Whiptips – sewing machine advice

by kath_red on 14/09/2007

in News+Letters

Whiptips craft advice column for readers to ask questions or offer advice by leaving comments. Whiptips archive here. Questions to whiptips@gmail.com.

I’m just getting back to quilting and my sewing machine is outdated and, well, I’m having to thread the bobbin by hand. I’d like to buy a new machine that would be dependable, good at basic functions, easy to use, and decent for doing some machine quilting. Would anyone have some suggestions for good machines or machines to avoid?

Thank you so much! I love this site!


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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Wendi September 14, 2007 at 6:49 pm

I love my Pfaff. The built-in walking foot is fabulous for machine quilting.


2 colleen September 14, 2007 at 7:04 pm

i wish i could say i love my bernina but i find it noisy and a little fussy. my sister, however, has a janome and i just love that! good luck. it’s so exciting to be looking to buy a new sewing machine. it’s the perfect time of year.


3 ina and gumby September 14, 2007 at 7:13 pm

… take a peek over @ http://www.purlbee.com … they have some great tips … it’s one of their earlier posts … just search under the headings in the sidebar … i persnally love my janome gem … a perfect gem for all around and easy … happy days … mille baci …


4 beruta September 14, 2007 at 8:21 pm

Mine is a Pfaff and I`m very happy with it.
I wanted a machine that could sew any kind of fabric well, and this one is perfect. The fabric is fed from the top and the bottom at the same time, so it sews so well.
Mine is very simple (http://www.pfaff.com/global/127.html), but I didn`t want a very complicated one!


5 Robin September 14, 2007 at 9:24 pm

My Pfaff is about 20 years old now and has never let me down. the built-in walking foot, so essential for quilting, makes every type of sewing better.


6 Kristin La Flamme September 14, 2007 at 9:30 pm

I love my Bernina. As you can see, each person has a different opinion based on their needs, skills and how they like to interface with the machine. You need to find the machine that works best for YOU.

Remember not to sell yourself short. Buy something with the capabilities you want to have, not the chapest machine that matches your current skills. There’s nothing more frustrating than enjoying your first forays into quilting, tailoring, crafting (whatever) and then finding that you’d like to try more but the machine is holding you back because you can’t change presser feet easily enough, or it’s not comfortable for free motion quilting, or it heats up and becomes erratic after long sessions of work (or whatever).

I’d suggest going to several stores and trying out their machines — not only to find one that you’re comfortable with, but also to see which store you’d be willing to back to for technique classes, servicing (have your machine regularly serviced and it might just out live you), and general support. If you like to take classes anyways, consider renting a machine to try it out for an entire project. Or borrow a friend’s machine for a day if she’s got something you’re considering.


7 Laura September 14, 2007 at 11:28 pm

Everyone’s had different experiences and different preferences, and there are a lot of options out there depending on your budget and what kinds of things you want to do with your machine. I’m a fan of the Kenmores available at Sears, as I think they give a great value with all of the basic functions. Any of the machines at a SM dealer will likely be a bit pricier but perhaps with more detailed support, if you need that. A well-serviced used machine from a dealer can be a great deal, and a lot of the older machines are more sturdy than most of the new ones.

The one thing I would recommend is to check the sewing machine reviews at patternreview.com. The usual googling and checking amazon and epinions for reviews is useful too.


8 Anina September 14, 2007 at 11:32 pm

I love my old Bernina. It very much depends on what you want to do with it. There are lots of machines with many, many fancy functions and stitches and embroidery options out there, but most people will very rarely use all these.
So, what I’m trying to say is, be careful of falling into the “gadget trap” when looking for a sewing machine. Really ask yourself how often you will use all the features that add a lot to the cost of the machine.


9 Cheryl September 15, 2007 at 12:40 am

I chose the Janome over Viking, Bernina, and others because I took test samples of my own quilting materials and test drove them. It’s a great way to test out a machine, because by using materials you use everyday, you get the best idea on what to expect from each machine. Store sample materials and muslin sometimes can be misleading.


10 Amy September 15, 2007 at 1:00 am

Advice for bobbin threading: I recently ran into this with my old machine too, and as a work-around, I used my husband’s cordless drill. I found a bit that matched the size of the bobbin and put a little double-sided tape around the bit to keep the bobbin from flying off. Then I got the thread started, and I could pull the “trigger” with one hand and hold the spool with the other. Guess it’s time for me to get a new machine too… :)


11 meowy September 15, 2007 at 1:20 am

I love my Brother XL-3100. I bought it at Walmart several years ago.

It sews. Straight, zig zag, a few small decorative stitches that I’ve never found a use for yet. It does button holes which is really cool, (and it came with a button hole type foot too) but I only recently learned how to use that function.

It’s not near as detailed as what’s around at the fancy shops, but it does the job and it will thread your bobbin for you! :) I don’t know if they still make it though, I’ve had mine for a long time. It’s smallish and not too heavy really. It’s easy to clean and oil too. Easy to thread.

The only thing I’ve ever bought for it is a walking foot, I just keep it attached all the time. Plus machine oil and needles, but that’s a given :)


12 Lauren September 15, 2007 at 2:06 am

I have 2 machines. A Viking Scandinavia 200 which was my first and is fantastic for basic sewing. HOWEVER, now I also have a Viking Designer SE which also does embroidery. When I’ve been sewing on this dream of a machine and go back over to my 200…no comparison. My SE rocks! I also have a Viking Huskylock 936 Serger which I couldn’t live without. Have fun shopping!


13 Candlestring September 15, 2007 at 4:20 am

It’s interesting that Colleen (in a previous comment) hates her Bernina and loves her sister’s Janome, because I dislike my Janome and love my mom’s Bernina! I think the model/cost of a machine makes a big difference, not just the name brand. In my case, I have a lower-end (very basic) Janome with no needle-down or fancy stitches, and my mom has a middle price Bernina. She quilts, I do all kinds of things. I find mine clunky and I have a hard time controlling the speed. Starting out too fast is a big “argh!” for me. I also don’t like the quality of the button-holes from the automatic gizmo.
I echo the suggestion to try out the machines before you buy one. And if price is a factor, look for a trade-in at a dealer. I had a ’60s Kenmore that I loved until it started breaking needles. Now I wish I’d gotten it fixed instead of trading it on the Janome.


14 Erin September 15, 2007 at 4:20 am

If the machine is primarily for quilting/piecing, I would also look for something that’s fairly speedy. My previous machine just got way too slow for me when I was piecing long strips. When I bought my current machine (a Pfaff), the first thing I did was put the pedal to the metal to see how fast it went.

I second the suggestion not to get too hung up on the whiz-bang features. A couple of decorative stitches are nice to have, but the essentials are a nice straight stitch, zig zag, buttonhole (always handy), and most important for quilting: a walking foot (or equivalent) and a darning/free motion foot.

Test drive as many machines as possible before you make a final decision. You’ll also have to decide whether you want a mechanical or a computerized machine. I just made the switch to computerized, and I’m so glad I did. But do what is right for you.

Most important! If you end up buying from a sewing machine dealer (rather than Joann, Wal-Mart, Sears, etc.) make sure you negotiate a price. Don’t pay MSRP. Also have them throw in the walking foot and the free motion foot if they don’t come with the machine.


15 Andi September 15, 2007 at 5:27 am

I love my Pfaff too, but sewed for quite a while with a $200 Kenmore. It didn’t have needle down but it did most everything I asked of it. I believe they are made by the same company that makes White machines. Janome also has inexpensive basic machines and my friend loves hers.


16 whatthehay September 15, 2007 at 6:34 am

I have a Bernina 750 that is 35 years old. It is the BEST machine out there… and a true work horse. My mom got mine used and paid to have it fixed up – total cost around $150 and it’s worth probably $500. It does everything that I ask of it plus some and will be with me until I’m an old lady. I grew up using my mom’s Bernina 650 and loved it and swear that the machine that she gave me was the best birthday gift ever.

Personally, I think that the older heavier machines are generally better than the newer ones unless you need them to do something specific. Go to a sewing machine shop and look at the old machines, check thrift stores and put an add in the paper… Old Berninas aren’t very common as people very rarely get rid of them. They’re just that great!

Mom did upgrade to a newer Bernina, but mainly because she wanted to do machine quilting… my sister has her old one now. I like the new machine and it has some nice features, but for now, I’m sticking to the love of my life… my 750.


17 whatthehay September 15, 2007 at 6:37 am

Oh, I should add, I think that to get the quality level that an old Bernina has you’d have to spend way more than you might want to. Older machines are probably a better bang for the buck in the quality area. The newer, cheaper units at WM or Sears might do well for a while, but will you be able to give it to your daughter in 30 years? My machine is as old as I am and it will probably out live me – a much better long term investment!


18 LittleMissMeshell September 15, 2007 at 7:57 am

I love my Husqvarna, and I personally don’t recommend new Singers, as I’ve had a lot of tension problems with them. I have a Husqvarna Platinum 770, which is wonderful, well worth the splurge. =) Mum has a Pfaff, which is also great.


19 Dianna in Maui September 15, 2007 at 8:14 am

I have a 10-yr old Bernina 160, which I love for it’s beautiful zigzag and the trouble-free use of most decorative threads. I also have a Janome 1600 straight-stitcher, which I adore for piecing and machine quilting. Keep in mind, though, that it only goes straight, no zig zag. That said, many new quilters can’t afford $2000 for a new machine, nor do they really need all of the gadgets – beware, as was mentioned above. My Janome was about $1300, and if you don’t do clothing sewing or anything requiring zigzag, I’d highly recommend it. However, do check out the Janome Gem machines. They are reasonably priced, come with the basics, including zig zag, needle up/down, a light (I think even some models come with a thread cutter, but I can’t be sure). They are reliable and, at approx. 10lbs, can be set up just about anywhere and toted along to classes. Try several machines out (take piecing scraps, a couple of small quilt sandwiches, and a variety of threads). Don’t let the salesperson rush you or talk you into more than you need. Good luck and, most of all, have fun!


20 SWC September 15, 2007 at 8:16 am

Try patternreview.com Based on reviews there, I bought a second-hand Kenmore on ebay for less than $150 3-4 years ago and have been very pleased with it. Of course I’d love to splurge on a fancy new machine with all the bells and whistles, but for what I do, this machine is plenty.


21 admin September 15, 2007 at 3:25 pm

I have a 22 year old Elna which belonged to my grandmother before me. It is a very well used machine, heavy and sturdy. It just does the basics – in terms of stitches etc and I have bought a walking foot which attaches easily – the feed dogs need to be manually removed with a screw driver – other than that small inconvenience it is a great machine. I have been toying with the idea of a new machine though – with more stitch options and perhaps an easier way to do the feed dogs.

great advice everyone


22 Johanna September 15, 2007 at 4:54 pm

I bought myself a Janome 6019 Quilter’s Companion a year and a half ago, and I really love it. There are three Quilter’s Companion machines in the series- mine is the “lowest” end one. It is mechanical rather than all computerized, but it does everything I want it to do (I wouldn’t get good use from lots of extra bells and whistles). It came with a walking foot for quilting, and also a clear plastic table extension which fits exactly around the machine to extend your level sewing/quilting surface. It uses clear plastic drop-in bobbins, and the cover for the bobbin compartment is also clear so you can see if you’re running out of bobbin thread!! This feature alone made me giddy with excitement when I first got it.
All around, it’s a great machine, and I do a heck of a lot of quiltmaking on it.


23 David D. September 15, 2007 at 8:50 pm

I came back to sewing after many years and decided on a Janome Gem. I just recently finished my first quilt with it and the machine was a pleasure to work on. While it’s basic, it has all the stitches I need (including zigzag, basting and overcast) and there is an additional quilting kit–sometimes thrown in with your machine purchase, depending where you shop–that includes the walking foot, the quarter-inch hemming foot, the free motion foot and the feed dog cover.

It also has a light for the work area, up/down needle and a built in needle threader. (Embroidery stitches and such are amusing, but not necessary for me.) And, as mentioned above, the bobbins are clear plastic and the bobbin cover is clear, so you can see exactly what’s going on in there. It’s light and portable yet durable and seems pretty tough. I would have liked a Bernina but I wasn’t sure if I’d be using it enough to justify the extra $$$. Plus the Gem seemed to be recommended just about everywhere I looked.

I do agree though–you should take a small sample of the kind of fabric/project you’ll be sewing with it and try it out on several different machines, if you can. There’s no point in testing the machine with denim at the store if you’re going to be sewing organza at home (or vice versa).


24 Robin September 16, 2007 at 7:13 am

I love my Janome Jem. I have a higher level New Home (now made by Janome) from 18 years ago that I also love, for different reasons.
But, for the straightforward needs of quilting, the Jem has a buttonholer, zigzag and few other bells and whistles, but I never have to go beyond the straight and zigzag. I bought mine at allbrands.com and have been very very happy. I work with some children with medical issues and I like having two machines and they are not intimidated by the Jem.


25 Iona September 17, 2007 at 12:16 pm

I’ll echo the comments about Pfaff. I bought the hobby level model a year ago when my interest in sewing was reawakened. I was familiar with basic sewing machines and I knew I wanted something that could cope with the activities I wanted to learn how to do – quilting, more advanced sewing techniques (like invisible zippers). I couldn’t afford and wasn’t really interested in a fully featured, computer-based machine capable of 101 stitiches.

I love it – it works really well for me, performs well with a wide range of fabrics from silk to jersey, buttonholes are great. I haven’t tried quilting with a walking foot yet but that says more about me than the machine.


26 Mandy September 17, 2007 at 10:45 pm

I have a Janome Jem as well as the quilting 6600P. Personally, I love the built-in walkingfoot of the 6600, and liked the feel of the stitch much more than the berninas I used in the past; to me it seemed smoother and quieter. It weighs about 30 lbs, and isn’t going *anywhere* when I quilt a large piece. I think it really is going to come down to a “feel” thing, since the machines mentioned are all good! If you’re looking for portability, the little Jems are excellent, and can handle pretty much the same fabrics as my big machine can, as long as I go carefully. A friend of mine completed a denim project with hers, and it had no problems going over 4 or so layers of denim, possibly up to 6 (don’t remember now). The differen ce between the 720 and 760 is # of stitches (20 and 60 respectively) and the 760 has a one-step button holer, which is really nice to have.


27 Stephanie September 25, 2007 at 5:02 am

Thank you all so much, I really appreciate the advice and ideas. It makes the idea of shopping much less daunting!


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