Sewing machines buying guide

We examined three machines at different price points to see what you get.
 
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01 .Introduction

Sewing machine

If you’re a sewing rookie or coming back to the craft after an extended break, you may be surprised to find that nowadays you can pay anywhere from $299 (for a basic model) to over $8000 (almost does the job for you) for a domestic sewing machine.

Before purchasing a sewing machine, it’s wise to do some research on the features and type that will be most useful to you, as this will affect the price. Simple clothing repairs don’t require the use of a state-of-the-art computerised sewing machine. However, buying the cheapest model available could prevent you from developing your skills beyond the basics.

More expensive machines have more features, many of which make it easier to use — which in turn will encourage you to try more complicated sewing. A sewing machine that’s difficult or frustrating to use simply won’t be used. One of CHOICE’s sewing experts said, "I believe people should buy a machine they will grow into, a little bit more than they think they will use."

To give you a better idea of what you get for your money, we bought three sewing machines at different price points: $500 (lower end), $1500 (mid range) and $3000 (upper end).

We chose the brand Janome for our three models as it’s currently the market leader in Australia in terms of sales. Bernina, Bernette For Bernina, Brother, Elna, Homemaker, Husqvarna Viking, Pfaff and Singer are the other major brands you’ll find in shops.

The models we chose for this buying guide are good examples of the features and quality you'll find at each price range. They were:

  • Janome Sewist 525S
  • Janome Memory Craft 4900 QC
  • Janome Memory Craft 9700

Please note: this information was current as of May 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market. 


 
 

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Low-end model

Janome Sewist 525S

Janome 525SPrice: $499

Type: Sewing machine

Contact: www.janome.com.au

Warranty: 1 year

Weight: 8.5kg

Mid-price model

Janome Memory Craft 4900 QC

Janome 4900Price: $1499

Type: Sewing and quilting machine

Contact: www.janome.com.au

Warranty: 1 year (five years for electronic parts)

Weight: 10.7kg

Higher-end model

Janome Memory Craft 9700Janome 9700

Price: $2999

Type: Sewing, quilting and embroidery machine

Contact: www.janome.com.au

Warranty: 1 year (five years for electronic parts)

Weight: 13.7kg

How we assessed

We enlisted three sewing experts with over 55 years of combined sewing experience to assess and comment on each machine. We made sure that none was affiliated with any particular brand and that they’d used a range of sewing machine brands.

We asked the experts to run the machines through their paces on a variety of fabrics including denim, lycra, homespun cotton and chiffon, trying out a number of stitches such as straight sew, buttonhole, zigzag and seam overlock.

After using each machine they commented on different aspects of it, such as stitch controls, number of stitches available, programs, how easy the machine is to thread and to sew with, and whether it represented the sewing machine market in that particular price range. We’ve collated all their comments together to bring you this price-specific guide to buying a sewing machine.

Our experts were:

Mandy millsMandy Mills

Mandy has over 10 years of fashion design experience with industrial and domestic machines. She has an advanced Diploma and Certificate in fashion design through Sydney Institute of TAFE.

Brand experience: Brother, Singer and Janome.

 

Rhona FeeneyRhona feeney

Rhona has over 30 years’ experience with domestic machines and works for the Australian Sewing Guild.

Brand experience: Elna, Husqvarna, Bernina and Singer.


 

Celyna ZiolkowskiCelyna ziolkowski

Celyna has over 15 years’ experience with industrial and domestic machines. She has a Bachelor of Design in Fashion and Textiles and teaches design at FBI Fashion College.

Brand experience: Brother, Janome and Singer.

Stitch selection controls

Decision guide

The way in which stitches are selected really sets the price points apart — the more you pay, the more intuitive the machine becomes, which means less trial and error. Our experts found all three machines easy to navigate, though one commented that the high-end machine was a little more complex to use than the mid-range one. This may reflect the increasing specialisation of the more expensive models. It does, however, come with an instructional CD, which the others don’t.

Janome 525SJanome Sewist 525S

To change the stitches on this machine you turn a series of dials. The experts advised checking that the stitches and dials are clearly labelled, which makes selecting the stitches simple. The dials include:

  • Stitch length dial.
  • Pattern selector dial.

 

 

Janome Memory Craft 4900 QC Janome 4900

The stitches are displayed on a small LCD screen and can be selected via buttons on the machine’s body. The screen displays include:

  • Pattern number and image of stitch.
  • Recommended thread tension.
  • Recommended presser foot.
  • Stitch width and length.
  • Recommended foot pressure.

 

Janome Memory Craft 9700Janome 9700

Stitch selections are made via the touch LCD screen, which is like a mini computer. The colour screen displays/selections are vast and include:

  • Selected mode: sewing or embroidery.
  • Name of stitch and image.
  • Recommended foot pressure.
  • Recommended tension setting.
  • Adjusting the stitch width and length.

Stitches/buttonholes

Decision guide

For clothing repairs, hemming and making simple clothes following a pattern, the range of basic stitches available on the low-end machine is all you’ll need, but for more complex tasks such as creating your own clothing, a mid-range machine with a good range of stitches is a better option. More experienced sewers interested in crafts and quilting will need a much wider range of stitches/patterns, which the mid to high-end machines deliver.

Janome 525SJanome Sewist 525S

This machine has a limited number of basic stitches, which you’d expect on a lower-end machine — though you may find more on other machines around the same price.

  • 24 stitches and one buttonhole.
  • Six sewing feet .

 

 

 

Janome Memory Craft 4900 QCJanome 4900

The mid-range machine gives a lot more variety of stitches and buttonholes — and this one had more than our experts expected at this price range.

  • 188 stitches and 10 buttonholes.
  • Three alphabets for monograms.
  • The ability to customise your own stitches, which can be saved to the memory.
  • 11 sewing feet.
  • Quilter guide.

 

Janome Memory Craft 9700Janome 9700

For this price you can expect a specialised machine for quilting and embroidery, with a large number of stitches and designs.

  • 98 stitches and seven buttonholes.
  • 95 embroidery designs.
  • Three alphabets, two and three-letter monogramming and 15 borders.
  • Design-editing feature.
  • 10 sewing feet.
  • Quilter guide.
  • PC memory card slot to download images and software updates.

Features

Decision guide

The experts told us you can’t expect much in the way of features from a low-end machine — just the basics, which means you do most of the work yourself. The higher in price you go, the easier it becomes to produce high-quality, specialised garments and crafts, but all the extra features will be overkill if you’re sure you’ll use your sewing machine only for general repairs.

Janome Sewist 525SJanome 525S

At this price, you’ll get only basic extra features. One expert commented that at this price range they’d have expected a needle up/down function, which lets you choose the position of the needle after sewing. This model doesn’t have this feature. It has:

  • One-handed thread cutter

 

 

Janome Memory Craft 4900 QCJanome 4900

This machine provides a set of features that you can expect at this price range and which enhance sewing and quilting performance.

  • Needle up/down button.
  • Automatic thread cutter.
  • Automatic thread tension control.
  • Built-in memory.
  • Knee-lifted presser foot (useful for quilting).

 

Janome Memory Craft 9700Janome 9700

At this price, you can expect the time-saving features of the mid-range machine, plus more.

  • Needle up/down button.
  • Automatic thread cutter.
  • Automatic thread tension control.
  • Built-in memory.
  • PC card slot and optional card reader to download designs.
  • Embroidery hoop unit (A and B) plus additional embroidery features.
  • ‘Eco’ energy-saving mode.

 

Threading and foot control

Decision guide

An automatic needle threader, which all three machines have, works by a small hook pulling the thread through the eye of the needle and helps reduce eyestrain and frustration. One expert was able to thread the needles of all three with her eyes closed. As the price of the machine increases, you should expect the quality and responsiveness of the foot pedal to increase too. The mid and high-end machines have a variable speed control so you can set the maximum speed.

Janome Sewist 525SJanome 525S

Even the low-end machine is easy to thread thanks to clear labelling and an inbuilt needle threader. The foot pedal on this machine is bulky, doesn’t have a retractable cord and has to be wound manually. There’s also no speed control, so speed can only be controlled via the foot petal.

  • Automatic needle threader.

 

Janome Memory Craft 4900 QCJanome 4900

This machine is very easy to thread thanks to clear labelling and an inbuilt needle threader. The foot control is fairly responsive, but the experts noted that the machine doesn’t go as fast as they’d expect at this price.

  • Automatic needle threader.
  • Slimline foot pedal with retractable cord for easy storage.
  • Variable speed control.

 

Janome Memory Craft 9700Janome 9700

This machine is very easy to thread thanks to clear labelling and an inbuilt needle threader. The experts thought its foot pedal had very good response and control, as you should expect at this price.

  • Automatic needle threader.
  • Slimline foot pedal with retractable cord for easy storage.
  • Variable speed control.

Ease of use and portability

Decision guide

If you’re planning to transport your machine around a lot, a low-end model is likely to be lighter and more compact, while mid and high-end machines can be more cumbersome to transport. However, as they’re heavier, they’re also sturdier while sewing and better at sewing thicker fabric. Our experts found both the mid and high-level machines very smooth and comfortable to sew with, using a variety of stitches and fabrics.

Janome 525SJanome Sewist 525S

This is the lightest of the machines at 8.5kg, though the handle is small and less sturdy than on the other machines. Our testers found it fairly comfortable to sew with, though one commented that it shook and bounced on the table while sewing.

  • Sewed well on basic stitches and all the fabrics supplied.
  • Lightweight.

 

Janome 4900Janome Memory Craft 4900 QC

This machine is slightly heavier than the low-end machine at 10.7kg, but it has a large, sturdy handle. One expert described it as powerful, with great capabilities and a good-sized platform.

  • Sewed very well on a variety of stitches and through all the fabrics (including thick fabrics).
  • Quiet and sturdy during use.

 

Janome 9700Janome Memory Craft 9700

This is the heaviest and least portable at 13.7kg but has a large sturdy handle. It sewed very well.

  • Sews very well with a variety of stitches and through a variety of fabrics (including thick fabrics).
  • Quiet and sturdy during use.

What you get at each price point

Low end

A low-end machine is fine for a beginner sewer. It will sew a variety of fabrics and basic stitches and is suitable for basic repairs and simple garment construction. Check that clear instructions are given, on both the machine itself and in the manual, for how to thread and operate it.

The upside is that there are no computerised components so not much can go wrong. The downside is that once you become more competent at sewing, you’ll probably want to take on more complex tasks that will be harder to do with the basic features of the cheaper machine, and impossible if you want to move on to embroidery or quilting, say.

Assess your long-term skills and needs before you buy, to save having to upgrade to a more sophisticated machine down the track.

Mid price

Our experts chose this as their preferred machine overall. A mid-price machine has a much larger range of features, stitches and capabilities and would suit anyone from beginners to advanced — though one expert commented that an absolute beginner might be overwhelmed by the number of stitches available.

It’s likely to have most of the capabilities that make sewing simpler, and similar features to a high-end machine, apart from specialised embroidery and the ability to download designs direct from a computer. The LCD screen displays are easy to follow and the large variety of stitches/features are conducive to a much wider range of crafts than the basic model.

Higher end

A machine at this price would be for the serious sewer only. Like the mid-range machine it has a long list of extra features and capabilities to make sewing easier, but what makes it twice the price is its embroidery features, which include being able to download designs from the internet and edit them on screen.

It should come equipped with all the bells and whistles, such as a colour touchscreen, power-saving mode and PC card slot, but most likely only the serious embroiderer would find all its functions useful.

Handy tips

  •  Before deciding on a machine, try it out in the shop to see if it’s right for you. Take a selection of fabrics with you that you’re likely to use, such as denim, cotton and silk. Try out a variety of stitches and check their quality. A good machine will produce tight, even stitches without puckering.
  • Visit big craft shows in your area, or major state-based shows like the Royal Easter Show, as manufacturers often have excellent deals available at this time.
  • If you want a good list of features without the $1500 price tag, consider a secondhand machine from a local dealer. Ask the retailer for a warranty and try the machine out before you buy.
  • Check the warranty.
  • To keep your machine shipshape, follow the cleaning and oiling recommendations in the manual. For optimum performance, it's recommended you have it serviced every 12 months or so, but if you maintain it well yourself it may not be necessary so often.
  • Find out if you can return it to the shop where you bought it for repairs. If not, where will it have to go?
  • It’s a good idea to take lessons after you buy your sewing machine, which your local sewing dealer may offer as part of the package. This will help you learn what your machine is capable of.

For people with a disability

  • Models with touch-button controls would be more suitable for those with dexterity problems — models with slide controls and dials would be very difficult to set accurately.
  • Models with clear, well contrasted labelling would suit those with poorer eyesight, and models with a speed selector that allow the machine to run at a lower speed could also be an advantage.

Jargon buster

We explain some commonly used terms.

Bobbin

The bobbin holds the bottom thread that forms the stitch by looping together with the needle thread. Sewing machines have either a front-loading or top-loading bobbin.

Feed dog

These are the jaw-shaped teeth that move the fabric through the machine. The feed dog can be dropped for tasks like button sewing and embroidery.

Needle plate

This fits over the feed dogs, with a hole that the needle passes through.

Presser foot

This can be levered up and down, and when down it holds the fabric against the feed dogs. Different feet are used for different jobs and come supplied with your machine — or you can purchase additional feet.

Tension adjustment

Most machines require you to adjust the thread’s tension to suit different types of thread or fabric. The mid and high end models we looked at have automatic tension for general sewing.

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