines do not come with this feature. For me, personally, it has not been a problem most of the time.
Feed dog adjustments
There are some things that you will sew that you may need to drop the feed dogs on the machine. This is especially true if you are trying to “free motion quilt.” Not all machines allow you to simply flip a switch to raise or lower the feed dogs on the machine. There are work around options for this.
Your machine may come with any number of built in stitches – utility and decorative.
These stitches have utilitarian names most of the time – straight stitch, zig zag stitch, basting stitch, stretch stitch, overcast stitch, just to name a few. Their names may vary from brand to brand, but in general they will have a similar name and function across the board.
Here is a great PDF of the various utility stitches that are available on many Hursqvarna Viking sewing machines – Stitch Table – Utility Stitches. This is a table of utility stitches available on the Hursqvarna Viking Opal 690Q machine specifically.
Not all machines are embroidery machines. If you are specifically looking for a machine that does embroidery designs, you need to make sure that it is embroidery compatible and comes with the required embroidery unit that attaches to the machine. Do not confuse the introductory level machine’s ability to do basic embroidered lettering. In most cases, this is basic lettering and usually not very big. Often they do not even do it well. Your use case will be fairly limited. Buy an embroidery machine if you want that capability.
One of the most important sewing machine features for beginner sewers, especially the younger age group, is the ability to control the sewing machine’s sewing speed. It may not be necessary on a machine with a lower stitch per minute rate, however, many beginner sewers have problems coordinating their foot pressure on the pedal with their hands. These sewers tend to be very heavy footed, especially your younger (child) sewers, but this sewing machine feature simply allows you to set the speed at a snail’s pace. Even if you push the pedal to the floor, you are only going to sew as fast as the machine is set for. I love this feature when I am doing some decorative stitches. With some stitches, the faster they are sewn, the more distorted they become but slowing down the machine prevents this distortion from happening.
I try not to have an opinion on what bobbin type a sewing machine uses. They come in two different materials – plastic or metal. The basic consumer machine can have two different ways to load the bobbin into the machine – front loading or drop-in. No matter which one your machine comes with, learn to load the bobbin through repeating the process frequently.
From an ease of use stand point, a drop-in bobbin is best. This is great for children that are learning to sew. It is also great for people who have arthritis or limited movement of their fingers. Most of the drop-in bobbins are made of plastic. I cannot recall any machines that use a metal bobbin in the drop-in set-up. I may be wrong, but this is my experience.
When you purchase bobbins, make sure they are specifically for your machine. Do not buy a metal bobbin if your machine came with plastic bobbins. The machine was designed to be used with plastic machines. Contact the manufacturer directly if you are interested in possible compatibility of metal vs plastic bobbins in your specific machine.
Maximum stitch length
Every brand of sewing machine allows you to lengthen or shorten the stitch. There are reasons you might want to do either. The limitations are often with just how long or short you can make that stitch and end up with a quality result.
I confess that I miss the longer stitch length of my old Pfaff sewing machine. The stitch length on my Brother sewing machine is shorter overall. This may not seem important in the grand scheme of things, but if you are used to using a certain length of stitch for basting items together or for gathering, it takes a bit of adjustment.
The average machine will do a stitch length between 0-5mm.
Maximum stitch width
The width of the stitch on your sewing machine will be limited largely by the foot you are using. Just because the stitch goes all the way to maximum stitch width, it does not mean that the foot that is best to use with this particular stitch will allow you to use the stitch at the maximum width. Some stitches get distorted the larger they are. Some of this will require trial and error on your part to discover which settings are best for your personal use case.
The average machine will do a stitch width between 0-7mm.
Number of stitches per minute (speed)
The higher the stitches per minute, the faster the machine is capable of sewing. This does not mean that you as the user will have better results. Some machines sew faster than the user is capable of keeping straight and this is where “speed control” features help. You can grow into a faster machine with practice working with different materials and patterns.
My preference is for machines that have between 750-950 stitches per minute for your beginner sewer. I encourage speed control on any machine that a child will use. I have one machine that is between 950 SPM and another that is at about 1600 SPM. They each have their use case. My every day sewing is done on the slower machine. I would love to have a faster machine, however, it is not something that would cause me to replace a perfectly sound and working machine to get the faster speeds.
Automatic thread tension
Some machines come with automatic thread tension. This means that the machine will automatically detect what the tension should be based on certain sewing conditions. It is a dream feature. The tension on an introductory sewing machine is not hard to set or adjust.
Research and Compare Sewing Machine Features
This was not intended to be all inclusive, it is only a general overview and intended to help you understand the different options available on machines on the market today. I hope that this list of sewing machine features should help you determine which needed by you as an individual based on your circumstances. Based on what you are planning on using your sewing machine for, this should be your primary guide to determine what you need vs what you want.
Remember that the more sewing machine features there are, the higher the price of the machine. If you buy a machine purely on desire and wants, you can easily price the machine outside of your comfortable budget. However, these features can help you set a budget that is appropriate to meet your needs.
You will have to compare a lot of machines to make a final decision. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Take the time to go to an actual sewing machine store and ask questions as well as test drive different machines available there. Do not feel pressured to purchase until you are ready. Please keep in mind that many sewing machine dealers will focus only on the brand(s) they opt to carry in their store. Select a store that carries more than 1-2 brands.
What sewing machine features are important to you?
Why do you find these sewing machine features important?
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