Choosing a Sewing Machine
Sewing machines have come a long way since home economics class. Now even cheap sewing machines come with built-in stitch designs, push-button controls, and LCD screens. Of course, a mechanical sewing machine controlled with a foot pedal and knobs remains an option. Whichever style you prefer, our research into specifications and sewing machine reviews found plenty of good sewing machines under $200. A bump in price buys additional features for advanced sewers, quilters, or those who want to do embroidery.
Sewing Machine Brands.Three brands dominate the market for cheap sewing machines: Singer, Brother, and Janome. A handful of other brands focus on lighter, more portable machines, including Michley/Tivax and Sunbeam. Baby Lock, Husqvarna-Viking, Bernina, and Pfaff are higher-end brands available mostly through independent dealers. Their sewing machines easily eclipse $1,000. Juki is a less common name that makes a few inexpensive sewing machines but is better known for its pricey commercial-grade sewing machines and sergers.
Mechanical Sewing Machines.Most sewing machines available these days are electronic, but good-quality, low-cost mechanical models are often recommended as the best sewing machines for beginners because of their simplicity and durability. Mechanical sewing machines have knobs and dials for adjusting operations like stitch length and thread tension and usually offer fewer decorative stitches than their electronic counterparts. In the budget segment of the market, they start at about $60. But durability is key here -- it's the reason the price tag on a sturdy mechanical sewing machine may be about equal to that on a more full-featured computerized sewing machine.
The best cheap mechanical sewing machines we found are the Janome 2212 (starting around $189) and the Brother XM2701 (starting around $83), the latter a particularly good choice for beginners. Two other mechanical models, the Singer 4432 Heavy Duty (starting around $155) and the ultra-basic Singer 1304 Start (starting around $72), earn runner-up status. Reviews indicate that the Janome New Home Derby (starting around $70) is too flimsy and basic to recommend.
Electronic Sewing Machines.Electronic sewing machines, which start at about $100, rely on buttons that send electronic commands. One benefit of electronic machines is their accuracy, when adjusting stitch length, for example. The other major benefit is the wider assortment of stitch types and stitching patterns and the ability to customize designs to a greater degree. Some computerized sewing machines also give users the ability to upload additional designs and upgrades via USB connections.
Our choice for best cheap electronic sewing machine is the Singer 7258 Stylist (starting around $177), followed by the Brother CS-6000i (starting around $150) in second place. The Singer 5400 Sew Mate (starting around $104), on the other hand, gives too many users headaches from jammed bobbins and broken needles. Think twice before choosing this model.
Pricey vs. Cheap Sewing Machines.Cheap sewing machines typically are aimed at beginner and intermediate home users who focus on the basics: hems, basic garments, and small crafts. The least expensive sewing machines feature the most standard manual functions and just a few stitches. Stepping up in price adds more automatic functions and stitches, better accuracy, and more options, such as adding new stitch patterns. Buyers can spend more than $600 on a truly high-end, high-tech sewing machine with a mind-boggling number of stitches and features. Spending more also can net a commercial-grade machine that can sew very quickly and is built to withstand constant use. For anyone into basic sewing, however, such machines are probably overkill.
We did identify several sewing machines for consumers who want a few more bells and whistles than an entry-level machine at a reasonable price. The electronic Singer 9960 Quantum Stylist (starting around $341) has enough stitches and features to satisfy even advanced sewers, while the Brother SE400 (starting around $310) is a hybrid that can handle embroidery as well as beginning and intermediate sewing. The Singer 7469Q Confidence Quilter (starting around $263) adds features that quilters will appreciate and is a capable electronic sewing machine in its own right.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Sewing Machine Reviews: What We Considered
To evaluate cheap sewing machines, we compared specs and examined thousands of online reviews. These included feedback from sources such as Wirecutter and TechGearLab, which test products, as well as enthusiast sites like Erin Says Sew and Quilter's Review. User commentary posted on retail sites including Amazon, Walmart, and Joann was even more valuable in this category. Reviews tend to focus on ease of use, stitch variety and accessories, and fabric handling. For the most part, buyers who need only the basics, whether intermediate sewers or beginners eager to grow their skill, are satisfied with our picks.
Ease of Use.Sewing machines have a wide range of features that purport to make sewing as easy as possible. Although we can't do them all justice here, a few are crucial for beginners in particular: drop-in bobbins, automatic needle threaders, and free arms.
Sewing machines generally have either front-loading or drop-in bobbins. In general, front-loading bobbins are harder for beginners to learn to use and work with, and are less common in newer machines. Many sewers prefer a drop-in bobbin because it's easier to see if you're running out of thread and easier to spot potential problems with the thread. Still, getting the hang of the bobbin may take some patience and persistence.
Another crucial feature to look for: an automatic needle threader. As any sewer knows, sharp eyes and steady hands are required to thread a needle. Machines with an automatic needle threader can accomplish this task in seconds. While a needle threader might not be a deal-breaker for those who are used to threading a needle the old-fashioned way, it can speed up the process and, reviews indicate, is especially popular with older sewers.
Trying to sew pant or shirt cuffs can be a challenge. That's where a free arm comes in. Part of the platform on a free-arm sewing machine either drops down or can be removed to facilitate circular sewing. This is a must-have feature and, fortunately, most good cheap sewing machines incorporate a free arm.
Other common features that are more divisive include things like automatic thread tension, automatic needle position, and automatic presser-foot control. While beginners may appreciate the no-brainer aspect of these automatic features, they may feel limiting for intermediate or advanced sewers who want more control over their projects.
Stitches and Buttonholes.Budget-priced sewing machines come with an array of stitches; the number and type depend on the model. If mending clothes is the plan, a straight stitch, zigzag, and blind hem stitch are the minimum requirements, according to Erin Says Sew; if making clothes is the goal, an overlocking stitch is an important feature. Some machines also allow users to adjust the length and width of the stitches. Anyone who wants to try their hand at quilting or embroidery should check for an array of decorative stitches. Beginners or home sewers working on simple projects should be happy with the basics -- there's no need to pay for a machine loaded with dozens of stitches that won't be used.
Any sewing machine should let the user create buttonholes without much effort. Some make the job more complicated than others by requiring multiple steps, typically four, instead of just one. At a minimum, beginners should look for at least one one-step buttonhole. Some sewing machines with more stitches offer even more buttonhole styles, including "endless" buttonholes where the length of the sides can be customized.
Presser Feet.A sewing machine's presser foot helps hold the fabric in place as it moves under the needle. With all the different stitch and function options on even entry-level machines, a range of presser feet is important; one for a zipper and another for edge stitching or zigzags, for example. All sewing machines come with a basic presser foot, and some inexpensive models feature others that might be useful for a variety of things, like quilting, sewing zippers, or monogramming. It's possible to buy additional presser feet later on, but this is a pricey way to go. Each foot costs anywhere from $10 to $50, so it's usually a smarter move to invest in a sewing machine that comes with an assortment of presser feet.
Fabric Handling.No matter what type of sewing project you undertake, the fabric should pass smoothly beneath the needle. Both the presser foot and the "feed dogs" (the metal teeth sitting under the fabric that propel it forward) facilitate this process. (If you want to control the movement of the fabric yourself, choose a machine with a drop feed, which disengages the feed dogs.)
Most of the sewing machines we researched are meant for hobbyists and crafters, and for simple projects; few are designed for heavy-duty upholstering or working with many layers of fabric. That said, there are several models billed as "heavy duty" in the Cheapism price range that can handle multiple layers or thicker fabrics like denim and leather. These machines must be more stable, which makes them heavier and less portable. Also, specialty fabrics often demand a different type of needle, and using the wrong needle on heavier fabric will lead to broken needles and frustration, regardless of the sewing machine's power.
Weight/Portability.Many low-cost sewing machines are light enough to carry from room to room or take to sewing parties with friends. This should be a major buying consideration for anyone who expects to be moving the machine frequently. Very compact machines, or those aimed at kids, may weigh as little as 5 to 10 pounds, while more fully featured machines are often closer to 15 pounds, and sometimes more.
Of course, if the machine will be parked in one place most of the time, users may appreciate the stability of a heavier model. Lightweight machines may creep, slide, or bounce across the table, making projects unnecessarily difficult. Heavier machines also may be bigger and offer more workspace, important for quilters or those who want to work on larger projects.
Durability and Warranty.As with any small appliance, a sewing machine should be solidly built regardless of price. By that we mean buttons and levers that feel strong to the touch, no rattles or vibrations, and parts that don't easily break. Unfortunately, long-term durability can be hard to assess, because most reviewers comment on their sewing machines within months, perhaps a year, of purchase.
Sewing machines often come with a three-tiered warranty for different components and functions. For instance, it's common for there to be a longer warranty on the machine head or frame, a shorter warranty on electric parts, and a final warranty period, shorter still, that covers both parts and labor. Most of the sewing machines we researched have a 25-year warranty for the head/frame/chassis, a two- to five-year warranty for electric parts, and a one-year (or less) parts-and-labor warranty.
Remember that the manufacturer's warranty may not apply if you buy the sewing machine from an online retailer instead of directly from the manufacturer or an authorized dealer. If the retailer is not authorized, ask about a substitute warranty. A good deal on a sewing machine should always include a valid warranty.
Finally, the quality of the owner's manual is almost as important as the quality of the machine. A good manual clearly explains all the different functions and how to make them operative. We looked for reviews that mention instructions to make sure users find them clear and understandable. Accompanying guides or DVDs aimed at beginners are a nice bonus.