The Best Sewing Machine for Beginners

After 18 hours of research, interviewing a sewing machine repairman, sewing teachers, and bloggers, and enlisting two well-known sewing writers, Sonja Beck Gingerich of Ginger Makes and Marcy Harriell of Oonaballoona, to help test 11 top-rated entry-level machines, we’ve found that the manual Janome Magnolia 7318 ($249) is the best machine for most beginning sewers. Though you could spend a lot more on a “beginner” machine with more luxurious features, we think you don’t need to. The Magnolia 7318 is basic but does everything well. It stitched beautifully through a range of fabrics, its control dials are easy to read and use, and it has enough intermediate features (like adjustable needle position, stretch stitches for knits, and a 4-step buttonhole) that you’ll probably be happy sewing on it for many years.

The Janome Magnolia 7318 is the best sewing machine for most sewers that are casual users or starting out. It balances versatility, quality, and price with plenty of useful features.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $249.
Before we go on, we must apologize for recommending a machine with such a stereotypically “girlish” logo. We wish the flowers weren’t there, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts, right?  It would also be nice if this sewing machine came with a hard case, but neither of those are a dealbreaker.

Also Great
*At the time of publishing, the price was $299.
The Janome HD1000 is a solid, metal-bodied machine that is rugged while still sewing smoothly. Its bottom-loading bobbin may not be ideal for some folks, but it’s a great runner-up sewing machine.
You could always slap a sticker over the flowers or pick up our runner up, the Janome HD1000 ($299), which is a more rugged, graphics-free machine that we also really like. This model also has an old-school metal body that those accustomed to vintage sewing machines may prefer.

In researching this guide we were surprised to find that Janome, which is the largest sewing machine manufacturer in the world, actually makes many of the entry-level machines sold by a range of other companies. Our testing group ended up dominated by Janome-brand machines or ones that Janome makes for other companies. Our top pick, the Janome Magnolia 7318, is essentially the same machine as the well-regarded Baby Lock Molly and Husqvarna Viking Emerald 116, which both retail for a good $50 to $150 more. Many prestigious sewing machine companies still make their top-of-the-line models but farm out the lower-end ones to Janome.

Also Great
*At the time of publishing, the price was $127.
The Singer Heavy Duty 4411 is about $100 less than our main pick; the quality isn’t as high as the Janomes we liked, but it’s a straightforward machine that can handle things like jeans and curtains.
If you’re just dipping your toe into the whole sewing thing—you only want to hem jeans, say, or make some curtains—or you’re just plain on a budget, we also like the Singer Heavy Duty 4411, which you can pick up for $127. The Singer’s stitch quality isn’t as nice as the Janomes we tested, but it sews evenly, the dials are easy to read, and our testers (who have many years of experience) all felt this would be a great machine to learn on.

Although you can spend upwards of $1,500 for a beginner machine, we focused this guide on machines that are $300 or less, as this seems like a good entry point for the novice or casual user.

If you’ve never touched a sewing machine before, we recommend trying one out at a dealer and purchasing one from there. Although relatively simple to operate, the mechanics of even simple manual machines can seem a little intimidating to the novice. A good dealer will be able to teach you the basics, such as winding the bobbin, replacing the needle, threading the machine, and adjusting stitches, all of which will probably save you hours of frustration trying to learn on your own. Plus, dealers often throw in complementary sewing classes. You can read more about dealers here.

Why you should trust me

As I mention in the Sweethome’s guide to sewing kits, I’ve been making my own clothes and quilts on and off for the past 20 years (my mom taught me when I was a kid). Now I mostly sew clothes for myself and my daughter and I chronicle my makes on my sewing blog. I’ve written tutorials for the popular home sewing and pattern website BurdaStyle, helped edit several crafts books, and I also host a sewing and textile podcast called Thread Cult.

Should I upgrade?

If you’re new to sewing machines overall, you can jump to our “How a sewing machine works” section.

Maybe you own an older sewing machine, perhaps inherited from a parent or grandparent, or scored from a local thrift shop. Is it worth getting it tuned up?

I spoke at length with Harvey Federman, a sewing machine repairman, in this podcast about buying and maintaining a sewing machine; he told me that if a vintage machine wasn’t great to begin with, you may be better off just buying a new one. Federman is a Bernina, Baby Lock, and Husqvarna Viking dealer, and he also worked for years as a Singer mechanic. He says that the quality of many sewing machines went downhill post World War II. “Most people come in who have been given a machine that’s an old relic, which is an all-metal machine; that is really a hunk of junk,” he says.

But if the machine was considered high-quality back in the day, it may still be worth using. Singer Featherweight machines, for example, are coveted by many sewists. “If it’s black, and it’s old, it’s definitely worth sewing on,” Federman says. I’ve also spoken with people who love working on old Kenmores, Berninas, and other big-brand machines. It couldn’t hurt to take your machine to a local dealer to get it assessed.

Many people assume that new machines with plastic parts are lower quality than old or new ones made all of metal. But this isn’t always the case.
Even if your old machine works, you still may want to upgrade simply because newer machines have more stitch options and can be easier to use. A basic new machine will allow you to do zigzag and stretch stitches, do automatic buttonholes, may feature a top-loading bobbin (which is easier to load and reduces needle jams), and may possess other features that will make sewing easier.

Many people assume that new machines with plastic parts are lower quality than old or new ones made all of metal. But this isn’t always the case. As Harvey Federman told us: “I think that the design of the machine and how the parts work together is more important than metal or plastic. However, if you look at a machine and it looks cheap and plasticky, it probably is. An all-metal frame or body does not guarantee anything as far as quality.”

If you are upgrading, or just coming back to sewing after a many years’ hiatus, you may want to look at a machine of a similar caliber to or better than the one you learned on.  We read a number of user reviews from people who learned on a parent’s or grandparent’s quality machine, and were disappointed when they bought a really low-end machine. The one you learn on is usually going to be the standard by which you judge other machines.

How we picked

We set out to find a good, all-purpose machine to use for making home decor projects, clothing, and basic quilts. This wasn’t as simple as it sounds. Every major company sells dozens of models, many of them seem to have similar features, and, as we mentioned, some machines may be sold under several different brands. There also aren’t a lot of great comparative editorial breakdowns (we only found one, in Good Housekeeping).

Then there’s the dizzying price range. We found machines tagged as “beginner” selling from $65 to $1,500. (After testing the most expensive of them side-by-side with our pick, we can definitely say beginners don’t need to spend that much.)

For advice, we turned to four well-respected sewing experts and teachers: Susan Khalje, a couture sewing teacher; Linda Lee, owner of The Sewing Workshop; Katrina Walker, a designer and teacher; and Sarai Mitnick, owner and designer of the popular indie pattern company Colette Patterns. The first three women are also contributors to Threads magazine, pretty much the Bible for home sewing (at least for garments).

Sewing machines are either manual or computerized, but at a lower price point, manual models are generally more reliable and higher quality. (We explain more below in Manual vs. computerized.) Either way, all of our experts told us the machine should be easy to use. “You shouldn’t have to go through a lot of work to change the size of your stitch,” says Khalje, “On some of the newer machines, you have to find the right screen, find the right icon, make the change, lock it in, go back to the original screen……when it should really be as simple as turning a dial.” Mitnick told us that “the controls should be intuitive, and it should be easy setting up to sew (such as winding the bobbin and threading the needles).”

Sewing machines are either manual or computerized, but at a lower price point, manual models are generally more reliable and higher quality.
Of course, the machine should also sew smoothly through a range of fabrics. It should produce even stitches, seams that don’t wander, and should pull the fabric along at a nice pace. You can watch the way the fabric moves under the needle for some cues. “How much control do the feed dogs seem to have? Is the fabric weaving all over the place?” says Mitnick.

All of our experts agreed that the machine should come with a good variety of presser feet. “The right specialty foot can make learning new techniques so much easier. It may not be essential, but it’s a good idea to look for a machine that has a lot of options for different feet and attachments,” Mitnick says. Her favorite feet: the edge-stitching foot, buttonhole foot, zipper foot, invisible-zipper foot, and a blind stitch foot for creating blind hems. Linda Lee also likes having a clear plastic foot. Some machines only work with presser feet from the specific brand, while others will work with generic feet. It’s a bonus if the machine will take the generic feet, because additional feet (like walking feet) can be expensive.

Some other nice features to look for:

  • Automatic buttonholer – Buttonholes are hard to sew beautifully, so this is where technology can really help out. Some machines have 4-step buttonholes, sewn in four steps. Others do a 1-step buttonhole, sewn in one step.
  • Good light – Older models often come with halogen lights, while newer models often have LED lights. Either way, the light should be bright enough to illuminate your sewing surface.
  • Built-in needle threader – You want a mechanism that will thread the needle for you so you don’t have to eyeball it. This is especially good for people with poor eyesight.
  • Adjustable needle feature – This allows you to move the needle off center to the left or right while straight stitching, a great feature for edge stitching.
  • Up/down needle feature – It allows you to choose whether the sewing needle will rise or stay embedded in the fabric when you take pressure off the controls. (Some machines have a button to automatically raise or lower the needle.) This comes in really handy if you want the needle to remain down so that you can pivot the fabric when sewing on a corner. Most of the basic machines we’re looking at here don’t have this ability.
  • Adjustable presser foot pressure – It’ll allow you to adjust the pressure of the presser foot to make it easier to sew a variety of fabrics.
  • Adjustable feed dog height – Similar to presser foot pressure, this allows you to adjust the height of the feed dogs (see “How a sewing machine works” below) to make it easier to sew a variety of fabrics.

We found that most machines that cost $300 or under come with a similar warranty: 1 year on labor, 2 to 5 years on electronics. Although all of these machines have what is called a limited 25-year warranty, it is usually not all that helpful. “As for the 25-year warranty, that will never come into play,” Harvey Federman told us. “That is on the head, which is essentially the frame. If you don’t drop it, it won’t break. $99 machines come with 25 years on the head. And parts warranties are on ‘defective parts.’ So if it’s natural wear or anything a needle could do damage to, it will not be covered.”

If you do end up needing to use the warranty, Federman told us: “the labor makes up the bulk of the repair charge and the labor is usually only as good at the dealer it was purchased from. In a low-priced machine, that could mean after the first year it might not be worth repairing. Parts in a budget machine are usually very inexpensive so it generally is not what makes up the bulk of the repair charge. It could be $80-$90 labor and $4 for the part.”

Because we only found one good comparative review of sewing machines, we looked closely at top-rated machines on Amazon and relied heavily on advice from sewing machine manufacturers and sewing bloggers to point us toward the best machines in our price range.

Testing

Based on our criteria, we selected 11 machines to test and invited two popular sewing bloggers to help us try them out. Sonja Beck Gingerich, of Ginger Makes, and Marcy Harriell, of Oonaballoona, have been sewing clothing for years and are both contributors to the Mood Sewing Network. We brought in the Sweethome’s Lesley Stockton as our novice, as she is learning to sew.

Sonja, Lesley, and Christine try out a few of the machines.

Sonja, Lesley, and Christine try out a few of the machines.

*AlternateOn each machine we tested basic stitches on medium-weight muslin, stretch and zigzag stitches on jersey, and we sewed triple layers of denim to see how well the machines handled heavy fabrics. We also sewed a quilted layer of batting sandwiched between muslin layers to test how the machines would do with basic quilting tasks.

Sewing a triple layer of denim on the Singer Heavy Duty 4411. In all of our tests we noted how evenly the machines stitched, how easy or difficult the controls were to use, and if the machines ran loudly.

Sewing a triple layer of denim on the Singer Heavy Duty 4411. In all of our tests we noted how evenly the machines stitched, how easy or difficult the controls were to use, and if the machines ran loudly.

To avoid brand bias, we covered all of the logos on the machines so our testers wouldn’t be swayed by their own prejudices. We also didn’t let them look at the user manuals. We wanted to see if it was easy for our testers to sit at the machines and start sewing without too much fuss.

Although we mainly chose machines in the $200 to $300 range, we threw in a couple of much cheaper options and a few really expensive ones ($500, $1,200, and $1,500) to assess what you get at these price points.

After our initial testing, I took our top 4 contenders home and ran them each through our initial tests again. This time I took a decibel reading on each running machine to see how much noise they produced.

Our pick, the Janome Magnolia 7318, maxed out at about 88 decibels, making it one of the quieter machines we tested.

Our pick, the Janome Magnolia 7318, maxed out at about 88 decibels, making it one of the quieter machines we tested.

Initially, we were surprised that three of our four top contenders are Janome machines. But after we found out that Janome makes many of the cheaper machines for more prestigious brands, it made more sense that Janome would produce a winner in our price range.

Our pick

The Janome Magnolia 7318 is the best sewing machine for most sewers that are casual users or starting out. It balances versatility, quality, and price with plenty of useful features.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $249.
Of the 11 machines we tested—three of which were much more expensive than our target range—we found that the Janome Magnolia 7813 offers the best combination of value and features for the beginning sewist. The controls are easy to read and use. It sews very smoothly and at just the right pace, with a generous sewing surface and convenient storage for small tools. We like its top-loading bobbin. It makes great 4-step buttonholes and includes an adjustable needle feature. We even think intermediate sewists would like this machine.

We like how easy it is to read the control dials on the Magnolia. Some of the other machines, like the Janome MyStyle 100 and Janome HD1000, don’t have a separate dial for stitch width, which kept tripping up our testers. The dials turn very smoothly. On some of the other machines, our testers were afraid they were breaking the machines when the dials wouldn’t turn easily.

We like that the Janome Magnolia 7318, left, has separate control dials for stitch length and width; the Janome HD1000, right, combines the stitch width in the zigzag section of the stitch selector dial, which we didn’t like as much.

We like that the Janome Magnolia 7318, left, has separate control dials for stitch length and width; the Janome HD1000, right, combines the stitch width in the zigzag section of the stitch selector dial, which we didn’t like as much.

All of the machines we tested made even stitches, but the Magnolia 7318 sewed more smoothly than the others in its price range. Only the high-end Bernina machines (which are four times the price) beat the Magnolia 7318 in stitch quality. We found that the feed dogs pulled the fabric under the needle at the right speed, so we didn’t have to fuss with pulling the fabric (a no-no!), even on heavy denim or quilted layers.

Although the Magnolia 7318 doesn’t have a dial for controlling the stitching speed, you can control the speed with the foot pedal. All of the Janomes we tested had this feature, and we liked that we had a certain amount of control in increasing and decreasing the speed of the machine. It was especially evident when compared to the Singer Heavy Duty, which seemed to only have two speeds—slow and super fast.

The ample size of the Magnolia 7318’s sewing surface (7” by 9”) and its easy-to-read ruler was better than any of the other machines in its price range.
We like that the Magnolia has a drop-in (also called a top-loading) bobbin, visible right below the needle. Older machines or models, like the Janome HD1000, have a bottom-loading bobbin, which is housed under the free-arm. Those can be a little trickier to load and can cause some issues with needle jams.

Most newer machines, including the Magnolia 7318, have a top-loading (aka drop-in) bobbin, which is easier to see and load than a bottom-loading one.Because the ruler extends on both sides of the Magnolia’s needle, you can accurately measure seam allowances to the left or right, depending on the placement of your fabric.

Most newer machines, including the Magnolia 7318, have a top-loading (aka drop-in) bobbin, which is easier to see and load than a bottom-loading one.Because the ruler extends on both sides of the Magnolia’s needle, you can accurately measure seam allowances to the left or right, depending on the placement of your fabric.

The ample size of the Magnolia 7318’s sewing surface (7” by 9”) and its easy-to-read ruler was better than any of the other machines in its price range. (The only other machines with bigger sewing surfaces were the higher-end Berninas we tested.) We found the placement of the ruler helpful for sewing accurate seam allowances.

On most of the machines we tested, you need to remove the sewing surface to access storage areas for small tools and bobbin. We prefer how the Magnolia 7318’s storage slides out from under the sewing area so you don’t necessarily need to remove projects from the machine.

On most of the machines we tested, you need to remove the sewing surface to access storage areas for small tools and bobbin. We prefer how the Magnolia 7318’s storage slides out from under the sewing area so you don’t necessarily need to remove projects from the machine.

The Magnolia 7318’s 4-step buttonhole feature was easy to use and produced cleaner-looking buttonholes than any of the other moderately-priced machines that we tested. (The Berninas we tested, on the other hand, both have a 1-step buttonhole feature, which was much nicer to use.)

It was easy to make clean-looking buttonholes with the Magnolia 7318’s 4-step buttonhole feature.

It was easy to make clean-looking buttonholes with the Magnolia 7318’s 4-step buttonhole feature.

The Magnolia was also one of the only moderately-priced machines we tested that has an adjustable needle position, so you can adjust the needle from the center to the far left. This feature comes in handy for edge stitching, one of the features an intermediate sewist would especially like.

As it turns out, other companies really like the Janome Magnolia 7318, too. Remember that we mentioned Janome makes many entry-level machines for other sewing machine companies? The Janome Magnolia 7318 is essentially the same machine as both the Baby Lock Molly and the Husqvarna Viking Emerald 116, which both came highly recommended in editorial reviews and by our experts. Yet both of these machines retail for at least $50 to $150 more than the Magnolia (and are only available directly through dealerships).

We like that this machine is sold under several brands, because it gives buyers options. If you have an awesome Janome, Baby Lock, or Husqvarna Viking dealership in your town and want to support them and have that relationship you can buy from them. But if you’re nowhere near a dealership, or you think the dealer in your area is grumpypants, you can just buy the Magnolia 7318 online.

This machine comes with a standard warranty. One year on labor, five years on the electronics, and 25 years on “defective materials and/or workmanship”—basically the frame. As Harvey Federman told us, you’ll likely never use the 25-year warranty, simply because there are few things that will go wrong with the frame, unless you drop it (which would void the warranty anyway).

We didn’t find the Janome Magnolia 7318 in any editorial reviews, but the Husqvarna Viking Emerald 116 was highly recommended by Good Housekeeping, and Harvey Federman recommended both the Emerald 116 and Baby Lock Molly as good starter machines. One of our testers, Sonja of Ginger Makes, has also used the Magnolia 7318 for years and likes it. It receives 4.6 stars over 99 reviews on Amazon.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

We’d like the Janome Magnolia 7318 better if it didn’t have the pink flower decals on the front. We think it’s a little juvenile, even for the ladies. But, really, the machine sews so nicely that it’s worth overlooking the flowers or slapping a sticker over them.

But, really, the machine sews so nicely that it’s worth overlooking the flowers or slapping a sticker over them.
We also wish that the Magnolia came with a good hard case like the Janome HD1000 does. Not only is a case good for storage, but it will keep your machine safe when you’re traveling or moving. But you can always buy a sewing case.

The Magnolia only comes with four presser feet (regular, zipper, buttonhole, and sliding buttonhole). We think it’s worth buying a blind hem foot for sewing a blind hem and a rolled hem foot for making narrow hems. The Janome does take generic feet.

This model doesn’t have an up/down needle feature or automatic needle threader, which we’d like to have. Still, all the great qualities in the Magnolia 7318 outweigh the lack of these features.

Runner up: Janome HD1000 (the workhorse)

Also Great
*At the time of publishing, the price was $299.
The Janome HD1000 is a solid, metal-bodied machine that is rugged while still sewing smoothly. Its bottom-loading bobbin may not be ideal for some folks, but it’s a great runner-up sewing machine.
We think the Janome Magnolia 7318 offers the best combination of features for most beginners, but the Janome HD1000 ($299) is also really nice, particularly for someone who prefers a metal machine or wants to sew through heavy fabrics. It’s also a plus that this machine is simple looking (no flowery decals!).

Full disclosure: I’ve owned a version of the HD1000 for 15 years, sewn for thousands of hours on it, and really like it. Janome has been making this machine for over 20 years and has packaged it under a variety of names, including the Travel Mate and the Thread Banger. In our blind testing, all of our testers picked the HD1000 as one of their top choices.

While the Magnolia 7318 has a plastic body, the HD1000’s is made of sturdy aluminum. This doesn’t necessarily mean the casing is better than that of the Magnolia, but the machine does feel more solid (in fact, we read one user review from a soldier in Iraq who wanted this “machine that is built like a tank” to repair his military uniforms). The HD1000 sewed just as smoothly as the Magnolia (although a few decibels louder), the manual controls are straightforward and easy to read, and we love that it comes with a sturdy plastic case for storage and travel.

Our tester Marcy, of the sewing blog Oonaballoona, immediately took to the HD1000 because it felt similar to the vintage machines she likes using.

Our tester Marcy, of the sewing blog Oonaballoona, immediately took to the HD1000 because it felt similar to the vintage machines she likes using.

The HD1000 does lack a couple of features that the Magnolia has. It doesn’t have an adjustable needle position for straight stitching, so it’s not as versatile when edge stitching. The dials aren’t quite as easy to read or adjust as the Magnolia. We also think the Magnolia’s wider sewing bed is nicer. The HD1000 we got also didn’t come with a buttonhole foot (although the machine does have a 4-step buttonholer).

A bigger criticism of the HD1000 is that it has a bottom-loading bobbin that can cause  the sewing needle to jam. This is because the thread can get caught on the oscillator, essentially locking the sewing needle in the down position. I’ve actually experienced this with my HD1000 and read several Amazon user reviews about this issue. In my own experience, it’s been a minor problem. A few times I’ve had to snip the threads around the oscillator, or even remove and take apart the bobbin case, but usually I’ve been able to just raise the needle. This problem likely won’t happen with a top-loading bobbin, which the Magnolia 7318 has.

Thread can sometimes get caught around the Janome HD1000’s bottom-loading bobbin and oscillator, thereby jamming the needle in the down position. But it’s not a big deal to take out the bobbin case and oscillator and remove the nefarious strands.

Thread can sometimes get caught around the Janome HD1000’s bottom-loading bobbin and oscillator, thereby jamming the needle in the down position. But it’s not a big deal to take out the bobbin case and oscillator and remove the nefarious strands.

We easily sewed through six layers of denim on this machine…
We think the Janome HD1000 would be a good machine for someone who plans to sew a lot of heavy-duty fabrics, like canvas, denim, and even leather. We easily sewed through six layers of denim on this machine and we read Amazon user reviews about the HD1000 sewing well on leather and other heavy fabrics.

We didn’t find editorial reviews for the Janome HD1000, but it has a long and positive track record (after all, Janome has made this machine for over two decades!). It receives 4.3 stars over 149 Amazon user reviews.

The budget pick: Singer 4411 Heavy Duty

Also Great
*At the time of publishing, the price was $127.
The Singer Heavy Duty 4411 is about $100 less than our main pick; the quality isn’t as high as the Janomes we liked, but it’s a straightforward machine that can handle things like jeans and curtains.
If you’re toying with the idea of learning to sew, but don’t want to spend much on a machine, we recommend the Singer Heavy Duty ($127) with 11 stitches. We think that the Janome Magnolia 7318 and HD1000 are better machines, and may, in the long run, be easier to learn on. But for the money, the Singer Heavy Duty pleasantly surprised us.

The Singer sews evenly and the dials are easy to read. Both Sonja and Marcy, who have sewn for years, were pleasantly surprised by this machine, and Sonja said she’d use this to teach beginners. We like that it has an adjustable needle setting (three positions) and that it easily sewed through multiple layers of denim.

The Singer Heavy Duty’s dials are easy enough to read that we think a beginner could sit at this machine and start sewing without spending a lot of time with the manual.

The Singer Heavy Duty’s dials are easy enough to read that we think a beginner could sit at this machine and start sewing without spending a lot of time with the manual.

This version of the Singer Heavy Duty only has 11 stitches, and we found this a little limiting. For example, there are no stretch stitches for knits, but you can get past this by using the zigzag stitch.

Although the machine does come with a 4-step buttonhole feature, we didn’t like the buttonholes it made. We could sew three sides of the hole nicely, but the machine stitched too fast to make a nice fourth side. As with the Janomes we like, the Singer’s sewing speed is controlled through the foot pedal. You can really adjust the speeds with the Janomes, but the Singer only seems to have slow and fast. Singer advertises the speed as 1,100 stitches per minute; that might be great for quilting but not so much for clothing construction.

Some other things we didn’t love:

  • The white LED light on this machine seems duller than the yellow halogen lights on the Janomes. It seems particularly dull in daylight.
  • The buttonhole foot on this machine is all plastic, whereas the Janome Magnolia 7318 comes with a metal version.
  • We hated the user manual. It has multiple languages on the same pages or spreads, so it was a little hard to find info. There’s no key in the manual for the different stitches and why to use them (which the Janome has).

Despite the Singer’s name, we also think that if you’re planning to sew a lot of heavy duty fabrics, the Janome HD1000 would make a better choice. Overall, though, we’d recommend this to anyone who wants a cheap machine. It was recommended by Good Housekeeping, and receives 3.9 stars of also gets good editorial and user reviews.

How a sewing machine works

A sewing machine is basically a small motor with a casing around it. The motor operates a shaft with a needle attached that’s used to form stitches to sew fabric together. On a standard machine, there’s a spool of thread fitted on the top of the machine, this thread is threaded through the needle; a smaller spool of thread (called a bobbin) is fitted under the needle. The threaded needle goes through the fabric, catches the bobbin thread and pulls it back up through the fabric, forming the stitch.

Machines perform a number of different stitches. The most basic (and the most handy) is a straight stitch, which you can use for a lot of sewing tasks, including making straight seams, basting, and topstitching. A zigzag stitch has a little more stretch and strength to it, and is great for sewing stretchy knits or finishing the raw edges of seams. Here’s a good visual of both straight and zigzag stitches. New machines often have stretch stitches, specifically for sewing knits, and a variety of decorative stitches. Personally, as someone who sews clothing, I rarely use decorative stitches, but these can come in handy if you quilt or like embroidery-like embellishments.*EleventhPic

Some other important terms to know:

Presser foot: A removable plastic or metal foot that attaches to the shank that holds the needle. You need different feet for different tasks—a zipper foot for inserting a zipper or a blind hem for making a blind (invisible) hem, for example. All machines come with a general/all-purpose foot that you can use for the majority of sewing tasks.

Throat plate: The metal plate right below the needle and presser foot. There’s a small opening in the plate that allows the needle to pass through and pick up the bobbin thread. The majority of throat plates will have small lines etched into them that  serve as guides for seam allowance (¼ inch, ⅜ inch, ½ inch….).

If all this sewing terminology is starting to seem like Greek to you, there are some great online resources for learning all the basics.
Feed dogs: Small metal teeth under the throat plate. The teeth pull the fabric between the presser foot and the throat plate. The feed dogs also help regulate stitch length by controlling how fast the fabric moves. You should ideally never have to pull the fabric—the feed dogs should do the work.

If all this sewing terminology is starting to seem like Greek to you, there are some great online resources for learning all the basics. We really like these high-quality tutorials on CreativeBug (subscription required) by the pattern designer Liesl Gibson, and the blogger Tilly and the Buttons has some good (and free!) tutorials for things like setting up your machine and basic stitches.

Manual vs computerized

Manual sewing machines have very simple dials, buttons, and levers, and there’ve been variations on this style since Isaac Singer introduced mass-produced machines in the 1850’s. Although old-school, manual machines can be very reliable and easy to use. For this review, we focused our testing on manual machines.

“Purchasing a computerized machine for under $300, you will be sacrificing quality for features. A mechanical machine in that price range might offer better quality and reliability.” – Harvey Federman
Computerized machines are a more modern development. This style has an electronic interface from which you can control stitches (the type, length, and width), and some will even sense the type of fabric you’re sewing on and adjust stitches or thread tension accordingly. Some also record different stitch combinations you’ve done for future use. Most people buy computerized machines now, and there’s a wide variety at every price point. However, if your budget is under $300, you’re probably going to get more bang for your buck with a manual machine. In this review, we tested two high-end computerized machines to see how they compare to budget, manual models.

As Harvey Federman, a sewing machine repairman and owner of Sew Right, told us: “Purchasing a computerized machine for under $300, you will be sacrificing quality for features. A mechanical machine in that price range might offer better quality and reliability.”

In our research, we also found this to be true. When comparing manual and computerized machines at the same price points, the manual ones tended to get better long-term reviews from users for everything from reliability to stitch quality. It makes sense, since the money is going into the actual mechanics rather than extra (and nonessential) features.

All of the sewing experts we spoke with also said that, at the beginning, you really just need a basic machine that’s dependable. Most of the sewing bloggers we spoke with also learned or currently sew on basic manual machines.

Dealers vs big box stores/retailers

Like vacuum cleaners and bikes, sewing machines are one of those products where you can still get great service from a local dealer. All of the experts we spoke with said it’s better to purchase from a dealer. At most dealerships you’ll actually be able to sew on the machines they have on display. And once you buy, if anything goes wrong with the machine, or you can’t figure out how to adjust tension and other issues, your dealer will help, and usually for free (within the first year under warranty). Dealers also sometimes throw in complementary classes when you purchase from them. Some companies, like Bernina, Baby Lock, Husqvarna Viking, and Pfaff also only sell through dealerships.

Like vacuum cleaners and bikes, sewing machines are one of those products where you can still get great service from a local dealer.
That said, you’ll probably find a cheaper deal for an entry-level machine through big retailers like Amazon, Walmart, or Target. The flipside of the rock-bottom price, of course, is that you won’t have anyone to turn to if you have questions about how to operate your machine.

If you don’t have someone in your life who knows how to sew and can teach you, we think it’s worth buying from a dealer and getting the free classes. Some pointers from an expert will save you loads of time and frustration, and get you sewing in a much more pleasant fashion. And you can always take the machine in when it needs repairs. If you buy a machine online that doesn’t have a certified dealer near you, you may end up having to mail it a long distance for repairs, and that could get expensive and annoying.

But if you don’t have a friendly dealer nearby, buying online can be a nice option. Personally, I’ve never used the warranty on my Janome HD1000 in 15 years of use (she’s probably due for a tune up!). If you get a decent machine to begin with and have someone who can teach you the basics (or you’re good at teaching yourself), you’ll probably do just fine buying online.

Care and maintenance

Although most sewing machines will be good to go out of the box, you will need to wind the bobbin and learn how to thread the machine, which the user manual can explain. These days there are also tons of great online videos that can teach you about your machine. (This is a good one for winding the bobbin and threading a machine similar to the Janome Magnolia 7318).

Most machines come with a small brush that you should use to clean lint from the bobbin case and around the feed dogs, and anywhere else you see fuzz collecting. Keeping these areas clean will help the machine run smoothly. Don’t use an air compressor, as this can blow the lint back inside the machine.

Some models, including the Janome HD1000, need a dab of sewing machine oil every once in a while. The oil generally comes with the machine, and you should only use a little bit and follow your manual’s instructions.

We asked Harvey Federman what the biggest repair issues he finds with customers who have purchased their machines online: “The most common issues are knowledge of how to use it and tension or stitch quality,” he said.

If you are experiencing tension or stitch quality problems, there are some things you can do to troubleshoot. Make sure your sewing needle is inserted correctly. The flat part of the shaft should face toward the back (rounded part toward the front). Federman says that taking the bobbin out and rethreading it can often solve many problems. It’s also not a bad idea to replace the needle; a slight warp can cause a wandering stitch or other issues.

It’s simple to adjust the top-thread tension on most machines, but if you find the bobbin thread is tangling or gathering on the bottom of the stitches, the bobbin tension might not be tight enough. If you’re mechanically inclined, you can increase the tension by tightening the screw on the bobbin case. We like this how-to video for a top-loading machine (fast forward to minute 4) and this one for a bottom-loading machine (fast forward to minute 9).

If you use your machine a lot, it’s a good idea to bring it into your local dealer for an annual tune up. Like a bike, components need to be cleaned, oiled, and aligned; a dealer will usually do a better job than you can on your own.

What you get if you spend more

If price was no object, we’d happily buy the fully computerized Bernina 330—but we don’t think a beginner really needs this level of machine.

If price was no object, we’d happily buy the fully computerized Bernina 330—but we don’t think a beginner really needs this level of machine.

We wanted to see how a really high-end beginner machine stacked up to the under $300 models we’d called in.

…the 330 sewed with a silky-smooth cadence and the word “sexy” was uttered by multiple testers.
Bernina, widely considered one of the best (if not the best) manufacturer, obliged us by sending the Bernina 330 (about $1,500), which is considered one of their beginner machines. We’re not gonna lie; the 330 sewed with a silky-smooth cadence and the word “sexy” was uttered by multiple testers. This is a computerized machine with great features like an up/down needle, an adjustable speed lever, a 1-step buttonhole, stitch memory, and an LCD display. Plus it will wind a bobbin while you sew.

But all of the testers agreed that a true beginner doesn’t really need all of the features on this machine. If money isn’t an object, by all means go for it! But if it is, you can learn a lot on a $250 machine and then move up to a nicer one once you know the type of sewing you really want to pursue. It’s sort of like learning to drive on a Toyota Corolla before stepping up to a Ferrari Testarossa.

If you do have a $1,500 budget, we’d recommend trying out several machines in that price range to see which you really want to invest in. We do like that the Bernina 330 has a sturdy, wide sewing surface that attaches to the free arm of the machine, which would make it great for quilting.  Although this machine was not reviewed editorially, we found positive reviews for it on PatternReview.com.

The competition

We tried the Bernina 215 ($1,200) as well. Also computerized, it has similar features to the Bernina 330, but the control buttons are smaller and it has a regular digital display. The 215 also has a nice, wide sewing surface/table that attaches to the free arm, but it feels a little flimsier than that on the 330. Overall, we felt if you’re ready to spend this much on a machine, you might as well go for the Bernina 330. We found some positive reviews for this machine on PatternReview.com.

The Janome MyStyle 100 (around $250) was our fourth-favorite manual machine. John Ryan, director of business development at Janome, told us that a lot of design schools stock their sewing rooms with this machine. We really like how quietly it sews (it was the quietest of all the manual machines we tested). But we couldn’t get past the MyStyle’s small sewing surface. It looks like there’s a piece missing from the back. We thought this would be annoying when sewing clothing or quilts. We also found that this machine sewed rather slowly compared to our other models, even with the foot pedal pressed completely down, and Sonja of Ginger Makes found the feed dogs moved the fabric too slowly, so she had the urge to pull the fabric. The MyStyle is only available through Janome dealerships. We didn’t find editorial reviews for this machine, which is only available through dealerships.

We didn’t like how small the sewing surface is on the Janome MyStyle 100.

We didn’t like how small the sewing surface is on the Janome MyStyle 100.

We wanted to see how a mid-priced machine performed, so we included the Elna 3230 (around $500), which has 25 stitches, including a 1-step buttonhole. It sewed very smoothly, and we liked that it had specific storage for presser feet in the flip top. But our testers didn’t end up liking this machine better than some of the less-expensive models. The stitch selector knob on the side of the machine was really hard to turn. We didn’t find any editorial reviews for this machine, but like some others we found good reviews for it on PatternReview.com.

We added the Bernette Seville (about $250) to our list of testers because it’s the most basic machine that Bernina sells. Bernina doesn’t actually make their Bernette line, but they do quality control on them. We thought the Bernette Seville was easy to use and more powerful than it looks, but we just couldn’t get past its styling—it’s all black with big white flowers stenciled over the side. As one of our testers said, “This looks like baby’s first sewing machine.” It didn’t sew better than our top machines at this price point. We did find good reviews for this machine on PatternReview.com.

We think the Janome Magnolia 7318 is a great sewing machine to learn on. You could buy a cheaper machine, but we think you’d end up with more frustration and maybe less love for the craft.
We liked the Elna 220 (around $250) less than the Elna 3230. It’s a much more basic machine, on par with the Janomes we tested, but we like it less than the Janomes. It felt as if the fabric moved under the presser foot in a squirrelly way. A couple of our testers found the control dials confusing to read without some help from the manual. Overall, this machine didn’t stand out against the competition. This machine was also not editorially reviewed, but found some positive user reviews on PatternReview.com.

The Janome 2222 ($179) was the only Janome we tested that we didn’t really like. Everyone commented on how loud this machine is: Sonja said it had an “egg beater” sound; Marcy remarked that it “sounds dry;” and Lesley said “this one sounds like a plane taking off!” We also found this one didn’t seem very powerful. It struggled a little sewing denim. For the price, we think you’d do better with the Singer Heavy Duty. The 2222 was not reviewed in editorials and although available on Amazon, it has not received any user reviews.

The Brother XL2600i ($85) was our least favorite machine. It feels very light and we wouldn’t want to sew heavy projects like denim, quilts, or a canvas tote on this machine. It runs very loudly. Fabric weaved awkwardly over the Brother’s feed dogs, where it moved much smoother under the Singer’s. The Brother’s knobs and other components also felt much cheaper and flimsier than the Singer’s. We think this would be an okay machine for really light crafts projects, but we’re not convinced it would be very nice for sewing clothing or quilts. We didn’t find the Brother XL2600i recommended editorially, but it’s the second best-selling machine on Amazon (and the top manual machine) and receives 4.5 of 1,895 user reviews. We think it’s worth spending the extra $60 on the Singer Heavy Duty 4411.

The rest

We also looked at a number of other machines, but didn’t test them for a range of reasons:

Husqvarna Viking Emerald 116 – This got a great review from Good Housekeeping and Harvey Federman of Sew Right also recommends it. We had a hard time locating a model to test and then found out that it’s essentially the same machine as the Janome Magnolia 7318 (although it only has 16 stitches versus the Magnolia’s 18). Based on how much we do like the Magnolia 7318, we think it’s safe to say that the Emerald 116 is also awesome, and if you find a good deal on one at a dealership it would be worth purchasing. This machine apparently usually retails for around $400, so we only think it’s worth buying if you can get it for closer to $300.

Husqvarna Viking HClass 100Q – Since this is computerized and far over our $300 price point, we opted not to test.

Baby Lock Molly – This was also recommended by Harvey Federman and we read multiple positive reviews on PatternReview.com. We wanted to try it but again had a hard time locating a model to review. But since this is also the same machine as the Janome Magnolia 7318 and Husqvarna Viking Emerald 116 (except that it has 25 stitches) we think it’s safe to assume that it’s a solid choice for a beginner. Again, if you find one for under $300 we think it would be worth buying.

Baby Lock Anna – Based on user reviews on PatternReview.com and advice from Harvey Federman, a Baby Lock dealer, we felt the Baby Lock Molly was a better choice than the Anna in our price range (even though we weren’t able to get a Molly to test).

Baby Lock BL9 – Didn’t receive better user reviews than the machines we tested.

Bernette London 3 – This was a little more expensive than than our $300 limit and it didn’t receive better reviews than the models we did test.

Janome Magnolia 7330 – This is the computerized version of our top pick. It gets good user reviews, but we opted not to test it as we focused the review on manual machines.

Janome Sewist 500 – This also gets good user reviews but didn’t get better reviews than the Janome Magnolia 7318 or the HD1000 that we did test.

Janome HD3000 – This machine is very similar to the Janome HD1000, but is a bit more expensive and didn’t get better reviews than the machines we opted to test.

Janome mini – Amy Chapman of the sewing blog Cloth Habit recommended this machine to us (it’s small and she likes to travel with it). With only a few stitch options we didn’t think it would really compete with the other home sewing machines we did decide to test.

Brother LS2125i – Although this gets decent Amazon user reviews, the Brother XL2600i gets better reviews and seemed a better option for a really cheap machine to test.

Brother CS6000i – This is a computerized machine so we opted not to test. At $150 with 60 stitches, we also found it hard to believe that its mechanics are actually high quality. We were told by several experts that in the under $300 range, it’s better to go with a manual machine if you want quality.

Brother Project Runway Limited Edition CE-5500PRW – Another budget computerized machine, so we opted not to test.

Singer Stylist – Another computerized machine, so we decided not to test.

Singer 8763 Curvy – Again, another computerized machine so we opted not to include it in our testing.

Singer 2259 – This didn’t get better reviews than the Brother XL2600i, which is in the same $90 price range, and we doubted it would compete with the more expensive machines we decided to test.

Singer 5532 – This is essentially the same as the Singer 4411, our budget pick, but it has 32 stitches instead of 11. We opted to test the 4411 instead because it is $100 cheaper and gets equally good user reviews.

Ikea Sy –  Another very budget machine, this didn’t look nicer than the Brother XL2600i that we did test. Kenmore machines – We saw great past reviews and received recommendations for a number of Kenmore machines, but Sears no longer sells them (Kenmore machines were also made by Janome).

Wrapping it up

We think the Janome Magnolia 7318 is a great sewing machine to learn on. You could buy a cheaper machine, but we think you’d end up with more frustration and maybe less love for the craft. It’s also worth investing in a good iron like our pick, the T-fal Ultraglide Easycord FV4495 (because half of good sewing comes down to good pressing!). With great stitch quality, easy-to-use controls, and some intermediate features, the Janome Magnolia 7318 will seamlessly tackle a range of home decorating, clothing, and quilting projects and should last you for years.

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Sources

  1. Sonja Beck Gingerich, Creator of Ginger Makes, Testing help
  2. Marcy Harriell, Creator of Oonaballoona, Testing help
  3. Christine Cyr Clisset, Boost Your Sewing Machine IQ!, Thread Cult , March 22nd, 2013
  4. Sewing Machine Reviews , Good Housekeeping
  5. Susan Khalje , Couture sewing teacher , Interview
  6. Linda Lee, Owner of The Sewing Workshop, Interview
  7. Katrina Walker, Designer and sewing teacher, Interview
  8. Sarai Mitnick, Owner and designer of Colette Patterns , Interview
  9. ravenlrod, Great machine despite the pastel colors., Amazon (review), October 3rd, 2010
  10. Harvey Federman, Owner of Sew Right , Interview
  11. Bernina 330 (reviews), PatternReview.com
  12. Bernina 215 (reviews), PatternReview.com
  13. Elna 3230 (reviews), PatternReview.com
  14. Bernette Seville (reviews), PatternReview.com
  15. Elna 220 (reviews), PatternReview.com
  • Russ

    another awesomely thorough product review article. I’m not yet in the sewing machine market, but when i am this will be the site i click-through to purchase.

  • Ana Claasen

    Great recommendation! I used a very similar machine (Janome Sewist) until recently. Since I moved overseas and needed to buy a new machine, I upgraded to a computerized model (Brother PC420) but I often miss the simplicity and can’t-screw-it-up-ness of the basic mechanical style machine.

  • Phipargas

    This sewing machine has come up with great features. It is also cost-effective than other sewing machine. Thinking of buying this one.

    http://watchkukumathurkijhandhogayimovie.com

  • http://www.thegarmentfarmer.wordpress.com/ the Garment Farmer

    wow, what a wonderful and thorough review!! Very helpful. I bought the HD1000, and the clean simple design (no flowers) was a big selling point for me. My machine is 2 years old now, and it does have an adjustable needle position. The two positions are center and to the left of center. stitch B is the center stitch position, and to move the needle position to the left, turn the stitch selector to C (before increasing the zig zag width). Stitch C performs a straight stitch with the needle in the left position. Keep turning the dial to start zig zagging instead of straight stitching.

    • Christine Cyr Clisset

      Glad you like the review! I will look at my HD1000 right now and make this change in the piece. Thanks for pointing out. Makes this machine even better!

  • everytomorrow

    I’m not currently in the market for a sewing machine, but thank you so much for reviewing them. When I bought mine I had to spend weeks reading half the internet and still ended up sort of taking a leap of faith. (I ended up with a computerized machine and my mom has a Janome HD1000, so depending on what we’re both doing, we switch off.)

  • beachlibby

    What a thorough review! Unable to try multiple machines in a row and compare them, I really appreciated this. I walked in to a couple shops to try out this machine, but neither had it in stock. In fact, one lady tried to convince me I didn’t really want it, but that I should get a computerized model (Janome Magnolia 7330, I think) intead. I’m not sure if it’s because she wanted a higher commission or if it really is a better machine. She flat out said there is no advantage to a mechanical machine over a computerized one. I’ve been having a hard time finding any unbiased information about mechanical vs. computerized, where do you think I should look?

  • Bethany Brown

    If you’re shopping in Canada, the Janome Juno G1218 seems to be the Canadian version of the Magnolia 7318.

  • Erin

    I have the Babylock Molly and LOVE it. It might be worth the extra $50+ as it comes with more feet. I started with a basic Brother and HATED it. I thought I was just a really bad sewist until I used my mom’s high quality Pfaff and realized it was the machine’s fault. Learning on a bad machine is like learning to back with a bad oven – no matter how good your technique, it will never turn out right and you will just end up frustrated.

    With my Molly, I have made clothes (pants, dress shirts, lace dresses, canvas jumpers, etc), quilts, stuffed animals, curtains, etc. Super easy and it always cooperates. And, having an adjustable needle position is, to me, very important as it makes it a lot easier to adjust seam allowances.

  • mic56

    I’m glad that you listed so many alternates. In our area the Janome dealer is notorious for keeping machines 4 or 5 months for repair. On the other hand the Viking Pfaff repairman is usually done the same week you dropped it off and much less expensive. I won’t even consider a Janome no matter how good or what the price. It’s not worth the trouble.

  • aaa hhhhh

    i want to ask a question, i bought a brother 2000 4 years backs for basic stitching but after some years now my machine is a pain, first it started to lose the thread on the lower side of the fabric, itried all possible things to fix it but the problem was not solved and now my machine is breaking the thread everytime,
    i dont know what should i do with this machine, should i throw it away and buy a new one?
    i dont want a expensive one so should i buy singer 4411?

    • http://thewirecutter.com/ tony kaye

      Via our expert:

      “The biggest issue with cheap sewing machines is often the thread tension. Losing the bobbin thread and breaking thread sound like tension issues to me. If you have a repair shop nearby, you might want to have them take a look at your Brother, just to see what it would cost to fix the issues—but you might find that repair will cost about the same as a Singer 4411.”

  • John

    Hello, is the Janome HD1000 a good machine for sewing leather or canvas hand bags. I’m concerned about the throat height & arm length.

    • http://thewirecutter.com/ tony kaye

      We think the Janome HD1000 would be a good machine for someone who plans to sew a lot of heavy-duty fabrics, like canvas, denim, and even leather. We easily sewed through six layers of denim on this machine and we read Amazon user reviews about the HD1000 sewing well on leather and other heavy fabrics

  • Jonathan Okocha

    Wonderful review Christine.. This is really great and really meant a lot of research was put into it.

    You are right.. Janome has more entry level sewing machine for a much cheaper price.. A beginner could either choose Janome 2212 or Janome Mangola 7318 if they are considering a mechanical sewing machine.

    The Mangola 7318 even has overcasting stitches so you can finish your raw edges and avoid raveling. I LOVE the bobbin. It has the see through cover and you can see how much thread you have left.

    One reason why I will opt for Janome 2212 instead of Mangola would be the weight and the stitching speed. Janome 2212 is much lighter and stitch faster

    If you are a beginner chances are that you would like to carry your machine to classes. Also sometimes it easier to get job done fast enough.

    But generally Mangola is a really nice sewing machine that is perfect of a beginner.

    Hey Christine it would be nice if you can make a comparison table for few of this sewing machine..

    I found one here.. if you don’t mind I will share it here.

    http://bestsewingmachinereviewspot.com/sewing-machine-comparison/

  • Sarah Branson

    Just ordered the Magnolia. I’m definitely a beginner. I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks for the thorough review!

    • http://thewirecutter.com/ tony kaye

      Def let us know what you think!

  • Laurie

    I sure appreciate your review. I’m trying to choose between your 2 favorites. I am hearing that the HD1000 is a workhorse. No one really talks about how it does with cottons and finer fabrics. I hem jeans and cords, but I also sew summer dresses with lightweight fabrics. Can it do both? Or should I go with the Magnolia. Can it hem through jean fabric? I want a machine that can do both.Thanks for your help.