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Choosing the Right Sewing Machine

Ordinarily in the first week of the month, I’d post about what I’ve been making that month. However, troubles with my sewing machine means I’ve pretty much not made anything, so I thought I’d instead talk about machines instead. Lots of people talk about losing your “sewjo”, few people talk about burnout and even fewer talk about having the right tools to begin with. They’re all very different things in my view.

A lack of sewjo in most cases is a lack of inspiration or motivation to either start or continue working on a project. I’ve had this a couple of times; those abandoned projects are still sat waiting to be finished! A lack of sewjo isn’t an easy one to fix, sometimes you just need to try something else for a while and come back to the abandoned project later. Burnout is when you can’t stand to be around your machine, and it makes you feel tired just looking at it. This happened to me just after my wedding, as I’d spent weeks in a state of perpetual stress trying to get things finished and looking perfect. That’s fixed by having a decent break and giving yourself some time off. Not having the right tools to begin with and forcing yourself to use them anyway is harder to accept and yet easier to fix than the other two.

So, a little background on my machine and why I changed it.

Basic stitches
My old New Home machine

Choosing a Vintage Sewing Machine from 1980s

The sewing machine I’ve been using for the past couple of years is one I inherited: a 1980s New Home (that’s the brand name Janome used in the UK back then). It’s a pretty basic mechanical machine – 9 stitches plus a 4 step buttonhole – but it did most things that I needed. Except one pretty big thing: retain its tension. I tried everything to get this sorted; I took it apart and fully cleaned it several times, spent hours trying to dial in the tension properly, even discovered that some of my bobbins were causing serious issues. I’m fairly sure that it had never been for a service before June this year – I’d been intending to take it for one for some time, then lockdown happened and the increased use pushed me to my wits end with it, so I took it in as soon as I could.

After the service, the machine ran perfectly for the first time since I’ve had it and I had the smoothest time making some Ruri sweatpants by Named Clothing. Then I came to use it to make some small gifts and it was straight back to square one with the problems. With the help of some friendly folk on instagram, I worked out that my initial issues were down to the bobbin apparently being damaged, changed it and for a very short while (probably around an hour) it worked well again. Then my age old nemesis of tension problems came back and I’d had enough.

I felt that since I’d inherited the machine I had to make it work and keep it going. In reality, I should have realised far sooner that it wasn’t going to be capable of much, simply because of these seemingly unresolvable recurring issues. My mother in law and I made the decision to sew my wedding dress using her machine back at the end of 2018 because we couldn’t get a reliable tension on the first toile with mine – in hindsight that should have been a far bigger alarm bell than it was. So this past weekend, I finally relented and bought a new machine. If I’d bought a new one in the first place, it might have been something reasonably similar to my vintage machine – a mechanical one with a small(ish) range of stitches that did just what I needed. Having had this one though, I decided I ought to buy one which was a considerable upgrade.

Do you need a new one - or just a servicing?

So if you’re starting to find yourself getting stressed by your makes and frustrated at your machine, just ask yourself: is it worth all these problems? Can they be fixed by something like a service or a good clean, or is it time to accept you need to get a new sewing machine? By all means, sell or part exchange your old one, it’ll always be of use to someone else and you can put that money towards your new one. I’m not advocating throwing out a perfectly good machine or just buying a new one for the sake of it – but if the source of your problems are your tools not being up to scratch and, no matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to fix those problems, it’s time to accept that you need new tools. I accepted that much later than I should have done and I wouldn’t wish the stress, headaches and tears on anyone else in a similar situation.

How do you choose a sewing machine between all the different ones out there?

Firstly, have a good, long think about what you currently make and what you want to make in future. Do you make clothes, quilts, household items, bags? Are you interested in personalising and embroidering, or do you want to make more complex items, such as lingerie or swimwear? Asking yourself these questions will give you a good idea of the type of machine you’re looking for, as you can look for things such as extension tables or a specific set of stitch types which you are likely to make use of in the future.

Secondly, seriously consider how much you can afford to spend. It might be tempting to replace your £50 machine with a £100 machine, but if you’re using it a lot and have already run up to the £50 machine’s limitations, it wouldn’t be long before the same thing happens to the £100 machine. Sewing machines are like anything else – you can find one to fit any price range from super cheap all the way up to tens of thousands of pounds, so you’re sure to find something in your price range. Also have a think about if there’s anything that might make your sewing life easier – for example, if you have mobility issues with your legs, feet or hips, it would be worth looking for a machine that doesn’t need a foot pedal to operate it. Many of the computerised machines have a start/stop button, so you can use that instead of a foot control.

Choose a specialist sewing machine store for the best advice

Now that you have an idea of what you’d use the machine for and how much you can reasonably spend on one, go and have a chat with a sewing machine shop. I don’t mean John Lewis or Amazon, you need the expertise of a specialist sewing machine shop here. They can advise on the different brands and models, what they’re capable of, any accessories you might need and what the machine comes with. Many of these shops are also able to repair and service your machine, so you might find they offer return and repair guarantees. Some even offer one-to-one tuition, so you can get some good advice on how to use your new sewing machine. This could be particularly useful if you’re significantly upgrading and feel a bit overwhelmed by everything. Once you’ve got a couple of recommendations from the sewing machine shop, have a think about the differences between them and what the pros are for each machine over the other. Then check out some reviews online – here I would look at Amazon as well as sewing bloggers and magazines, as you can get some honest reviews from general users (though remember to take them with a pinch of salt).

My new sewing machine - a Janome GD8100
My new sewing machine!

Once you’ve made your choice, don’t forget to go back to the sewing machine shop and buy from them. They’ll appreciate the purchase far more than a big, faceless brand like Amazon or John Lewis, plus it’s not fair to take their advice and go somewhere else. Most shops have a website, social media and phone number, so you don’t have to physically go into the shop if you can’t or still don’t feel comfortable during this pandemic. I bought my machine from David Drummond Sewing Machines and so wouldn’t have been able to go into the store even if I’d wanted to, as they’re based in Edinburgh and I’m in Manchester! I started the conversation on instagram and then phoned them to place my order.

My machine!

I now have a computerised sewing machine which has 100 stitches to choose from, including 3 automatic buttonholes. It’s perhaps far more than I need at this point in my sewing journey, but I wanted something I could use for years to come, and this fits the bill perfectly. I used it for the first time yesterday and it’s just so much easier – mainly because I don’t have to worry about all the quirks and annoying things my old machine did. I have a range of stitches which I can see uses for already – including a darning stitch which will be very useful in repairing my husband’s well worn jeans – plus more than enough additional ones that I can use for future projects. I spotted one stitch on it which I’d like to use to decorate some hankies I want to make from scrap fabric – not something I’d planned on doing to said hankies, but just a nice extra touch that I wouldn’t have been able to do with my old machine.

My new sewing machine has 100 stitches to choose from
The stitch selector on my new machine...just a few more than I had previously!

There is more to think about with sewing machines than just price, but if you get one that’s right for you and what you want to make, it should last you for years. Don’t forget to go back to the shop you bought your machine from for any additional accessories like new presser feet or bobbins too!