How To: Shop for a new sewing machine

by jake on January 30, 2013

How many of us dream about our next sewing machines? You know, those deep, dark mechanical fantasies that give our car-obsessed other halves a race for their unending devotion to what could be? Yep. That’s what we thought. All of us! And since there are more than a few makes and models on the market that are priced as high as a new car, this purchase could well become one of the largest and most important of your financial life.

So when our good bud, Elaine Wong Haselhuhn, asked about how to go about buying a new machine, we decided the topic deserved broader exploration. Elaine, being the team player she is, happily sacrificed her privacy so that Jake could dog her around the recent Road to California quilt show, where Elaine was encouraged to seek out said new machine.

Here are some of the tips to selecting a new sewing machine, and this is presuming that you already have a basic working relationship with a sewing machine, even if it’s not your’s:

  1. Determine YOUR level of skill as it is today. There is no right or wrong answer to this one. It’s just an assessment of how you currently use a machine. Are you strictly making quilts or home dec? Are you afraid of extra features, like a needle threader and fancy stitches?
  2. Make a list of the features you know you want in a new machine. If you’re not sure, hold off until you complete Step 5. But many of us already know the things the features we most lust after: knee lift, thread cutter, larger bed, etc… What are your must-haves and what are your wanna-haves?
  3. Where do you want your sewing to be in five years? If for now you’re only making quilt tops but you dream of free-motion quilting your quilts, you’ll need a machine that has an ample machine bed, fast stitch and dropping feed dogs. If you want to explore clothing construction, a free-arm bed is almost essential for sewing sleeves and tight corners. Ultimately you want your new machine to grow with your skills, not stunt your creativity.
  4. Ask your peeps about their machines. This is the best way to determine what you want, don’t want and what works, because your fellow stitchers have the hands-on experience to share their wisdom, and they’ve been working with their machines for some period of time already.
  5. Time to play. Go on field trips to your local sewing machine dealers–all of them. Don’t avoid a brand because of price or perception. You’ll be able to tell very quickly what you like and what you don’t like. But, also remember to bring your own samples to sew on. If you’re looking at free-motion quilting, bring a large prepared sandwich with you and use a permanent fabric pen to note which stitch sections were made by which machines. If you’re going to sew a lot of heavyweight fabrics, bring some squares of home-dec fabrics to sew together. Take notes. You’ll want to remember each machine’s sound, speed, straightness of the stitch, range of features and so on as you try different models. Make sure you also work on an assortment of mechanical and computer models and don’t be afraid of price, because you aren’t buying right now. You’re just playing.

Okay, so now you’ve narrowed down your choices. Let’s say you’ve picked out one or two contenders. This is the moment when you need to look at your  budget. Buying a good machine is an investment, and there are very few of us who won’t feel the bite that comes from this purchase. We have some thoughts on this as well:

  1. Have patience. It’s far better to hold off buying your machine until you have the money you need for the model you want. If you settle for a machine that isn’t going to show you all the love you need from it, that machine will become a waste of your time and money. Patience is far better here than settling.
  2. Second-hand machines, especially those resold by reputable dealers who will warranty the machine for a period of time, are a great option. Good and great machines are built to last for many years and there are plenty of people out there who had high visions for their brand-spanking-new machines but end up not sewing. You could easily end up with an almost brand new machine for a fraction of the sticker price.
  3. That said, we strongly recommend that you DO buy your machine from a dealer. The reason? Like your local quilt shop, a dealer is going to give you better service and will be devoted to caring for your machine for the long haul. A dealer has parts on hand, optional accessories and will know of any problems with the machine. Also, if your dream machine comes with many bells and whistles, dealers often offer free classes to learn the machine’s features. Lastly, a dealer will often negotiate sticker price with you.
  4. Quilt and sewing shows are excellent places to land great bargains on new machines. Take Elaine’s experience. She did do her research beforehand and knew that she wanted to try Brother, Juki and Janome models. At Road to California last week, dealers with each company were on-hand with their favorite selections, which meant that Elaine had a one-stop shop for trying out her choices. She learned about which models were close-outs (discounted) and also learned that for shows, many dealers display brand-new models right out of the box for testing, and then deeply discount these machines after only a couple of days. Same with the machines used in classrooms at the shows. All you have to do is arrange to get the machine at the end of the show. (Elaine ended up with the machine shown above and Jake was WAY jealous!)
  5. If you do purchase a new machine online, make sure that it has a valid warranty, that it will be shipped appropriately and that the shipping charges don’t exceed the cost of the machine. It’s worth calling your local dealer of the same brand to ask if they match prices.

Now we’d like to hear from you all. Anyone out there have some well-earned advice to pass on about buying a new sewing machine? We learn so much from all of you and really want you to share here.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Cindy Sharp Identicon Icon Cindy Sharp January 30, 2013 at 8:11 am

Do you ever want to just buy one with all the bells and whistles just so you can say all of the buttons work? When you buy a car, if it doesn’t have the gadget, there is a spot on the dash for it anyway. How cool would it be to have a sticker to put on that impotent button that says “Laser Blaster”?

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Laura Haywood Identicon Icon Laura Haywood January 30, 2013 at 12:16 pm

For me, having a local dealer who can repair and maintain my machine is essential. I don’t want to deal with shipping a machine off and waiting for weeks to get it back, even though I have backup machines that I can use in a pinch. I know not everyone lives where a local dealer is handy, but I like having the convenience and service.

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Alicia Key Identicon Icon Alicia Key January 30, 2013 at 5:20 pm

I have a Janome 6600P (as well as a Bernina & a couple of others). Love it! Now I want the one you’ve shown on here! What a corruptor you are! Excellent article & I’ll refer people to it!

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Alicia Key Identicon Icon Alicia Key January 30, 2013 at 5:21 pm

But you’re exactly right! A local dealer would be WONderful!

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quiltzyx/sue Identicon Icon quiltzyx/sue January 30, 2013 at 10:16 pm

A friend of mine got a machine at a quilt show, and they gave her another couple hundred dollars off the price (in addition to the ‘show’ price) because they couldn’t find the cardboard box for it! So definitely remember to negotiate. :D

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Elaine Identicon Icon Elaine January 31, 2013 at 1:38 am

another tip– bring along a long-time quilter extraordinaire/quilt magazine editor and you are set! :) still loving my machine!

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