Sewing machines: Finding the one that is “just right”

People ask me all the time for sewing machine recommendations.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight; I am a dedicated Bernina girl. I realize not everyone is, and I understand that. But I believe they are the best machine on the market, and I have been sewing on one Bernina or another for almost 40 years. (I still own the machine my parents bought for my college graduation present 38 years ago!) They are also far from the cheapest brand you can buy. I don’t much care. I don’t like sewing with cheap machines; I don’t like sewing with cheap fabric, and I don’t like using cheap tools. Picky, I know, but that’s how I feel. You asked, right? 🙂

Sewing machines are complicated pieces of equipment. If you expect good engineering, you are going to have to pay for it. Good engineering prevents tension problems, thread jams, bobbin-winding snafus, and much more. What kind of car do you drive? Uh huh. I thought so. You like the road performance of German engineering, right? Same principle applies to buying a sewing machine.

I also think it makes better economic sense to purchase a better quality machine – one that holds its resale value. I regularly see Bernina 830 Record sewing machines (manufactured between 1971 – 1981) selling for $500-$700, depending on condition and accessories. In 1975 the retail price was about $750. Take that, Brother.

Let’s talk about your time. It’s probably limited, like most people’s these days. If you want to spend the free time you have available for sewing fiddling with a cheap bobbin mechanism trying to get a decent stitch out of a $100 Singer, be my guest. I would rather actually sew.

And then there is the pleasure factor. I would wager that if you spend all your sewing time fighting a machine, you are not likely to think highly of the art and the unbounded enjoyment sewing can provide. Me? I can barely tolerate putting gas in a car! Shouldn’t you should just be able to buy the damn thing and have it run forever?

OK, now that you have read all my biases about Bernina and snarky comments about cheaply manufactured plastic machines, what sewing machine should you actually buy?

  1. Find a good dealer. If you are asking me for recommendations you probably aren’t knowledgeable enough to buy a machine on eBay. Do yourself a favor and get a dealer you can trust. You already know my opinion on that too.
  2. Buy the best machine you can afford. That doesn’t mean the one with the most decorative stitches; it means the one with the best engineering.
  3. Try to think about what you sew today, and then take a look into the crystal ball of your sewing journey and project a few years down the road. When I bought my latest Bernina this spring I bypassed the embroidery software option. If I have not embraced machine embroidery in 48+ years of sewing, it’s probably not gonna happen.
  4. Consider buying a used machine (from a reputable dealer). Well-built sewing machines do not really wear out, but people do “trade up” for machines with more features. This can be a really good way to get a great machine at a discounted price.
  5. It’s hard for me to say much about brands other than Berninas, but a Singer would definitely be a very poor purchase choice IMHO. Every one that has come thru my studio has been a complete dog sub-optimal. In general, Brother machines are decent if you plan on sewing medium weight cottons, linens and knits. Some (all?) of them are a little balky when sewing heavy denim or home dec fabrics. I have not sewn on any Janome machines, but I do have a few ASG friends who like them as a light-weight, portable machine for simple sewing tasks.
  6.  Just find a reputable dealer and test-drive as many machines as you can. The things that are important to me may not matter to you at all.

Happy sewing machine shopping!

Maris Olsen

18 Responses to Sewing machines: Finding the one that is “just right”

  1. Jane says:

    Very helpful guidelines and perspective. Thank you!

    • SewMaris says:

      Thanks Jane! I sometimes also use the analogy of a bicycle to clarify “machine frustrations” with lower-cost plastic sewing machines. How much fun would biking be for you (or your child) if the chain fell off your bike every time you rode it? 😉

      Maris

  2. Barbara says:

    I agree with you about Bernina. I learned how to sew on an old Kenmore, had a very awful cheap machine for a period when I was working outside of the home and sewed very little, but when I went to look at quality machines I fell hard for Bernina. I have had my Virtuosa since 1996 and it is as perfect as the day I bought it. These machines often cause sticker shock but very often people look at what I call “too much machine” for their needs. I do a lot of tailoring, home dec and drapery, as well as regular sewing for a family. After all of these years of happy sewing I am still learning all of the things this machine can do. And my young adult daughter wants one.

  3. Jackie says:

    Thanks for the tips. I can vouch for the “you get what you pay for”. I had a whole sewing machine grave yard of discarded machines, from, singer, brother and white. I was burning them up within 1-2 years from purchase (straight stitch and sergers). Alot of the parts are plastic, and just don’t hold up to regular use. After a particularly frustrating day of trying to put a zipper in a stretch velvet, I bought a better (Janome)sewing machine. I followed up with a Janome serger within the same year. I have now had both machines for over 10 years. I haven’t had an issue with either machine. So I have actually saved money on these investments. I sew ALOT. mostly costuming and quilting. So they have been very well tested.

    • SewMaris says:

      Thanks for your comment Jackie! I got a chuckle out of your “graveyard” comment, and it is such an apt analogy. So glad you found machines that work for your needs – saves SO MUCH time and over-consumption of alcohol! 😉

  4. Kay says:

    Hello, I just stumbled upon your website and appreciated your ode to Bernina. I took out my first loan in 1976 to purchase a Bernina 830. I love that machine! It still stitches perfectly and is such a pleasure to use. My dealer said that Bernina told him that if this all metal model was produced today, it would cost $5,000 to manufacture. Motors are no longer available so I’ll have to be more vigilant to service regularly to ensure my first machine is also my last!

    • SewMaris says:

      Thanks Kay! I till have my original 830 and my mom’s original 830 – they are true workhorses! I have quite the “collection” of Bernina’s since I teach. I have a brand new 710 that I love, love, love, a 1230, an artista 160, and a couple of 215’s for students. They are all fantastic machines. So glad I started my sewing life as a Bernina gal!

  5. Ginger says:

    I have to agree wholeheartedly on your criteria. I was a Pfaff girl for the past 20 years — bought a one-year old top of the line machine from a dealer who had accepted it as trade-in on a new model. It has been a workhorse and I’ve loved it. I did just upgrade to a new Husqvarna machine with embroidery capabilities. I use my machines a LOT and wanted some new features the old machine didn’t have (embroidery, better lighting, automatic tensioning, thread cutting…)

    I tell people who ask me the same thing you suggested — buy the best machine you can. If you can’t afford more than the Walmart Singer machine, don’t bother — save your money up until you can get something wonderful from a dealer.

  6. Kelly Tadlock says:

    So glad I found your website! I have a Pfaff, but the motherboard is going and since they are not made in Germany anymore but in China! UGH!!! I cannot get relacement parts. I have been thinking about getting a Bernina, and have a wonderful dealer called the Sewing Romm-attached to my favorite quilt shop the Quilt Basket here in Tucson Az. I refuse to buy a sewing machine made in China! I got some Bernina brochures, and I am going to go and try them out!
    Kelly

  7. Allan Wells says:

    Why would anyone bother with any domestic brand other than Bernina? I’ve serviced a wide range of machines over the past eight years; some good many heaps of expensive plastic geared junk. None of them come even close to the old Bernina’s for quality and reliability. Janome’s are good until you go ‘beneath the surface’ and see plastic drive gears: aarrgh!!!!

    • SewMaris says:

      Haha, you KNOW I am a Bernina gal, Allan. Through and through. But when you teach kids many parents (understandably) are not willing to pay the Bernina price tag. I think the Janomes are a great starter machine. Singer = landfill material. Brother = mixed, some OK, some not. Janome = good value for the price (IMHO). Froma service perspective tho – nothing beats Bernina. Bernina = great engineering + REPAIRABLE! My 2 cents!

  8. Nina says:

    Hi Maris,

    I own a Bernina Activa130 which I bought in 1999. It’s bobbin has been a true thorn on my side. At times, it won’t click into place. I have had it services for $95. and here is where my dilemma is. The store (qulit shop) has recommended that I switch to a lighter more updated basic machine – a Janome 3162 . Is it possible that my Bernina has been a lemon?

    • SewMaris says:

      Anything is possible. Have you tried buying a new bobbin case? I would not be inclined to keep any machine that was driving me nuts, but in general Bernina engineering is pretty darn awesome. Good luck!

  9. Barbara says:

    Thanks for the information. My daughter wants a basic sewing machine so I’ve been searching for a used machine. I recently switched to Bernina after getting sick of Singers that just didn’t work right. I’m thrilled with my used Bernina Activa. I’m glad the Bernina 830 is affordable and has many good reviews. I don’t want my daughter to get disgusted with sewing because of a poor quality machine, so I think I’ll get her a Bernina 830 for Christmas.

  10. Vidya says:

    Hi,
    Maris,
    I fell in love with the Bernina stitch when I tried it out at the shop.
    I also heard people raving about Bernina RECORD 830. So I bought one online.Unfortunately the bobbin case is missing. Do you know where I can buy a bobbin case for my Bernina Record 830 online?The seller needs to ship internationally.
    I just cant wait to start sewing on the famous 830 machine.

    Thnaks and Regards

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