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Unread 07-15-2010, 03:02 PM   #1
The Hag
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General Information on Buying a Sewing Machine

Although this isn't a specific review, I hope this will be helpful for people looking to buy a sewing machine.

In terms of buying, there are two major categories of sewing machines.

1. Low-end
  • Purchased off the shelf at places like JoAnn’s, Target and Walmart.
  • Some common brands names are Singer, White and Brother.
  • Run from $100 to $400 or so.
  • Pros - relatively inexpensive and readily available; perfectly adequate for basic sewing.
  • Cons - may do poorly with very thin or very thick fabric or multiple layers; not very durable (often the internal parts are made of plastic); if used heavily, may not last more than a year or so; may cost as much to repair as the purchase price.
  • If you have never sewn, aren’t sure how much you will sew, aren’t sure if you will even like sewing, I recommend starting with a low-end machine.
2. High-end (See below for tips on buying)
  • Purchased from authorized dealers at sewing/quilting specialty stores.
  • Main brands are Husqvarna/Viking, Bernina and Janome. (Note: Viking has authorized dealerships located in some JoAnn's but they operate as a separate entity from the main store)
  • The basic machines start at $400 or so. Machines that include embroidery and quilting functions can run as high as $15,000. No lie.
  • Pros – handle a wide variety of fabrics easily; some can handle non-standard materials like leather and soft metals (no lie); can last for decades; usually come with a multi-year warranty (20 to 30 years); salespeople are generally knowledgeable.
  • Cons – require a large initial outlay of money; authorized dealers may not be conveniently located; salespeople can be pushy.
  • If five years from now you will still be sewing regularly, I recommend buying a high-end machine. In the long run, it will be cheaper than having to repair or replace a low-end machine every few years.

There is a third minor category.

3. Vintage (1970’s or earlier)
  • Purchased from yard sale, thrift store or Craig’s list; freebie from friend or relative.
  • Pros – can be dirt cheap; will last forever if cared for properly.
  • Cons – can be time consuming to find one in good shape; can be difficult to find a shop even for routine maintenance; will probably weigh a ton.
  • If you have more time than money and want a machine that will hold up under heavy usage, I recommend trying to find a vintage machine.

A few additional points:
  • The single most important difference between low-end and high-end is longevity. In most cases, an inexpensive machine will sew just as well as an expensive one - until something breaks and requires a costly repair. A high-end machine may never break, requiring no more than the occasional cleaning and timing adjustment.
  • There is not a large price difference between a low-end machine with all the bells and whistles and a bare bones high-end brand. If you have a budget of $400, I highly recommend going for a bare bones Viking or Bernina over a tricked-out off-the-shelf brand.
  • Regarding brand names, some company names are bought and sold regularly. Manufacturing location can also change. When either of these happen, the quality of a given brand or model can change drastically. This is why some people love their Singer (they have vintage machines made before the Singer family sold their name) and other people hate them (they have a poorly made one from a bad year). When looking at reviews, be aware of this and pay careful attention to exact model numbers and the age of the machine being reviewed, especially for the low-end brands.
  • I strongly recommend against buying online. Shipping costs are often high due to the weight. Manufacturers may not honor a warranty from an online sale. Sewing machine listings on Ebay are notorious for fraud. But most importantly, you really should sew on the machine yourself before buying it.
  • Note that I have frequently used qualifiers such as “may”, “can” and “generally”. Prices and availability will no doubt vary by region. There are no doubt specific instances of people who have used their low-end machines for years with no problem as well as the occasional high-end lemon.

Tips on buying a high-end machine
  • Go to the Husqvarana and Bernina websites and find the dealers nearest to you. Most sewing/quilting stores will carry both brands as well as others that may not be as well known.
  • Visit the store and make a small purchase – thread or needles, say – to get a sense of the inventory and the sales staff. Are they friendly? Knowledgeable? Keep in mind that the store you buy your machine from will be your authorized dealer. At a minimum, you will have to return to them for routine maintenance so you want to be sure that they are reasonable people. A good store and sales staff can be a valuable resource for supplies, classes and information.
  • Sign up for their mailing list and watch for sales. When new models come out, the older models are often deeply discounted.
  • When you are ready to buy, approach it like buying a car. Go when you can spend at least an hour.
  • Come prepared with a list of questions and features you are interested in. Bring swatches of your most difficult fabrics for test stitching. Tell the salesperson what you are looking for, what kind of sewing you do and your price range. Ask for a demo of the various models that fit your criteria. Ask if the purchase includes any free training or classes. Tell them up front that you are just getting information and that you not buying today. Ask your questions, get the demo, thread it yourself and do some test sewing. Then WALK OUT.
  • Don’t let them pressure you into a quick sale. If the salesperson makes you too uncomfortable come back when there is a different salesperson or look for another store.
  • Go home, think about it. Visit another store if possible. Do some online research. In all likelihood you will think of more questions.
  • Do not buy until all your questions have been answered and you are confident of your decision. It’s a lot of money and you are going to have this machine for a long time!

Good Luck and Happy Sewing!

The Hag
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Last edited by The Hag : 07-15-2010 at 03:24 PM.
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Unread 08-07-2010, 01:08 PM   #2
maskedrose
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I've actually found three working sewing machines from the 60s and 50s A singer slant-o-matic and a Kenmore 52. I don't remember the third one I bought. All of them total were less than 30 dollars :-D Search the salvation army. The only issue is the Singer was used without cams (big no no) so it only sews straight - but that shouldn't be a costly repair. My slant-o-matic booklet says "most lightweight machine" and it is HEAVY as hell, but the newer kenmore 52 is even heavier. Thank jeebus it came in a sewing table.
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Unread 04-26-2011, 11:48 PM   #3
mechafaux
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Very useful guide, thank you for putting that together!

Juki's weren't mentioned but they can be pretty awesome.
Something to look for: not all machines have straight stretch stitches. If you plan on sewing loads of spandex, this is a must. One of my machines is a low-end Singer with a great selection of stretch stitches and I use that machine for superhero spandex suits the most. If you never plan on using super stretchy material, then this is not something you need to pay for.
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Unread 01-04-2012, 01:53 AM   #4
Mademoiselle
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I actually had an epic vintage Singer machine given to me that was from, I'm guessing, the thirties. It was basically just the machine from a Singer treadle electrified and put in a portable case. Heavy as hell and only had one setting but it was awesome. That is, until it was left in a closet that leaked like a sieve for an extended period of time. >.< I'm guessing it's ruined and honestly I'm afraid to test it.
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Unread 06-24-2014, 11:04 PM   #5
EvilLittleKiss
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(Sorry to bump an old thread!)

I bought a working 1913 White treadle (non-electric) machine at the thrift shop a few weeks back for only $65. All I need is some new belting, which will only cost a couple bucks.

I definitely recommend visiting thrift shops (and maybe garage sales too) for sewing machines, especially if you're new to sewing and don't even know if you'll like it. If you buy a $25 machine and realize that sewing isn't your thing, then you're only out $25, instead of maybe $200+.

BUT, keep in mind that it may be missing pieces, and it may not work as well as the owner or shopkeeper tells you it does. It may need repair, and chances are most thrift shops won't let you take it back if it doesn't work like they claimed. Whenever possible, test all electronics you buy at a thrift store or garage sale before buying.
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