If you’re hanging around in these pandemic times thinking it’s a good time to take up sewing, you might be wondering what kind of sewing machine you should buy. I thought I’d give some pointers on how to choose a sewing machine for a beginner, and then look at some of the locally-available models right now in Victoria, BC.

What Do I Sew With?

My main sewing machine is a Kenmore model that my dad got me out of the Sears catalogue in 2000. It has 20 stitches, a backstitch button, a drop-in bobbin (more on that later), and is totally mechanical (no computerized parts, no LED digital display). The model I have is a Kenmore 385.17620, but of course it’s not available anymore now that Sears is kaput. HOWEVER, the Kenmore machines were manufactured by the Janome sewing machine company under the Kenmore label, so all of the parts for my machine are interchangeable with Janome parts. Twenty years later, it is still a very good machine and does all of the sewing functions I need.

Having a simple machine obviously gives me a bias towards simple sewing machines… there are a lot of fancy computerized machines out there; some of them will even thread your needle for you with puffs of compressed air! But I would rather spend my sewing $$ on fabric and notions, and I have yet to discover a feature of fancier machines that motivates me to upgrade.

What To Look For

For starters, DO NOT get one of the cutesy “beginner” sewing machines targeted towards children, even if you are buying a machine for a child! My niece is 11 and wants to learn to sew, but the “child’s” machine she was given has a bunch of extra safety guards that get in the way, and is very lightweight. It’s hard for her to get a sense of what a machine really feels like, and she hasn’t started using it very much. If your child is prone to rash actions and doesn’t pay attention to safety rules, you have other problems and starting them on the road to sewing is maybe not such a great idea right now. If your child can follow basic safety rules, they can handle a full-sized machine – just get a basic one.

If you see “lightweight” on a sewing machine description, it is probably a machine with plastic parts; possibly aluminum. These are fine for “light use” sewing on light or medium weight fabric. They’re not going to hold up well on denim or other heavy fabrics, and they won’t have the long lifetimes that a machine with metal parts will have. They WILL be more affordable, though. Plastic parts can’t always be repaired though, so you might be giving up longevity for budget. That’s a personal decision that only you can make, so I’m not going to judge.

More stitches does not necessarily make for a better machine. As mentioned above, my machine has 20 stitches… and guess how many of them I use? About six, I guess? Straight, zigzag, stretch straight, blind hem, three-step zigzag, and the buttonhole stitches. There are a bunch of decorative stitches that I never use. And I sew *everything* so that gives you a bit of an idea what you’ll need to get started. A computerized machine that has 100+ stitches is overkill for a beginner!

Bobbins… there are two types: drop-in (which is what I have) and uhh the other kind, which I think is called vertical? Dunno for sure. But it goes into the front machine and the bobbin sits vertically in the machine, whereas a drop-in bobbin loads from the top of the machine and the bobbin sits flat. I think the drop-in kind is a bit less prone to snarls and tangles, so it’s probably easier for a newbie (or anyone who doesn’t enjoy detangling threads). Someone whose machine has vertical bobbin case might feel very differently of course! The thing to know about bobbins is there are many different shapes so you can’t trade between machines.

Presser feet: the most common type of machine has what’s called a “low shank” presser foot attachment. I honestly couldn’t tell you what is the difference between low shank and anything else, but what I know is it makes it easy to buy additional feet when you get into more technical sewing. I have a set of specialty feet from Madam Sews and it’s great to be able to use these on my machine.

What Should You Buy Locally?

There are a few options for buying a sewing machine locally. By that I mean on southern Vancouver Island, where I live.

First up, there’s big stores like Walmart and London Drugs that sell a few different basic models. Rule #1: Don’t Shop At Walmart. I don’t care if the sticker price is cheaper – the societal costs are much higher. If you are in the market for a sewing machine, you would be better off buying used or borrowing someone’s machine temporarily while you save up the dosh for a real sewing machine from a real dealer. London Drugs carries Brother sewing machines as well as a few kiddie machines. Their basic model is the Brother JX2417 or something like that and I can’t even find a review of this machine on any reputable sewing websites, so that tells me it’s probably not something worth seriously looking at.

Cloth Castle and Sawyers Sewing are the two primary sewing machine dealers in our area. Frankly I think both are good stores with knowledgeable staff, locally owned, and they will treat you right. Maybe if you’re in the West Shore you might lean towards Cloth Castle because it’s in Langford, but you can’t go wrong either way. It just comes down to what kind of machine you’re buying.

Sawyers Sewing Centre is a dealer for Janome, Pfaff, Baby Lock and Elna. The lower price machines are from Janome, and as they’re the maker of my own machine, I tend to believe that’s a solid choice, but all of these manufacturers do quality machines and have good reputations. Here’s the Sawyers’ clearance page where you can see some good deals on entry-level machines from all the brands. Things range from $179 up to just under $500, starting to get into electronic models (where the parts are mechanical but there is some digital control over stitch selection, etc.).

Cloth Castle is a dealer for Brother and Husqvarna machines, as well as Handi-Quilter which is a very large quilting machine you don’t need to worry about right now. My mom had a Husqvarna machine when I was growing up and I have fond memories. I’ve also recently used a Husqvarna as a loaner machine while my Janome was on the injury list (I was sewing faux fur and pulled the fabric through, making the needle go off course and damaging parts inside). The basic Brother model available at Cloth Castle seems to be the NS80e, which has a digital screen for stitch selection. I think this is overkill for a beginner. They might have a lower-end model instore but it’s not on their website. The Husqvarna machines shown on the Cloth Castle website are quite a bit more advanced (with pricetags to match).

What About Getting a Used Machine?

There are usually a good handful of used sewing machines available for sale on UsedVictoria and Craigslist. Most of what I’ve seen is older, vintage Singers or mid-80s machines that have been collecting dust. There are sewing machine collectors out there who have tens if not hundreds of sewing machines… I can’t relate, but you do you.

A solid mechanical sewing machine with metal parts and no electronics is going to last for decades, if it’s treated well. That means it hasn’t been left in a damp garage to get rusty. I would be hesitant to buy something with electronics in it because those parts can be impossible to repair. If you’re looking at acquiring a used machine and want an opinion on whether it can be fixed, give Jenny at The Makehouse a call or reach out to Bill Murray, the local sewing machine repair guy (reach him via The Makehouse). I think The Makehouse might also occasionally know about used machines for sale, so it’s worth a call. You probably won’t save too much money though – sewing machines hold their value really well!

If someone wants to give you a used machine, it’s really up to you. Do you think that it’s been kept in good condition? Pretty much any machine can be brought back to life (see above re Bill Murray) with a small investment of $70-100 on maintenance and parts. The fewer bells and whistles on the machine, the more likely it is to still be usable, but not if it’s rusty.

Do You Need a Serger?

If you’re just starting out, the answer is no. You can do everything you need to create high-quality garments with a regular sewing machine. In fact, as I learned more techniques and began slowing with more care for the finished product, I began to use my serger less! I do French seams instead of serging woven fabrics, for example. Sewing knits with a serger is faster but it isn’t the only way to do it, and as you are just starting out, it can be a good idea to stick with a regular sewing machine because seams are SO MUCH easier to undo with a straight or zigzag stitch compared to a serged seam.

What About a Coverstitch?

Yes, I bought a coverstitch last year. That was not entirely an impulse purchase – I’d been thinking about it for about two years before I took the plunge. The price was right ($500) and I knew that I would get my money’s worth because I sew a lot of activewear. However, I also have made it 20+ years of regular sewing without having a coverstitch machine.

The Bottom Line

A good basic sewing machine with 12-15 stitches and solid construction will serve you well for decades. A budget between $180-$300 should get you a machine that does everything you need. Anything less than that, and you can consider it a temporary purchase… so if your budget is less than $150, you might be better off borrowing from a friend or family member.