Sewing machines enter a new age with many choices

Sewing machines have changed dramatically in the past 10 years for two reasons: advancements in computerization and technology, and requests by quilters for specific features.

The sewing machine manufacturing industry has eagerly embraced computer technology to create precision machines that now incorporate computerized artistic design features, a tablet-size screen for programming and robotic quilting machines. Just as drones and self-driving tractors seemed like science fiction a few years ago, the capabilities of today’s electronic sewing machines are amazing.

The second reason for changes in the sewing machine industry has been the sewing consumer, specifically quilters. The quilting-specific features have created sewing machines that the garment maker, crafter and home decor sewer also appreciate. Just a few of the enhanced features include increased sewing area to the right of the needle, up to 12 inches on the top models; larger extension tables; thread cutters; up or down needle stop position and better lighting.

Sewing is a creative hobby that is currently experiencing resurgence. There is a vibrant and active online sewing community where bloggers, Instagram users, Facebook groups, and Youtube videos offer information and designs, answer questions and share how-to information.

When considering whether to purchase a sewing machine, it’s important to keep in mind the needs, interests and skills of the individuals who will be using it. What is the primary reason for buying the sewing machine? Is it to construct or mend garments, make home decor or craft items, quilt, embroider or a combination of some or all of these areas?

The sewing skills, and in the case of the electronic machines, the computer skills of those using the machine, are important considerations.

There are two basic types of sewing machines: mechanical and electronic. On a mechanical sewing machine, dials are manually turned to set stitch length and width and to select decorative stitches. These machines can be used to sew, quilt, and do some pre-set embroidery and decorative stitches. Generally, they are better for hemming jeans and mending heavy materials. People with limited computer knowledge may be more comfortable with this type of machine.

On an electronic or computerized sewing machine, patterns and designs are included in the sewing machine or can be added from a computer or the internet.

Some manufacturers have apps that allow for personal designs to be created and scanned into the machine. Stitches and decorative patterns are selected on screen from a multitude of options, and the design size and shape can be easily altered.

Often-used stitches can be preset and designs can be saved for later use. The stitches are precise and the machines are finely tuned. To avoid throwing off this alignment, sewing heavy and bulky materials should be avoided. Some basic computer knowledge is essential. To take full advantage of all the options on the electronic machines, retailer training is recommended.

The electronic machines will do basic sewing, buttonholes, quilting and decorative stitches well, but added features offer many creative possibilities.

An example is the addition of an embroidery hoop and table that attaches to the sewing machine. The table can be used alone to provide a large flat work surface on the front, back and left side of the machine. When the embroidery hoop is engaged, it moves the fabric so a quilting pattern or motif can be stitched or embroidery or monogramming stitches can be selected. Once the design is selected, sized and thread colours chosen, the sewing machine will automatically stitch the pattern and signal when the design is done or a colour change is needed. Some machines have multiple heads to accommodate up to seven different thread colours.

Piecing quilts and straight stitch quilting can be done on any sewing machine. To do free motion or embroidered motif quilting, a quilting foot is needed. Large quilts are difficult to do on a traditional sewing machine because the material must be moved over the machine to create the design. In response to this issue, quilting frames and long-arm quilting machines have been developed. The quilt is fastened into a quilt frame, a pattern is selected on the sewing machine screen, and the quilter moves the machine over the width of the quilt. Robotics can be added to these quilting machines so the machine will automatically stitch the selected quilting pattern over the width of the quilt.

Other features that are found on some machines are an automatic presser foot lift; precision buttonholes; start-stop sewing without the foot control; top and bobbin thread sensors that give an alert when bobbin or needle thread is low; and thread snips that automatically cut top and bobbin threads and pulls thread ends to the back side of fabric. Features that are now standard on most machines are drop-in bobbins, open-arm capability and a needle threader.

All sewing machines will come with a selection of accessories such as bobbins, a variety of presser feet and tools needed for basic maintenance. These are usually stored in a compartment in the machine. Additional accessories that are available are carrying cases, extension tables and specialized feet. A walking foot will feed the fabric through from the top and bottom so the top layer does not push through too quickly and get out of alignment. There are feet for precise quarter-inch seams, stitching in the ditch and for free-motion sewing.

For the garment maker, crafter and home decor sewer, a serger is a perfect companion to their sewing machine. A serger will cut, sew and finish a seam in one step, producing a professional durable finish. The seams are perfect for stretchy and woven fabrics. On light fabrics, a serger can do a fine-rolled hem. With a few changes to the differential feed, a serger can gather or sew flat, even seams and hems. Some sergers will do a cover stitch, which is like a ready-made T-shirt hemstitch. A variety of seams can be created with 4/3/2 thread sergers.

Threading has always been an issue but now all sergers have some form of assisted threading and a needle threader. Although some projects can be done entirely on a serger, a serger cannot replace a regular sewing machine to do facings, zippers, topstitching and buttonholes. For this reason, it is better to put more money into the features on a sewing machine and then add a basic serger for about $600 to $800. Top end machines are in the $2,300 range.

Sewing machine manufacturers’ websites offer a great starting place to see what sewing machines are available, features and price ranges. Then check out the models you are interested in by going to a sewing machine specialty store and try the machines yourself. Consider ease of use and what features you may wish to use in the future.

Sewing machines are available online or from general merchandise retailers for as little as $99. What you pay is what you get. These less expensive machines are not serviceable and will be frustrating to use because most are poorly made.

A better quality serviceable basic sewing machine can be bought for about $200 from a specialty sewing machine retailer that will provide training and service.

For sewing machines and sergers, the after-purchase service, support and training are essential to achieve the maximum benefit of all the features on the machine and to ensure you can confidently use, care for and enjoy the machine.

The information for this column was obtained from, and Also, thank you to Kathy Kennedy and her staff at the Sewing Machine Store in Saskatoon.

Betty Ann Deobald is a home economist from Rosetown, Sask., and a member of Team Resources. Contact:

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