If you're thinking about trying sewing, or you've had a few years away from the craft and want to get started again, you may be surprised to find that you can pay anywhere from under $100 (don't bother) for a basic sewing machine, to more than $12,000 (only for the experienced sewer). You'll find all sewing machines do the same basic things but they are not the same. It's important to choose the right machine for the types of projects you are going to be working on.

First things first

Before buying a sewing machine it's important that you think about what you will be using it for. Basic clothing repairs and construction don't require a state-of-the-art, computerised sewing machine. On the other hand buying the cheapest model available could prevent you from developing your skills beyond the basics and could leave you needing to upgrade before too long. Knowing what you are going to be doing will give you an idea of the features that will be the most useful to you.

Do your research

Check out local craft shows, or events like the Stitches and Craft Show and the Craft and Quilt Fair that are held in most capital cities through the year. Most manufacturers have stands manned by experienced sewing machine dealers.

Every brand has models from a very basic machine suitable for a beginner right through to the extremely complicated, expensive, computerised machines. Getting one with all the bells and whistles might sound great but you will be paying for functions you may never use. Consider buying a machine one level up from what you think you need, to allow you to expand your skills.

Back to basics

If you are just a beginner, you will find that a cheaper machine will do the essentials, sew a variety of fabrics, have the basic stitches like straight and zig-zag plus a few decorative stitches and at least one buttonhole setting. They also come with a basic set of accessories. They are suitable for repairs, simple dressmaking and home decorating. At this level they may not have an automatic needle threader. They're relatively inexpensive, and with fewer computerised components there's less that can go wrong with the machine. Make sure a clear set of instructions is included with any machine before you buy it. If you are a beginner, check if the manufacturer offers classes near you. Many retailers offer classes with your purchase.

Cost

$100 - $1000.

Middle of the road

A mid-range machine has a larger number of stitches and capabilities, and would suit someone wanting to do more than the basics. Apart from the standard stitches, a machine in this category will also have a number of embroidery patterns and come with a larger number of attachments. They are not as specialised as embroidery or quilting machines but will handle these projects. They will also offer a range of different buttonholes and an automatic needle threader. While these machines are definitely more expensive, they're suitable for a wider range of crafts than more basic models.

Cost

$800 - $3000

All the bells and whistles

A machine at this price is for the serious sewer. Even if you think you will end up here, it is better to start with a mid-range machine and work your way up as they can be very complicated for the novice sewer. As you would expect, they will have a long list of extra features and capabilities. They will offer a large number of stitches and you will have a choice of fully automatic button holes. But what makes them so expensive is the embroidery features and the fact they are fully computerised. These machines may include a colour touchscreen and you may be able to download designs from the internet and edit them on screen.

Cost

$5000 - $10000

Specialist

These machines are part of the "all the bells and whistles" segment of the market but are for the sewer who tends to focus on a particular craft. They are not a machine for a beginner. A specialist quilting machine will have a superior feed system that handles layers of fabric and have more space to feed fabric through. It will also come with a larger table to handle the amount of fabric in a quilt. There are also specialist embroidery machines with a central processing unit which controls major functions such as the needle bar, providing more needle positions and a wealth of stitch options, while built-in memory banks allow you to customise stitches or save stitch combinations for later use.

Cost

$8000+

Overlockers

You may also come across overlockers in your research. They are a segment of the sewing market on their own but if you have an overlocker you also have a straight sewing machine. They are mainly used to neaten edges but also have a locking stitch for stretch fabrics.

What to look for

Video: What to look for

Bobbin type

Top-loading or drop-in bobbins usually have a transparent cover, so you can see how much thread is left without opening the machine. They are also generally easier to remove and replace. Front-loading bobbins are accessible through the front of the machine, and can be a bit trickier especially if you have work surface attached (see flatbed).

Needle threader

Though often referred to as an automatic needle threader, these are usually not as automatic as that name would suggest. They can be useful though, for those of us with less-than-perfect eyesight. All models work on the same principle but some can be a bit trickier than others to operate. If you have dexterity problems you should try them out.

Foot pedal

Look for a stable foot pedal of a decent size with an anti-slip base.

Adjustable tension

Different fabrics and thread types require varying tension to get the best result, and varying the stitch length depending on your project is important. Any good machine should have these but some of the really cheap models from the local variety store may not.

Fabric feed cavity space

A larger feed cavity or an optional wide-table attachment makes feeding through larger pieces of fabric much simpler and smoother.

Light

A well-illuminated work area is a must. Check how much and where the work surface is illuminated. Also, check how many people it takes to change the light bulb – boom tish! In all seriousness, for some models the manufacturer suggests taking the machine to a service centre to change the light bulb.

Noise

The noise level of most machines ranges from 66-80dB. For comparison, 70dB is a loud conversation and 80dB is heavy traffic.

Flywheel

Make sure it is easy to grip. Some models have the fly wheel recessed which makes it very hard to grip.

Conversion from flatbed to free arm

Any teacher will tell you most sewing should be done on a flat surface. Most machines use the accessory box which slides on and off the free arm to make a flat surface (referred to as a flatbed). If you want to access the accessories in the box you have to take it off, which can be tricky if you are in the middle of a seam or you have accessories floating around your work surface increasing the risk of losing them. Check if you can purchase a table that clips onto the machine and gives you a larger flat working space.

Lever to raise and lower pressure foot

The position of this lever is very important, if you are right-handed, for most machines you have to reach through the machine which can be a problem if you are working on a project with lots of fabric going through the centre of the machine.

Button holes

Have a practice making a button hole as there is nothing worse than spending hours on a garment only to finish with a row of ugly button holes down the front. Don't be fooled by the word 'automatic'; like the automatic needle threading it's sometimes not that straightforward.

Number of stitches

This is where knowing what you are using your machine for comes in handy. To get started you only need a straight stitch and a zig zag stitch. Most machines will come with slightly more then that as standard but the more stitches you have the higher the price and you may pay for something you never use.

Repairs

Find out if you can return your machine to the shop where you bought it for repairs. If not, where will it have to go? It is also a good idea to regularly service your machine.

Lessons

Take advantage of lessons offered either by the manufacturer or retailer. Even for the most basic machine you will pick up tips that could advance your skills. Lessons are a must for the more expensive complicated machines. Before you purchase your machine have a play with it, most retailers should be able to demonstrate the features and let you have a go as well to check if you are getting the right machine for your skill level.

Set up

Set up your machine in a well-lit space, to compensate for the limited lighting on most machines. Use the same ergonomics you would setting up your desk. It is easy to get engrossed in your projects and you could end up very stiff and sore when you finally emerge.

To recap:

  • Decide what type of sewer you are. Are you going to make clothes for yourself or your family, soft furnishings for your home, or creative crafts?
  • Get the top machine for your budget but do not overspend on features you will never use.
  • Have a play with several machines before you buy. Don't just rely on the store owner to demonstrate things they know well and make it look easy.
  • Check out the after-sales service. Does it include lessons and servicing?
  • Set up your machine with comfort in mind, it is very easy to get engrossed in a project and you know what happens when you sit in front of a computer for too long.

Cost

Beginners

From $100 - $1000.

Intermediate

From $800 - $3000.

Advanced

From $5000 - $10000.

Specialist

From $8000+.