A Guide to Buying Your First Sewing Machine

Sewing machines look complicated, don’t they?  And the prices can range from under $100 to thousands of dollars.  Choosing your first machine can be confusing, but this guide will help you in selecting a machine that will do all the things you need it to do, and without making a huge investment.

A guide to help you select a machine that will do everything you need it to do, without making a huge investment

I used two of my machines for the photos in this article – the Juki HZL-27Z (updated model is the HZL-29Z) and the Singer StylistThe Juki is a very basic machine, and is the one I use on a daily basis. The Stylist has more features – as in 100 different stitches! Either machine is great for a beginner.

You only need the basics

With the absolute minimum features of sewing forward & backward, a zigzag stitch and ability to make a buttonhole, you will have everything you need to make your own wardrobe, clothes for the kids, gifts and some home décor items like curtains and pillows.  You can get a decent, basic sewing machine like this for around $125-$190.  So let’s go over what to look for, since each brand and model is a little different.

Features to look for

Zigzag stitch. Most machines will have this feature, but be sure to check.  If you have a very old machine that you are thinking of using, it may not be able to do this stitch, which is crucial for the next “must have” feature.

Some machines will have a dial or knob to adjust the width of the zigzag stitch, and others will be computerized, where you press a button for the size of the stitch.  Either method works fine, so don’t base your buying decision on the method for this stitch.

Manual dial on a sewing machine for stitch selection
Manual dial for stitch selection

Buttonhole-making In order to make a machine-stitched buttonhole, your sewing machine has to have a zigzag stitch.  The buttonhole is made up of 4 rows of tightly spaced zigzag stitches, but the method of making those rows varies from machine to machine. One method is a knob, dial or switch marked with steps 1-4 of the process.  I have a few machines that use this method, and the machine that I use on a daily basis (the Juki) is also like this.

A guide to help you select a machine that will do everything you need it to do, without making a huge investment | www.donnaberlanda.com | Stitch selection on a computerized machine
Stitch and buttonhole selection on a computerized machine

Another method is one where you take the button that you need the buttonhole for, and place it into an adjustable holder at the back of the buttonhole foot.  Once you start making the buttonhole, the machine will automatically make it to the size to fit the button.  Pretty cool, huh?  One of the drawbacks is that sometimes the button pops out of the holder, and messes up the size of the buttonhole if you don’t notice that the button has moved.  Another thing to keep in mind with this method is that some buttons will be difficult to fit into the slider – for example geometric-shaped buttons like a triangle or an oval.

If you have a choice between free-arm or not – go with the free-arm!  Machines with this feature have a piece that you can remove that makes it easier to hem tricky cuffs and pant legs. The machine piece that pops off is usually the part that has the little accessory drawer in it.  Some are a little harder to remove, so if you are in a store where you can try it out, you might want to do that.  Don’t worry if you can’t try it out though – with a little tugging, it will come off!  Also, you won’t be using this feature a lot, but it sure is nice to have when you need it.

A guide to help you select a machine that will do everything you need it to do, without making a huge investment | www.donnaberlanda.com | Free arm sewing machine
Free arm sewing machine

Bobbin case. This is the part of the machine that holds the bobbin.  There are two styles – top-load/drop in and front-loading.  I happen to prefer top-load drop in with the clear plastic window, so I can see how much bobbin thread is left.  It never fails that the bobbin runs out of thread in the middle of a long seam, so it is a handy feature when you want a quick glance to see how much thread is left on the bobbin.  I also find it much easier to load the bobbin from the top.

A guide to help you select a machine that will do everything you need it to do, without making a huge investment | Front loading bobbin
Front loading bobbin
A guide to help you select a machine that will do everything you need it to do, without making a huge investment | Drop-in bobbin
Drop-in bobbin

That’s it! 

If you are just getting started with sewing, you really don’t need much else.  Of course there are other features that are in the “nice to have” list – a stretch stitch for working with knit fabrics (when you have a little more experience) and also a seam finishing stitch that does a “mock overlock” for keeping seam allowances from unraveling.  That can be done with the zigzag while you are learning, and when you get serious about making clothes, I recommend that you invest in a serger.

My recommendations:

And if you think you would like a serger, I have the Juki MO644D Portable Serger.

When you get your new machine, it should come with a seam ripper, a few bobbins and maybe a few different sewing feet.  For other supplies that you will need, here’s what I wrote about that: 15 Essential Sewing Supplies

Hopefully, this has made shopping for your first sewing machine a little easier!  Just remember to:

  • Unpack and inspect the machine ASAP
  • Read the owner’s manual
  • Start sewing and have fun!

6 thoughts on “A Guide to Buying Your First Sewing Machine

    • Donna Post author

      Oh Crystal, don’t be afraid of it! A sewing machine is less complicated than a microwave! Start off by threading it and just try sewing straight lines on some scrap fabric to get yourself used to using the machine. You’ll be sewing in no time!

    • Donna Post author

      Once you start sewing, you will love it! I have to say, that the Juki is the best machine I have ever used. It’s my daily go-to machine, and it will sew through just about anything.

  • Joyce Russell

    What a great article. Just the basics, and for someone like me who has no experience, perfect. I have been toying with the idea of a machine just to do curtains and pillows. Now I know what to look for. Many thanks.

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