I’ll tell you right away what this post isn’t. This post isn’t written by an expert sewist who has years of experience with many brands of sewing machines. That said, this post is written by a beginner sewist who was recently in the same position as you, who went down a rabbit hole researching machines, and who would like to share her findings in case they can help.
If that sounds good to you, let’s dive in!
What to Look for in a Sewing Machine
The features you need will depend the type of projects you expect to do. As a sustainable fashion creator, I’m mainly interested in making and upcycling clothing, so my experiences will lean in that direction.
If you can, I urge you to avoid mini sewing machines. These machines are super portable and affordable, but they aren’t made to last. I tried to start sewing on my family’s 10 year old Shark Euro Pro X, and it couldn’t do a good stitch at all, even though it had been barely used when it was new (even my sewing instructor couldn’t get it to work).
You should also consider the kinds of projects you hope to do as you build up your skills. If you’re serious about sewing, it may be worth investing in a nicer machine so you can “grow into it,” rather than getting something simple and needing to upgrade.
New vs. used/vintage/refurbished
If you’re just starting out, getting a used machine is a great way to save money. Reliable new machines will cost at least $150-200, but you can get a good, used one from $50-100. In fact, many sewists recommend vintage machines over modern ones, as newer machines have plastic parts that don’t last as long.
At first, I actually wanted to buy a vintage Kenmore for $75 on Offerup, but I was ghosted by the seller, so it didn’t work out. I was also considering a vintage Singer, but it didn’t have all the features I wanted, and I was worried about getting it serviced. Many older machines are usually simpler and may not have as many stitches, so keep that in mind.
If you do opt for a used machine, I’d recommend going local as you can ask the seller to show you that it works. If you buy online, it may be better to get a manufacturer refurbished machine rather than a used one, as individual sellers may not know how to pack their machines properly, and you can’t verify that it works.
Computerized vs. mechanical
Computerized machines have a computer in them, so they tend to offer more stitch options and are able to adjust the thread tension automatically. They’re known to run more smoothly, but they can also be overwhelming with all their options, and if the computer inside breaks, you’ll have an expensive repair.
Mechanical machines are simpler and generally more affordable, but don’t have as many features. It ultimately comes down to preference. I wanted a mechanical machine for my first machine, so all the options I list will be mechanical, but keep in mind that a computerized machine might still be right for you.
Straight stitch and zigzag stitch
As a beginner, you generally don’t need much more than a good straight stitch and zigzag stitch. A zigzag stitch is especially important if you don’t have a serger and want to finish the seams/edges of fabric. Most modern machines have at least these two stitches, but super old machines may only have a straight stitch.
Stitch length adjustment
Changing the width of your stitch can be useful in creating ruffles or working with more delicate fabrics. Some basic machines don’t allow you do to this, including modern ones, so keep an eye out for it.
Drop-in bobbins are generally considered to be easier to use, as the tension is adjusted automatically, and you can see how much thread is remaining through the clear plate. Front-loading bobbins can be trickier to adjust, but some sewists say that it depends on what you’re used to. I had a TikTok follower warn me that front-loading bobbins can actually take a lot of time to get right, so I heeded their advice to get a machine with a drop-in bobbin.
If you plan to sew a lot of clothing with buttons, having a 1-step buttonhole can allow you to create neater buttonholes. Many machines have a 4-step buttonhole, which requires you to manually stop at each “side” of the hole and readjust.
Threading your needle manually is easy for some, but if you don’t have nimble fingers or great vision, look for a machine with a needle threader.
Beginner-Friendly Sewing Machines
This post contains affiliate links, meaning that I earn a small commission on any purchases, at no extra cost to you. This income allows me to keep my blog running, and it’s much appreciated. The links over the names of the sewing machines go to Amazon since there are tons of reviews and detailed info over there, but I encourage you to purchase from smaller businesses if you can. There are also more recs for places to buy machines at the end of the post!
1. Brother ST371HD ($200)
The Brother ST371HD is a heavy duty machine made to sew through thick fabrics. In fact, when Angelina of BlueprintDIY tested it, it was able to sew through 10 layers of denim! This machine had everything I wanted, including:
- drop-in bobbin
- automatic buttonhole
- straight and zigzag stitch (among many others)
- stitch length adjustment
- needle threader
I almost bought it, but I ultimately went with a higher-end Janome (it’s last on this list since it’s the most expensive).
2. Singer Heavy Duty 4452 ($220)
I was initially considering a manufacturer refurbished Singer 4452 on eBay ($160), but I decided against it since so many people told me to avoid new Singer machines.
That said, this machine did have everything I wanted features-wise (though I found the gray color kind of ugly). Since Singer is such a popular brand, there are also TONS of videos on it, so there should be plenty of setup and troubleshooting tips.
For what it’s worth, the machine is well-rated on Amazon (4.6 stars and 6,500+ reviews), so it has worked for plenty of people. It’s also heavy duty, so it’s made to be sturdy and sew through thick fabrics. I just didn’t want to take the risk after already wasting hours wrangling with my family’s problematic (non-Singer) mini machine.
3. Janome Magnolia 7318 ($230+)
This machine was one of the former picks of the NYTimes Wirecutter, which does in-depth, blinded tests to provide trusted appliance recommendations. The Janome Magnolia 7318 is no longer in production, but you can still find new and refurbished models from $220-300. I was seriously considering this one as well, but it didn’t have an automatic buttonhole (only the 4-step) or a needle threader.
4. Bernette 35 ($300)
Bernette is a brand under Bernina, which is one of the most trusted sewing machine companies. Their machines are said to be smooth, reliable, and high-quality. I used a computerized Bernina when I went to a local sewing studio, and it was so lovely to use.
That said, this particular model does have a front-loading bobbin, which may be a bit trickier to get used to than the drop-in bobbin. It also has a 4-step buttonhole instead of an automatic one.
5. Janome Sewist 725S ($375) – my machine
I was persuaded into buying this machine by the woman at Ken’s Sewing Center, an online sewing retailer based in Alabama. I called to ask about their refurbished Janome Magnolia 7318, and she upsold me into getting the Janome Sewist 725S (after I slept on it for a night).
I’d been considering this machine already, so when she told me that this was a really quality machine, and that no one has ever sent it back for issues, I was sold. On top of that, this machine did get the Women’s Choice Award 2020 and was used in the Great British Sewing Bee.
To be honest, this machine didn’t have any standout features from the Brother ST371HD or the Singer Heavy Duty 4452, which already checked all the boxes (the Janome Sewist 725S actually has fewer stitch options than them at 23 vs. 30+). But, it sounded quieter and looked smoother in the demo videos, and I really wanted something that was quality, so I shelled out the extra money.
If this machine is out of your budget, but you like the look and features, you might consider the Janome Sewist 721, which is in the same series. It has a slightly smaller number of stitches and no automatic buttonhole (4-step only), but it’s $75 cheaper.
Where to Buy Your First Sewing Machine
Many seasoned sewists will recommend that you buy from a local dealer, as they can show you how to use your machine and provide support after purchase. You can also test out machines and get a feel for the one you like most.
That said, many dealers don’t have the models that you can research and buy online, and some only offer higher-end machines. When I called my local dealer, they didn’t have any of the models I’d researched, and the cheapest machine they had was a $500 computerized machine. Definitely give your dealer a shot though, as some may have used machines, and the models they have depend on the area.
If you’re planning to buy a used machine, OfferUp and Facebook Marketplace let you find local options. eBay also has a decent selection, but again, I’d personally only buy manufacturer refurbished machines online vs. used machines.
I ultimately bought my machine from Ken’s Sewing Center, an online sewing shop with a physical store in Alabama. I had a good experience and would recommend them. My machine came in 2 days and their staff was really helpful (don’t hesitate to call or email them). This isn’t an affiliate link—I’m recommending them because they seemed like a really nice small business.
From one beginner to another, I hope this post helped you make a decision. Let us know what you decided on, and happy sewing!