What should I look for in my first sewing machine?

Started by EvanTA, August 10, 2023, 04:26:01 AM

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I am an absolute beginner, still just trying to learn and absorb information. My short-term goal is to be able to handle alterations on my own clothes (traditional menswear, so working with basic cottons, linens, wools, avoiding bulky/heavy materials like for outerwear), and my long-term aspiration is to make my own trousers and shirts, again with basic, natural materials, most likely avoiding heavy, very thick materials.

Rather than ask "which machine?" as there are way too many options out there, I wonder if anyone could advise me on what qualities or capabilities I should look for in a machine. When I walk into a store or search online, what is my checklist, what's my floor? And further, what should I consider beyond my needs? 50 different stitch types unnecessary? Any brands to avoid?

Or, should I focus more on being able to buy from a local store that'll give good support, and within that just buy the best machine within my budget and don't overthink the choice?


Not overthinking it is good first choice. Then local. Check the used market in your area first before looking at new as I now see whole shops being sold off, way on down to Granny's machine. Others here are better to respond for unit options, but straight stitch and cheap makes room for better cottons for finished products.


The older all metal models are very suitable for men's tailoring, all you need is forward and reverse, zigzag is useful. The older metal models are tough enough to sew through quite stiff denim, which is about as tough as you need.

Singer is well known and are usually good machines, but other brands are very good too, pfaff, husquvarna, elna and bernina, though these later machines can get pricey.

Then check that they actually work and have a look inside as much as possible, just to see if there is any rust or obvious damage.  It's great if they have all the attachments, but if the price is right (eg if it's free or near to), just the machine is enough.  It's a very smart move to push the machine a bit to see if it runs quiet and smooth before you buy it.

Industrials are a wonder of course, but mostly they are too fast and sudden for a beginner (like learning to drive in a McLaren), and they are made for specific parts of jobs, like any other factory process.
Schneider sind auch Leute


All good advice above. Older, all-metal machines were over engineered and can last many lifetimes if cared for correctly (the machines find owners). Even when they've expired they can often be resurrected.

Conversely, domestic, all-plastic things can have very short life-expectancies (talk to any service  guy/gal). A few years ago I thought I'd treat myself to a brand new domestic, so that I could do quick and easy buttonholes and some snazzy embroidery things. Despite being advertised as 'all metal', the machine was mostly plastic (particularly the interior parts) and what metal I could see was incredibly thin. Not only that but the machine was dead on arrival. The motor was jammed and just made a buzzing noise. A brand new machine!!

I returned the 'modern wonder', received a full refund and bought an old Singer made in 1960. Straight stitch only, easy to service and with the power of a tractor. It doesn't have all the bells and whistles, but the straight stitch is superb: better than my equally vintage Bernina (which belonged to my mother in the 60s and is still going strong - another all metal machine).


Thank you all, this is good info to have. I get the sense that people don't like newer Singer machines (including the "heavy duty" line? correct me if I'm wrong), so I should look for brands Schneiderfrei mentioned (pfaff, husquvarna, elna and bernina), also maybe Janome? I seem to see positive things written of them.

And qualities I should look for appear to be refreshingly simple: a strong, sturdy machine that does a straight stitch is all that's really required, zig-zag and button hole is nice to have.

As for used versus new, sounds like there's trade-offs. Better value to be had buying used, but buying used comes with uncertainty (especially in my case, as a relatively uninformed buyer), requires patience, and hassle. Buying new from a dealer comes with some guarantees and better buying experience, but I may not get as much machine.

My wife and I try to remind ourselves with any large purchase that there's really only two options: make a small purchase that gets you what you need and accounts for risk/failure; as in, you won't regret it if you have to replace it in a year or two. OR, suck it up and spend the money required to get what you need. If you find yourself aiming for this middle ground of spending a little more to get a little more, but trying not to spend so much it hurts, you're either not getting what you want or losing more money than you needed to.

I feel like in these very early stages I should keep my budget small and get a machine that gets me started, don't overthink it, and maybe go the safe route and buy from a store so I can get some product support, possibility of returning if it fails, and the pleasure of in-person shopping.

theresa in tucson

A straight stitch all metal Singer or Singer clone (the Sears Kenmore come to mind)is really all you need to get started.  Then I would add a decent overlocker for finishing edges when you get more experienced.  An overlocker isn't really necessary but I'm lazy and doing endless French or flat felled seams on casual blouses/shirts or pants isn't what I'm interested in when I'm adding to the daily wardrobe.


Is there someone who fixes sewing machines in your area? They could have something around that is sturdy and solid. Stores that sell don't repair them. They will call someone in to repair. Might as well start with that person.


Quote from: EvanTA on August 10, 2023, 11:14:08 PMThank you all, this is good info to have. I get the sense that people don't like newer Singer machines (including the "heavy duty" line? correct me if I'm wrong), so I should look for brands Schneiderfrei mentioned (pfaff, husquvarna, elna and bernina), also maybe Janome? I seem to see positive things written of them. 

The aforementioned machine that was D.O.A. was a Janome. As for Singer, they company has different owners nowadays. The modern machines aren't great.

If you have room for an industrial machine and table, Juki can be affordable. I've never used one, but if youtube videos are anything to go by, tons of tailors and workshops do.

Many sewing centres sell second-hand machines alongside new models, so you should get some sort of warranty from them; and if you buy an older machine it should at least have had a basic service. See what's on offer.


I live in the Washington DC area and looked around, seems there is a store that sells new and used machines (as well as high-end vacuum cleaners), looks like new machines they sell include Viking, as for used the stock can change but it sounds like he refurbishes them before selling so even if I'd buy used I'd at least know I'm getting a repairable machine from someone who knows how to service it. He seemed to quickly understand what kind of machine I'd need given what I intend to use it on.

I'll look around other stores as well, thankfully being in a decent sized city and metropolitan area I have some options.



More than you need starting out but lots of room to grow with as skills increase and resale value if you find you don't like the trade.

What sayeth the forum?


I checked that out, but I wouldn't be able to find the space for that in my house. My setup in the beginning will need to be something I can take up and down as needed given space concerns. I may in the future be able to set up a more permanent work-station if I stick with this and can therefore justify it as more than a passing fancy.   


Understood. Pity. Good price. Keep eyes on Craigslist within easy driving distance. Thrift stores are also good places to hunt. Saw three today in one store. Two tables and one case. Be patient and it will come to you when you need it.

Peruse the stuff here and on the old forum. You've months of things to keep you busy before worrying about shiny machines. Also, look for the DC tailors who are doing work for 'the Hill'. They will be helpful at some stage. Just beware overly priced things people think are worth more than anyone thinks. For example...

Something like this is what you want, unless this is even too large. I bought something similar not too long ago in Ohio for the same price. Be patient but diligent.


Picked something up yesterday, a Kenmore made in Japan, can't figure out the model (anyone recognize it?).

Went to the sewing/vacuum repair shop near me and the guy had recently refurbished it inside and out, and he really liked it. All metal with some stitch options (no buttonhole). He was very confident about its long term reliability and its ability to handle thicker/heavier cottons. I've barely used it yet, needed to build the table top workstation you see in the photo there (wife and I agreed if this desk space served dual purpose as a general crafts/laptop space then I could build it), today I'll start getting comfortable with it, I've got some used sheets I'll use to practice various stitches and whatnot.

I'm very happy with the purchase, I like knowing there's a shop I can go to that knows my exact machine and can service it and answer questions. Seems like I got a good, solid machine. Salesman also threw in some extra bobbins, threads, and needles

which was nice.


The guy who does the Vintage Sewing Machine Garage channel on youtube recently restored a Kennmore, similar to yours. He seemed to really like the vintage models. I've never used one, but the demo he gave when the machine was up-and-running produced nice stitches.


The Kenmore machines have a model number that begins with three digits, then a decimal point, then 4 to 8 more digits. All of these numbers are necessary to properly identify the exact model. Yours appears to be a 158 model similar to a 158.16250. The 158 Series is considered the best of the Kenmore machines by most Kenmore enthusiasts.

The later model 385 series was actually manufactured by Janome for Sears beginning around 1990. I bought one new then and have maintained it completely on my own. One of the best purchases of my life. I have recently obtained 2 vintage Singers to give the Janome a rest from upholstery, leather and denim work.

There is a vintage Kenmore group at the Groups.io forums that can provide mountains of info on your machine. You simply need to request membership. Someone can probably even get you a model number for a buttonholer.

-Tina in TN