21 January 2011

Back to basics #1- buying a sewing machine

One of the most important pieces of a sewing kit is the sewing machine. Boy is there a lot of choice out there, and when looking for a new machine even a seasoned sewer like me struggles to make a decision!

My first ever machine was very simple........

There is only one thread, no fiddly bobbin as this machine does a sort of chain stitch. It doesn't require any power, the wheel is turned by hand- a little hand, as this teeny machine is a toy and only about 6" high. I loved this machine, and made lots of dolls clothes and toys. The machine is based on the original singer sewing machine mechanisms. I outgrew this machine, and moved onto a vintage singer. My passion for sewing machines seems to have been inherited from my mum, who despite not really being a sewer had a massive collection of machines. I currently own 9 sewing sewing machines!

Many of us value established brands, and the singer brand is a great example of the success of an old trusted name. The modern singer uses the same logo and branding of the company created over 100 years ago, but it isn't the same company. Singer ceased trading several years ago, and was bought up by another company. The modern singer machines are not the incredible long-lived treasures of the past, they are inexpensively produced plastic machines, and rather disappointing.

When considering buying a new machine you should think of what you want to use it for. The cost of a machine varies from around £100 to thousands. If you are likely to only use your machine occasionally, then it's not worth splashing out on a top of the line machine. If you think you want to take up sewing professionally then it might be worth investing in a great machine like a Bernina to get started. If you're unsure of where your sewing will take you, then maybe invest in a mid range machine which you won't out-grow too quickly. It's a bit like buying computers- would you buy one for £1700 just to write an occasional letter?

I have worked in professional workrooms for most of my theatrical career, and worked on mostly industrial brothers and domestic berninas. When I started researching domestic sewing machines in 2009, i was amazed at how the domestic machine has progressed. I will confess that i was a bernina snob, i sold my semi industrial bernina machine to buy the domestic machines for the school, which was a wrench! What i wanted for the school, was a great mid-range machine suitable for teaching beginners on, that was also robust enough for me to use for my costume work. A bernina 1008 would have been perfect but at nearly £600 that meant a huge investment, and also i didn't want beginners to feel that they had to start out on such an expensive machine.

During my research phase, i'm surprised i didn't get barred from john lewis after endlessly getting them to demo machines. I called sewing machine sales people and got all the info i could, and i trawled sewing forums looking for reviews and recommendations. In brief here's what i discovered.

  • There is a massive difference between all the different brands aimed at the entry level sewer (£100 average) Frankly there are machines out there being sold to beginners that are little less than toys, and won't ever be able to sew denim
  • Several brands are trading on past good reviews and brand image despite the fact that the ownership has changed. Singer is now a company from Hong kong, Elna is no longer swiss, but has been bought by janome.
  • Manufacturers want you to get pleasure from your machine and have come up with lots of new innovations that make using a sewing machine a much easier experience
  • Shopping around online for the model you want usually means you get lots of great sewing freebies thrown in
The biggest difference between entry level machine, and a mid range machine is usually how the bobbin is inserted. A bobbin is a small spool of thread that goes underneath the needle, the thread that passes through the needle and the bobbin thread underneath loop together, which is how the machine sews. 
The more basic(sometimes cheaper) models have the older bobbin mechanism that involves removing a metal case, slotting the bobbin spool into it, and then putting the matal case back into the front of the machine. If you ever learnt to sew at school, you probably recall that this was a little fiddly to master. However this mechanism has been around a long time so don't be put off buying a machine because of this. The incredible Bernina 1008 at a cost of £575 has a front loading bobbin.
Mid range machines often have a top loading bobbin, there's nothing to remove, gravity helps keep it in place and beginners tend to find it easier
For both types of bobbin, you really do need to spend some time reading the manual. most sewing problems are due to bobbins not being put in correctly, so it'll save time in the long run if you practise

I'm a professional Costumier, and I rarely use more than 7 of the different stitches available on my machine- straight, zig-zag, triple stitch, stretch stitch, overlock stitch, blind heming and buttonholes.You may be seduced by a more expensive machine with "50" stitches, but unless you want to do embroidery the chances are you won't use them, so save the money for fabric!

Another feature that can really affect the cost is the type of buttonhole the machine can do. Entry level machines( and the bernina 1008) generally have a 4 stage buttonhole. Mid range machines do a 1 stage buttonhole. Again don't be put off by the 4 stage buttonhole, it involves a little more work, but still does a great job.

Entry level machines often come with only a couple of sewing feet(accessories for the machine) If you want to sew zips for instance you will often need to buy that foot separately at around £10. Mid-range machines often come with a good selection of feet as standard- thus saving you money.

I have to say that after all my research i bought Janome. They are considered the market leader in new innovations, including their magnetic bobbin cases which mean there's less catching/jamming. All new janomes feature an extra height lift, which means you can get thicker materials under the sewing foot. Their mid-range machines now have a feed dog with 7 tracks as opposed to the usual 3, this means that the fabric really does glide through. The instructions are very good, and the english actually makes sense...

I bought a janome 5018 to trial at the start of the school's life. I love it, it has so many great features, a really strong motor and lots of accessories included. After a couple of months i bought another 5 for the school. This machine is exclusive to the company i bought it from. Often independant sewing machine stores buy a large amount of one type of machine, which means they can guarantee  a continuous supply. This means they can offer deals that other shops can't. Sewing machines are a bit like fashion, once the season is up the product gets shipped to outlets to allow the new season to arrive- Mad!!

I personally recommend the companies i have linked to below- i don't get any benefit from doing so, but they have always provided me with excellent advice and service.

Entry level machines-

Janome SMD500 £99- a pretty standard basic machine. comes with a darning plate which is great if you fancy trying out some free-hand embroidery. You get some great freebies too!

Brother XL 5500SE £99- a very good value entry level machine. You get more feet with this one than with the janome. 

Janome SMD1000 £149- comes with a few more feet than the £99 version, and this one has a 1 step buttonhole, so it's great value

All 3 entry level machines come with a soft plastic cover which will keep dust out, but won't protect your machine from knocks if you're out and about.

Mid- range machines-

Janome SMD2000 £199- A great price and lots of good features including a one stage buttonhole stitch

Janome 5018 £239- my personal recommendation. Love this machine! Lots of ergonomic design so it looks nice, a great selection of feet. Easy to use storage. An extra long free arm and a good strong motor, and a one stage buttonhole stitch. This machine is bit heavier than the entry level machines, meaning it doesn't move about when sewing.

Pfaff 1132 £229- a very good machine, top loading bobbin. Simple to use and comes with a good selection of feet and a hard cover. The buttonhole is a four stage one but really easy to use.

Pfaff 1142 £279- this has all the same features as the 1132, but features a 1 stage buttonhole and a couple more stitches

The rolls royce of sewing machines-
The bernina 1008 is bernina standard. If you invest in one of these it will last a lifetime. I've not had a great time with their electronic machines, but i love this mechanical machine and am always excited when a theatre has one! john from Maculloch and wallis has sold me a couple of machines and services my vintage elna

Professional sewing machines-

This Janome only does a straight stitch but if you sew curtains for a living, and don't have space for a full industrial machine then this is a great machine. Sews twice as first as a domestic machine..

If you don't want to fork out hundreds for a new model, then a re-conditioned machine from a dealer that offers a warrenty is a great alternative. Most older mechanical machines were made to last, and provided they are serviced should give you many years of sewing. Make sure you have a go in the shop, and try and get one that does a zig-zag, or your sewing will be really restricted. I have a fantastic mini swiss built elna, that goes on tour with me and it's amazing. I bought it secondhand in 2000, and it still is my fav machine at work in the theatre. If you ever spot one of these definately check it out

These are some great dealers that offer re-conditioned machines with a warranty

Olympic sewing machines- very close to some great fabric shops- very knowledgable owner too

Wimbledon sewing centre

Tony's sewing centre- specialises in pfaffs and will match online free gift offers

London sewing in muswell hill

If you're looking to buy a machine, I do hope this has helped de-mystify it a little.

The next Blog post will be on threading up your machine and using the right needles

Happy stitching


  1. Vintage sewing machines are FANTASTIC and better than 'entry level' machines for around the same price or less... :)

  2. Interesting and well-researched. I recently did my own research on sewing machine brands (and wrote about it on my blog) and ended up buying a mid-range computerised Janome. It was the best thing I ever did! :-)

  3. Your blog is fantastic. I am seeking a beginners machine and strangely enough, I had been looking at one of the entry level ones,you mentioned but am really liking the sound of the Janome 5018.

    Am just wondering whether it would be robust enough to handle curtain material and denim. I would like to make myself a denim skirt and a few denim bags in the future. Have you ever used the machine for denim?

  4. Hello anonymous- sorry for delayed reply, been away from the computer, and not able to reply on stupid i phone!!

    I use one of my janome 5018's in the theatre and it's sailed through corsets, lycra and men's trouser waistbands. At my school it easily handles denim, and roman blinds. It's a great all round machine, designed by janome to make home soft furnishings.


  5. Ooo thanks Thrifty. Am only a beginner, so it sounds absolutely fantastic for me. I have had a bit of dialogue with one of the salesmen, he knows his stuff. Gave him a list of features I wanted and it fits my brief. Tried to post with my wordpress name but it kept failing hence why I was anonymous Lol.

  6. Well I have my Janome 5018, and really pleased with it. Just need to find out how I adjust the foot pressure to hem my jeans. So am off to see if it says anything about it in the manual.

  7. Hi! Just found this post when I was looking for advice on sewing stretch stuff with the 5018. After a lot of swearing I got the main stitching done, but am having horrible problems with the twin needle - any advice please?

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