Monday, February 15, 2016

Good questions: sewing machines for beginners

Adjusting a Janome 8900 on the set of my Craftsy class

A visitor to my website recently asked me to recommend a good beginner sewing machine, and she specifically was interested in appliqué. In case anybody else has similar questions, I thought I’d share some of my experience with machines here.

My first advice would be to talk with an independent dealer (preferably one who stocks multiple brands), who will help you figure out the right machine for your plans and budget. I use a Janome these days, and I’ve heard good things about their entry-level machines, but there are plenty of other good makes out there. To some extent, you get what you pay for: the sub-$100 models in discount stores probably aren’t going to get you very far, though you needn’t start with one of the $10,000 numbers that has more in common with R2-D2 than with Grandma’s Singer. And keep in mind that you never know what you might find secondhand, though in my experience the best deals come when you aren’t looking.

In my ten years sewing, I’m on my third main machine:
  1. White 2037: an all-mechanical model with a good range of functions. The Mother bought it for me with the idea I’d sew some curtains and pillows, for which it was well suited. Had we had any idea I’d get into quilting, she might have picked a different machine, but the White did have a quarter-inch piecing foot standard, so it was easy for me to start piecing without extra accessories. I pushed the limits of the machine with appliqué, for which it was perfectly capable but lacking the bells and whistles to make things easier (see below).
  2. Pfaff 1171: I scored an incredible deal at a thrift store on this machine from 1986. At the time, sewing and quilting had become the better part of my job, so this workhorse machine was a godsend. The built-in dual feed was a major upgrade over a walking foot, and the needle-down function was a big help with appliqué. This machine hardly ever met a seam it couldn’t sew, and at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, they just don’t build them like that anymore. Sadly, a dodgy repair fried its motherboard.
  3. Janome 8900: this, my current machine, was the first one I carefully chose knowing the kind of sewing I do. I wanted to retain the Pfaff’s the power and reliability (reliable until it wasn’t, that is!), which led the dealer to recommend this machine. I spent several hours in the showroom with a very patient and knowledgeable dealer, who really listened to what I needed from the machine—my top advice is to find a dealer who wants you to be happy with your machine, not just a dealer who wants to sell you something. You’ll be able to tell the difference. While I’d never suggest choosing a machine because of how many decorative stitches it has, I was looking for an updated stitch selection, including the blanket stitch and appliqué blind hem that were missing from my Pfaff. This Janome came with a dual feed that was arguably more flexible than the Pfaff’s, it had a nice wide throat for quilting (most of which I do myself), and it feels cosmically in tune with me when free-motion quilting.
I used each of these machines for raw-edge and prepared-edge machine appliqué techniques. All the projects in my book were sewn on the Pfaff, and the Janome is what I now use at home and on camera in my Craftsy class.

An adjustable zigzag is really the bare minimum you need to do all kinds of machine appliqué. For a list of features that can make appliqué easier, take a look at this free excerpt from my book, The Quilter’s Appliqué Workshop. What machine features do you appreciate for appliqué?