Friday, August 10, 2012

Which sewing machine to buy? {Melly Sews}

Hello Keeping it Simple readers! A little departure from sewing projects today - I want to talk about sewing machines instead. I'm starting to get questions from people who would like to learn to sew, and their first question is which machine do I buy? My 3 part answer to that question is the subject of today's post. 1. Don't buy, borrow When people are thinking about learning to sew, I assume they don't know if they will fall in love with garments, quilting, home decor or some other kind of crafty sewing. Or if they might end up hating it. So my first advice is not to buy a machine at all if you can help it. Find someone who will loan you one if at all possible.
  • If you have any sewing friends, ask if they'll let you borrow their machine. If they've been doing it for a while, they might even have a spare machine (or two, or three, or...ahem)
  • If you don't have sewing friends, activate the mom/grandmother network. See if anyone's mother or grandmother has a machine that you could borrow - often these offers will also come with an offer to teach you to sew - bonus! Or sometimes, a relative inherited one that they don't know how to use - these are great if they come with the manuals, because often if you decide you want to keep the machine, they're willing to sell it. 
  • Google sewing lessons in your city - there are often places that will teach you to sew using their machines
  • Search Craigslist (if you have one in your area) for sewing lessons as well. Often people teach sewing classes out of their homes as a side project, and are happy to teach you on their machine. Search For Sale, but also search Services 
2. New Machines So, your friend/grandmother/relative wants their machine back, or you couldn't find a machine to borrow. You're looking to buy. At this point I'm assuming you have a budget (because if you didn't you'd just go to the sewing machine store and buy the latest and greatest, and why would you be reading this?). So I'm going to assume you want to spend less than $200 for a machine, which means you have a choice - new or vintage? Advantages to new machines
  • Instant gratification - you pick out what you want and take it home, or you order online and it gets to you in a couple days
  • That new machine smell
  • They come with all their parts + manual
  • It's pretty easy to find videos of your new machine online if you run into an issue
  • Lighter weight, therefore more portable
  • Usually are able to do free-arm sewing. 
  • Entry level new machines (and even more expensive ones) have plastic parts. Plastic can break.
  • Generally, new machines are easier to break than quality vintage ones. 
The main difference between new and vintage machines is that new ones are made as cheaply as possible for their price point, which means using plastic and computers, both of which break more easily than vintage machines constructed with metal. So, if you want to buy a new machine, I recommend the Brother LS2125I Easy-To-Use Lightweight Basic 10-Stitch Sewing Machine (with a caveat) for absolute beginners:
The caveat is that this machine will not ever do an acceptable buttonhole; it can't. It has a 4 part buttonhole function, but the resulting buttonhole is not anything you would ever want visible on your clothing.  I used these machines when I taught high school sewing since we didn't have much of a budget. They withstood use by inexperienced HIGH SCHOOL sewers - meaning I saw one get dropped on the floor and it still sewed. They were also regularly mis-threaded and otherwise abused. Now, for literally a few dollars more, you could get this Brother XL2600I Sew Advance Sew Affordable 25-Stitch Free-Arm Sewing Machine and that's what I would do if I was buying new.
For the extra money, you get an acceptable (though not beautiful) buttonhole function, a drop in bobbin (my preference) and a few bells and whistles like a threader and thread cutter and some more decorative stitches. 3. Vintage Machines
Ok, time for the truth telling. I learned on a vintage machine from the 1970s. I now sew on a vintage machine from the late 1950s. And I own 3 other vintage machines (the same model, because who knows when you might need a spare?). In my book, here's why vintage machines beat new machines hands down. Advantages
  • They don't break as often. There's a reason my 50 year old machine is still chugging along. And that I never use my spares (unless I'm just feeling sorry for them or teaching a class, then they get to come out and play)
  • The quality ones can do most, if not all, of what the new machines can do, and sometimes more, and often better
  • I love a good bargain
  • I love hunting for bargains
  • Did I mention they don't break?
  • Thanks to eBay, they're almost as easy to find as new machines
  • You have to hunt for them. If you don't like combing Craigslist and garage sales, or waiting on eBay auctions to end, then get a new machine.
  • They're all metal (so they don't break) which means they're heavy and less portable
  • Old machine smell can leave something to be desired 
  • They're not always in stellar condition, so it can be hard to tell if they're a good deal when you're new to sewing
The machine I have (pictured above) is a Singer 503 Slant-o-Matic, also known as a 503a or a Rocketeer. I've sewn on a lot of vintage machines, and this one is my all-time favorite, followed by the Singer 500 Slant-o-Matic, which is a very similar machine. One of these, with all its parts and accessories, in perfect working condition, is worth $150-$200 in my book. Which is a little more than those entry level new machines above, but seriously I have had this machine for 15 years and have never felt the need to upgrade. Commonly missing/broken parts on this machine to look for (all these things take away from the price/value):
  • The top cover can often be broken off
  • The nose cover on the left side of the machine can be broken
  • The foot pedal - sometimes people sell these without it - you can usually buy a replacement on eBay, but without one the machine doesn't work
  • The spool pins are sometimes missing/broken
  • The rubber tire on the bobbin winding mechanism can be worn out
In mint condition, this machine should run perfectly and come with
  • A manual
  • The foot pedal
  • A working light bulb
  • A zipper foot and a universal foot. The original kit also included a straight stitch foot
  • A ruffler attachment
  • 11 black cams for decorative stitching (at a minimum make sure it comes with the zig-zag cam) 
If it also comes with a cabinet or a buttonholer (or both!), that machine is worth every penny of $200 in my opinion. Though you can still often get them for less - they get passed down to non-sewers that don't know their value with surprising regularity. 
OK, I'll stop raving about this machine; you can read more about why I love it here.  Thanks for letting me ramble!


Amy (naptimecrafters) said...

I have the Broth XL 2600 and I LOVE it! I saw for a couple hours almost every single day and have had it for a few years now. For $125 at Costco it's a great buy! When mine bites the dust I plan to just get the same one again. No problems yet :)

La La Lauren!!! said...

I had a basic brother you showed. it was great and like a rock! I upgraded to a brother innovis and love the electronic options. but for beginner sewers i definitely recommend the basic brother. that thing was solid!!

Heidi said...

I have a pretty new Janome, but I found a Singer like you show on craigslist. I just might have to buy it.

Charity said...

I actually had the Brother XL 2600i and really disliked it. I constantly had thread tension problems and the stitch length was annoyingly irregular. The timing went out on it last month, and since it would cost me more to repair than to buy a new one, I upgraded to a Singer with a lot more stitches and options.

feedingmykid said...

I learned to sew on my mom's Pfaff from the 60's. Then I got my own 70's vintage Pfaff. It is a metal tank. It could handle any thickness of fabric you threw at it. I loved it, but I don't use it at all anymore because it just didn't have the sort of versatility I needed - no buttonhole (well, the dreaded 4 part buttonhole you speak of), no stretch stitch, no real decorative stitches to speak of - not even a satin stitch. Now I sew on a plastic Kenmore - it was cheaper than my vintage Pfaff. I like it surprisingly well and it meets my needs. And, I can't afford a new Pfaff - those things are crazy expensive!

Beth said...

I actually have been using the exact machine you claim as your favorite for a year now. His name is Francis and we are in love. He was a gift from one of the many grandmothers in my life. Smoothest stitch I have ever had. Never giving him up...Ever.

TammyW said...

I had that same Singer and sold it in a garage sale last year. A client gave it to my sister-in-law thinking she'd like to learn to sew. Knowing I sew, my sister-in-law gave it to me. I then acquired a used Pfaff and I didn't have room for 3 machines so the Singer was sold. In hindsight I wish I'd sold my New Home machine and kept the Singer. It had a big box of attachments and was an extremely quiet machine. It had been serviced before I got it but the bobbin tension was off and I was never able to get it adjusted to a good stitch. I could've taken it in and had it looked at but the thing was so darn heavy.

Melissa said...

Oh yeah, the bobbin tension is something else that can wear with use, but it's a really easy fix usually. There is a tiny screw that can only be reached with an eyeglass screwdriver, and you tighten or loosen it.