At least once or twice a month (and sometimes a day!), someone asks me, “What is a good, cheap, beginner sewing machine?”
Well the first rule is, good and cheap in regards to sewing machines are pretty much oxymoronic.
For years, I sewed on all kinds of cheap machines. My first was an old singer with cams for button holes. I sewed on a treadle, an old Kenmore, a Brother, several newer singers, a white, a Riccar, a New Home, and a Babylock. There may have been more, but those are the ones I remember best. When I wore out my second Babylock, it was time to indulge in a life-long dream. A Bernina. I wanted a mechanical machine. I didn’t want a computerized model, but after comparing the functionality, considering resale, etc, I opted to go with the computerized. I bought the Bernina 1080. Best move I’ve ever made. Four years later, I got a GREAT deal on an 1230. When Challice got married, she took that one with her.
Now, a couple of years ago, I got stuck in my recliner, so my husband generously bought me a little Janome Jem. It was a lightweight, inexpensive machine from a brand that I’ve heard nothing but excellent things about. The object was to have a little machine that I could sit in the recliner and sew with it in my lap. It worked beautifully. I loved the little thing (sans the whine which I’ll get back to later)… until… it jammed. When it jammed I got an error message. The manual has a list of error messages and what to do for them. However, there was one slight problem. The error message I got wasn’t in the manual. It was a number that the manual didn’t address at all. I took it to the store where I bought it and they called, looked it over, talked to the company, and finally determined that I’d dropped it.
Um, no. I did not. And, as was strongly suggested several times, my children did not drop it either. The machine was. not. dropped. The broken pieces they found inside (PLASTIC PIECES) broke when the machine jammed. Period. I had the machine six months when it broke. It’s been two years since I purchased it. I haven’t seen it since it was six month’s old. Janome may be a great product and I so still recommend it for people demanding a “cheap” machine, but I have to say, I’m not impressed. PLASTIC PARTS DO NOT IMPRESS ME.
When that machine broke, I went to Walmart and bought a $200 dollar oh Brother sewing machine. I knew it’d be lighter than my workhorse Bernina and I could keep it on my lap too. It worked. It did have quite a few things that I truly despised. First, the needle always ends in DOWN. Always. That’s a pain. It has a drop-in bobbin. I don’t like those. The whine…. oh the whine…. And then there was the inability to make a good buttonhole. Yeah, it has special feet, buttons, etc… miserable. Absolutely miserable. I’ve never made such ugly buttonholes in my life. I finally spent a few hours figuring out how to make them with their crazy buttons and sizes etc fully free-handed. I hated it.
So, after over two years of not touching my trusty Bernina, I found a new foot pedal and cord, cleaned it up, plugged it in, and started sewing. I’ve sewn more in the past month than I have in the past year and a half at least. I LOVE my Bernina. L.O.V.E. Just a few little things that I have to point out that makes a huge difference in the enjoyability of sewing.
- Rocking needle down. With my machine, when I take my heel and rock down on the foot pedal, it puts my needle in the down position or if it was in the down position, it puts the needle back up. Just a rock of the heel and my needle obeys. They told me how great that was when I bought the machine, and I didn’t get it. I thought it was just a silly little extra that might be nice but wouldn’t make a long-term improvement. I was wrong. It is one of those things that makes work go so much smoother!
- Bernina’s patented hole in the hook. The bobbin case has a hole in the hook. You take the thread and loop through that hole and voila! Perfect applique zig zag. I forgot how beautiful their zig zag is.
- Speed control. I can put it on half speed if I like! That’s great for letting my younger girls learn how to sew! I can put it on and it makes it much easier to control when you’re new to judging curves and such.
- Buttonhole that can use a cool beans foot for you or you can punch the button and free hand it with excellent results every time.
- Smooth operation. Oh it’s smooth. I love that.
- No whine. Most new machines (even some of the newer Berninas) have a high-pitched whine that send me through the roof. I seriously can hear like a dog and I go nuts. My Bernina is quiet.
There are many other things that the machine does and is that make it preferable to a “cheap” machine. I have to say, when it comes to sewing machines, you get what you pay for. I remember the hours of frustration dealing with tension problems in older machines or broken plastic parts in newer ones, and it’s my opinion that you should buy more machine than you think you need if you expect to sew much at all. Now, if you’re just looking for something to mend a tear now and then and maybe sew a craft thing once or twice a year, I wouldn’t worry about spending more than $200 dollars on a basic machine from Walmart. It’s just not necessary. However, if you have a desire to sew… to create something at least once a month or so, then I’d invest in a tool that you can use for years to come, without dealing with the hassles that a low end machine can cause.
I know that you can buy a machine for under $400. I understand that. I also understand that a lot of people use them happily. I just know that especially for people learning to sew, it is nice not to have to fuss with the mechanics of the machine while you’re learning the basics of construction and then later, the finer detail work. It really is the difference between having a quality made car in top running condition (even if it isn’t new) vs. an old clunker or even a new low end economy car like a stripped down Hyundai. It’s nice when you drive it off the lot but after much use, you’ll see little things breaking here and there in a relatively short amount of time.
So, when people ask me what kind of machine to buy when you want a “good, cheap, beginner, sewing machine,” I tell them to save a little more and get what you pay for… and then some! Go to eBay and invest in a good METAL Swiss Precision Bernina. I recommend the older models 1080, 1090, 1130, 1230, or 1240. The 1080 and 1090 do not have an alphabet, but the others do! There are lots of decorative stitches, most of which a lot of people will never use, but if that tickles your fancy, it has them. It has the wonderful foot pedal with the rock back feature, and runs like a dream. Any Bernina dealer can see how many hours it has been sewn on and you can get them from anywhere from $450-750 dollars on eBay.
Take your time, save your money, and buy something worthwhile. I’ve sewn on almost every brand of sewing machine out there and when it comes down to it, these are the only machines that I can recommend without reservation.
NEW Machines to avoid?
All of those machines have a reputation for falling apart quickly.
Other Machines I won’t buy (again)?
- Kenmore (they are supposedly made by Janome)
- Viking (I know some people love them but the two I’ve sewn on were nightmares… and newish!)
- Pfaff (If for no other reason than the company’s lousy customer service issues… but I didn’t like their machines either. Problem after problem!)
Older (over 25- years old) machines that are probably good quality?
- Singer (avoid anything made after 1970)
- Montgomery Ward
Why am I so sold on Bernina? Well, my Uncle STILL has the Bernina that he had when he made my cousins their doll and church clothes back in the sixties and seventies. It’s still an amazing machine and works like a dream. When I went to buy a good machine, I remembered that and bought the Bernina that I own. I’ve tried almost everything out there and I’ve WANTED to find other machines that I could recommend as highly (not everyone wants a Bernina!). For a while, due to high recommendations by owners, I recommended Janome too. I try not to now. Broken parts from jamming, dealing with actually getting it repaired, and the rest is just a nightmare and I can’t honestly recommend it to anyone.
Do yourself or the person you’re buying for a favor. Get them started (or upgrade a beginner from the machine they’re struggling with– assuming that’s why you’re looking for a new machine!) on a machine that makes sewing a delight. No painter wants to be stuck with finger paints in order to create their art. Chefs don’t want to be limited to a hot plate and coffee pot for their “kitchen”, and neither does a “sewist” want to fight to do their “art.” Invest in a good machine and should you discover you don’t enjoy sewing as much as you thought, resale is most likely to be highest if you bought a good used one and kept it in good repair.