Embroidery expert Sally McCollin shares her tips on what to look for if a new sewing machine is top of your wish list. Taking time to match the features to your needs and budget is well worth it!
Splashing out on a sewing machine is not an everyday occurrence. Maybe you’re being bought one as a gift. Or it’s time to trade up for a better model. Or there’s a bargain in the sales to be bagged. The question is – how can a new machine enhance your embroidery? And what should you be looking for if you decide to take the plunge?
I’d say a new sewing machine is a wonderful thing! I’m biased, having been around them for most of my career, creating patterns and samples as well as teaching countless students how to get the most out of them. I firmly believe the joy you can get from a new sewing machine is huge.
The advances made in the last decade or so are enormous. Even if you decide not to blow the inheritance, what you can do with a machine costing £700 will astound you:
- New possibilities will open up – you’ll be able to do so much more!
- The finish of your work will be better.
- Sewing will be easier.
- You’ll never look back!
The benefits of working with a new sewing machine
Less mistakes, less stress
Firstly, most machines today are more accurate than just a few years ago. Even with something as simple as satin stitch, the result you get is better. On my old machine, if I’m not careful it’ll start to bunch up, so you end up with a bit of a lump. New machines are more sensitive, so there’s no such problem. The way the stitch falls is not just down to you turning a dial on the machine and it being a mechanical movement, this is computer driven.
Today most machines have five or even seven feed dogs. This increases sensitivity and eliminates many frustrations that can lead to expensive mistakes. Fabric isn’t cheap – printed cottons can cost £15 or £20 per metre. I’ve bought some that was £35 a metre. When you’ve paid that much your machine stitching needs to be right first time. You don’t want to be sitting there thinking: “I’m damaging the fabric.” That’ll make you stressed and take all the enjoyment out of making.
Better stitching, better results
As well as eliminating mistakes, new machines also stitch better. Some machines are dedicated to embroidery, patchwork or general sewing. Others have dual functionality, such as home sewing and embroidery combined. Each function requires a slightly different set up.
When you get a machine with dual functions, you normally get separate bobbin cases. The embroidery bobbin case is set up so that it automatically pulls the top thread further underneath the fabric so you never get any of your bobbin thread showing on your surface.
Your home sewing bobbin case, meanwhile, will ensure your threads sit evenly on the top and bottom of your fabric so it’s most secure. You can also get a bobbin case for bobbin work, using hand embroidery thread, yarn, ribbon from the reverse. This means you can be so much more experimental and it’s so much easier than you trying to adjust the tension on your bobbin cases yourself. You could easily spend a couple of hours tweaking before you get your tension right.
So have I convinced you of the benefits of working with a new machine? Then how do you go about choosing one?
Choosing a sewing machine
How much to spend?
First decide your budget. There’s no point setting your heart on a machine that’s got all the things you want but costs £1,500 if you’ve only got £700. You’ll only be disappointed. Once you’ve set your budget my advice is to make the most of it and buy at the top end. Because the more you can afford, the more bells and whistles you’re going to get. And that means more toys and accessories.
How will you use it?
Decide exactly what you’re going to use it for, so you can work out what functions you need. Some will help you to sew better and be more creative, others will make it easier or save you time.
I always think that embroiderers fall into two main camps…
Some embroiderers are very experimental. Perhaps they’ve gone down the City & Guilds route where they really want to explore and use the machine. They’ll use some of the built-in stitches but also create rough textured work and surface distressing, mixing art and design – stamping, inking, dyeing fabrics and then working into them some more.
Then you’ve got the machine embroiderer who really likes the built-in features machines come with today, such as embroidery units. These units are surprisingly straightforward to use. You remove the table around the machine to expose the free arm, as if doing cuffs in dressmaking. Then you slot on the stitching design unit to change the functionality. The machine goes to almost automatic mode where you bring up on screen the design you want stitching out – whether it’s a Disney cartoon character or fancy filigree work. Your fabric goes into a dedicated hoop.
Basically you let the machine do the stitching, changing the colour when it beeps at you. They’re very clever and the results are extremely professional.
Enhancing your creativity
Want to take digital sewing even further? The high-end machines often have dedicated design packages to purchase as an add-on. Some will even interface with your computer and allow you to develop your own designs and really get creative.
Take a simple design, like an outline drawing of a daffodil. You can programme the machine to stitch the outline in satin stitch, for example. Then each of the different petals can use a specified filling stitch – so it might be a brick pattern in one petal, little squares in another. Then you ask the machine to replicate that in different colours, different sizes. It could be abstract and experimental. You can cut them up, weave them, take them a lot further – as if you’ve done your own printed, stitched fabric.
Fascinated by the world of embroidery? Stitch magazine is for you – covering a gorgeous variety of embroidery techniques, step-by-step projects, expert features, inspiration galore and all the latest stitching news.
Improving your stitching
There are lots of other ways to improve your stitching too. If you do quite a bit of quilting or surface embroidery or appliqué work, and you’re working with varying thicknesses of fabric, some machines have an automatic sensor so the foot senses any changes in the depth of fabric. The machine will automatically adjust the foot height to accommodate any changes, such as when you go from one fabric to another. This is particularly helpful with appliqué work. You can spend a lot of time adjusting things yourself – it makes it far easier if the machine does it for you!
Likewise, the fabrics you use most frequently can make a difference to the type of machine you need. There is a designated walking foot designed with quilters in mind, specifically to avoid any distorting of fabric. Basically it stops the layers of fabrics shifting against each other as you stitch. It’s also ideal for working with pile fabric, like velvet, which has a tendency to slip. It also helps prevent surface damage caused by the foot pressure being too high. Basically, your results will be better.
A new machine will give the opportunity to have more flexibility in your stitching, thanks to more feed dogs. Until 15 or 20 years ago, machines generally just had a pair of feed dogs that would move the fabric backwards and forwards – depending on whether you had reverse stitching. Now you generally have three or five feed dogs, with top of the range machines having seven points of contact under the presser foot.
Nowadays the feet are also wider, giving greater control and access to a larger variety of stitches. This all makes for more accurate stitching, enabling you to be more confident.
Some stitchers prefer larger machines, like those intended for quilting, because they give you more space for all your fabric and can allow for better posture if you’re sitting for a long while.
But, if you want to take it to classes or on holiday, you want something smaller and lighter to carry. Some machines are designed to be easy to travel with. They might come in a special travelling case on wheels, have a handle to make carrying it easier, and weigh less than a standard machine. They don’t have as many built-in patterns or stitches, so then it comes down to practicality.
The decision is yours!
Just remember, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a really good machine. Work out what you want then do your research – establish which models do what you want at a price you can afford. Always try before you buy, keep an eye for special offers and pay attention to any optional extras. When you find the right machine, you’ll feel like a new stitcher, so make the most of it and have fun!
Handy features worth considering
In addition to the range of stitches and motifs available, here are a few other features to look for in a new sewing machine. Work out what matters to you!
A knee lift comes from the front of the machine and goes underneath the table. You use your knee to press it to make the sewing machine foot go up and down. This means both hands stay on your fabric so you can be more accurate. It also keeps your fingers away from the needle – useful if you’re sewing fast!
Many machines now have a built-in LCD screen with an ‘i’ on to help you if you’re stuck.
Simply press a button and when your machine stops the needle will automatically be inserted into the fabric, or out of the fabric as you choose. This is particularly useful for turning sharp corners or making sure you don’t lose your line when you are quilting or appliquéing.
Automatic needle threader
If you’ve got bad eyesight or sometimes have a shaky hand, all you do is wrap your thread round a couple of points and press the button and it threads the needle for you. This can save hours when you’re doing a project.
Automatic lock stitch
This automatically does a couple of stitches back and forth at the start and end of each line of stitching. It’s really useful if you’re doing a lot of embroidery and changing colours often. Some machines will cut the thread for you as well.
Discovering the bobbin has run out of thread and realising you haven’t been stitching for the past six or seven inches is infuriating. A modern machine will beep at you and indicate ‘replace bobbin’ on the screen. If you have a drop-in bobbin, then with the needle down in the fabric you can take the old bobbin out, pop the new one in and carry on stitching without breaking your line.
Independent bobbin winder
If you do run out of thread in your bobbin, it saves time if you can wind a new bobbin without having to unthread your whole machine.
We hope you’ve found this guide to choosing a sewing machine helpful. Don’t miss our focus on free machining – the perfect technique to try out your new machine!