Buying a first sewing machine
Stitch Club founder, designer, sewing teacher and all-round everything
This week, I'm talking about buying your first sewing machine. This may be for a child, but it may be for you as a new or returning sewer - the good news is, you don't need a separate machine for your child. I'll cover the basics of what to look for in a child-friendly machine, before delving just a little deeper into what else is out there.
Although I list my sewing kits as suitable from age 9+, it is possible to start teaching younger children, with simpler projects and more adult assistance.
This is my daughter when she was 7 years old, working on one of her first projects with me. Note that she is using my full-size sewing machine.
What I love most about this photo is the look of concentration on her face, and how she has a good hand position for guiding the fabric. Now clearly, if you want to work with your young child, you need to really 'hover' to make sure they're keeping their fingers away from the needle. Trust me though, most kids' self-preservation instinct should keep them safe! There'll be a whole other post later on how to actually help your child use the sewing machine, although you'll find a few helpful tips on my last post.
This is just my own opinion (as a sewing teacher!), but the number one mistake parents make when buying a sewing machine for their child, is to buy a toy.
There is a caveat to this of course: if you really want to just leave them to 'play' with a machine then that's ok, but if you want to help them learn to sew, these machine just don't cut it.
This photo is a little extreme, as it'a child's sewing machine from the 1950s, which has been in my collection for a while. But it does sew, unlike many modern toy machines!
When is a small sewing machine a toy, and when is it just a small sewing machine?!
Great question, right? Here are a couple of examples of what I would call a 'toy' machine.
I confess to never having used a machine like this, but I've had many first hand stories from people who have. One of my Stitch Club students was so disappointed last Christmas when she received one like this (the GBSB one!) from her Grandmother, only to find they couldn't get it to work. Some might be ok, but I would urge you to read lots of reviews if you're considering buying one. If you are buying for a very young child then maybe they'll be a bit of fun for a while, but ultimately children (and their parents!) find them so frustrating to use. They lack the sturdiness and features of a real machine, and if something is hard to use, all it's going to do is put you and your children off sewing!
So what about real machines that are just small?
Over the years, I have come across a few compact sewing machines. The one that springs to mind if you're in the UK is the John Lewis Mini (below left), but it appears they aren't producing this now. No doubt it appealed to people because it came in a range of fun colours, at a great price. Definitely something that would appeal to children, and 'ok' as a first machine, but still not great.
You can buy other compact/small machines if you hunt around, which are probably aimed at adults who want a portable machine that's easy to carry to a sewing class. However, they're actually a similar price to any other sewing machine, so really you're just paying for that small size. They may be easier to store, but the size shouldn't really be a factor if storage isn't a problem for you. Unless you're going for the toy machine because you want the finger guard, there's no reason a child needs a small machine.
What else is out there?
Mostly, the answer to this comes down to how much you're ready to spend. If you're not bothered about spending £120 on a machine just for the colour, you can get something similar for a little less.
Just about the cheapest machine on the market, which is great for beginners of any age is the Brother L14s.
This is a machine that's been around for many years, and every now and then they redesign the plastic outer so there have been a few fun and colourful designs.
I have first hand experience teaching children at Stitch Club on these machines.
This is a reasonably small, though full size sewing machine, with just what you need as a beginner, or for a child. There is a simple stitch-selector dial which children can manage themselves, featuring 14 stitches. You really only need straight-stitch and zig-zag stitch for most sewing projects and those 14 stitches include different lengths of straight stitch, and various zig-zag stitches of differing widths and lengths.
The reverse function (which is something a lot of 'toy' machines don't even have!) is an easy lever to hold down. In case you've not even heard of back-stitching, sewing backwards for a few stitches is used to secure the beginning and end of a line of stitching.
This machine retails at around £99 but if you hunt around it's sometimes available for a little less. If you're in the UK you cannot go wrong purchasing from Sewing Machines Direct
I've bought all my machines from this company for 15 years - they usually offer free next day delivery and often an extended warranty. If you're unsure about your purchase give them a call as they're really helpful. I write this during a worldwide pandemic, so a lot of places are low on sewing machine stock, but give them a call.
And digging a little deeper...
Ok, so having covered the fact that toy machines are a headache which your child will grow out of fast (if you can get them to work in the first place), and offering an entry-level machine suggestion which is budget friendly, let's just touch on a few features that may be listed in the product specifications. This is helpful if you're hunting for a machine yourself and getting bogged down with lingo like 'one-step-buttonhole' and 'drop-in bobbin'.
Bobbin loading options
When you use a sewing machine, you have to wind some of the sewing machine thread onto a bobbin. The bobbin is then inserted into the space beneath the sewing area, and the thread from both the bobbin and the main spool, are what create the stitches. There are two different types of bobbin loading to look out for when you're shopping. Note that the top-loading, or 'drop-in' bobbin is much easier to use, especially for children and any other novice sewers. The front loading bobbin requires a little more dexterity as you first insert the bobbin into a holder, and then have to hold out a small 'lever' while inserting it into the machine.
The buttonhole stitch
Another feature you may wonder about is whether you need a one-step buttonhole stitch or a four-step buttonhole stitch! The buttonhole stitch sews a small rectangle of dense zig-zag stitches, and you then snip open the centre, in between the longer vertical stitching lines. And that's a buttonhole.
Essentially, the most basic machines will have a four-step buttonhole stitch. This means that for each side of your little rectangle, you need to adjust the size of your zig-zag stitch. If you're buying for yourself and think you'll be sewing up some button-up shirts, this can take a really long time. However, children are not likely to be sewing buttonholes for a while!
The one-step buttonhole is a wonder - just select the stitch and put your foot down; the machine sews the whole thing before stopping.
There is usually a significant price-jump when you look at a machine with the one-step buttonhole. It's really not necessary in a first sewing machine, unless you're really planning ahead for more advanced sewing in the future. It's ok if you are - a decent sewing machine can last a lifetime if it's looked after well!
How many stitches do you need?
In product listings you'll also notice a difference between how many stitches there are. As I mentioned earlier, you really only need a straight stitch and a zig-zag stitch, and all machines should have these.
A machine that lists a tonne of stitches might have some decorative stitches like scallops or even fun little motifs like leaves. These can actually be fun for kids to adorn sewing projects with, but they're far from essential. Other stitches might be designed to help sew stretchy fabrics for example, or elastic, but this can also be achieved with the humble zig-zag.
There are a lot of sewing machines out there! In my opinion, even the most basic machine from a good brand will serve new sewers well. You're likely to get a good guarantee, and most of the big name companies have excellent customer service if you have any problems. I have several Janome and Brother machines and their customer care is excellent. Other notable and well-known brands are: Elna, Pfaff, Juki and Bernina.
I'm not a fan of Singer sewing machines. Unfortunately a lot of new sewers go with this brand as it's one they've heard of. I teach a lot of sewing students, who bring their own machines to class. Singer has really stood out to me over the years as the only machines which seem to have a lot of issues.
Aside from actual sewing, it's also worth noting that if you want to try out a new presser foot or two (this is the foot that actually sits on the fabric as you sew - there are many kinds for different types of sewing) you can't buy unbranded feet for the Singer machines. You have to splash out on their own products.
Many other machines, most notably Janome, can share accessories with some other brands, and also work with cheaper generic sewing machine feet which you can buy pretty cheaply online.
And so ends my guide to buying a beginner-friendly sewing machine. If you reached the end, well done! I hope it's been helpful rather than daunting. Don't forget to ask around your friends as you'd be amazed the amount of people who buy a machine that then doesn't get used (don't be that person! You'll have so much fun once you get started!). Why not borrow one to get started on, or even buy second hand? You can get a great deal second hand, though you may find the machine needs a service - ideally you should see it working first.
Above all, enjoy the start of your sewing journey. Check out the sewing kits in our shop - several of them involve the use of a sewing machine and the guidebooks are filled with useful tips which will encourage good habits and develop great skills.