Oh, decisions, decisions. If you don’t have a machine, or are ready to change from a starter machine, you can ask 100 sewists and you’ll get 100 recommendations. That doesn’t mean any of those recommends will be what suits you. There are strong Mechanicals advocates, and those who absolutely hate nylon gear machines. On the other side, people who love their Robots often don’t want anything to do with a Mechanical. Thus, a rubric for narrowing your decision. Also, it’s okay to have more than one machine if you can afford the money and the space.
Question 1: Do you like to tinker? Does it make you happy to be knuckles deep in grease and oil with 30 parts laid out on the table? Or does the idea of taking a screwdriver to a sewing machine make you shudder?
Mechanicals require a level of comfort with tinkering. Because most all metal Mechanicals are now decades old, they often require some mechanical work to return them to working order. It’s not generally difficult. Of the last three machines I’ve bought as frozen, only for parts, none have actually been broken. One had a piece of thread stuck in the bobbin case, the others just needed oiling and to have the upper tension cleaned. Mechanical machines are really hard to destroy. There are very few fatal errors with Mechanicals.
The one exception is the machine motor. A 50-60-70 year old motor often has worn brushes, and it’s usually just cheaper, safer, and faster to treat the motor as a black box you can remove and replace than to rebuild the motor. In part this is because motors are cheap — here’s one at Amazon for $40, including shipping — but also because vintage motors often used fairly toxic substances like asbestos and PCBs and lead. Yum, right? Poisoning yourself, your pets, your family, and your habitat is not in anyone’s best interest. You also have to be comfortable with wiring, even if you’re replacing one motor with another. If you’re not, consider
- making your Mechanical muscle powered — either treadle or handcrank;
- taking it to a professional for a new motor — expect it to cost around $80, between parts and labor;
- picking something else.
Question 2: What’s your primary intent for the next two years? Do you want to quilt? Make garments? Cosplay? Do you prefer knits or wovens? Or both?
If your primary sewing is quilting, then you want a machine whose biggest strengths are a fine, perfect, consistent straight stitch. You’ll spend 90% of your time sewing 1/4″/.5cm seam allowances in straight lines. If you’re primarily making baby blanket to twin-sized quilts, I’d recommend any of the Mechanicals, including the 3/4 scale Singer 128s and 99s. This is Bess, my 99 in her treadle base:
You notice that Bess only has about 6.5 inches between her needle and her upright. That means I have to be careful folding anything I need to go through that space. A small quilt (not that I quilt) or jeans is no problem; a large one would be too much. The Singer 66 has about 10 inches of space, and that 3.5 inches helps. If you answered yes, you like to tinker and yes, you are mostly quilting, and yes, you’re mostly making smaller items, then consider a smaller mechanical. They’re heavy — Bess weighed 22 pounds in her travel case, with her motor — but a Featherweight weighs about 11 pounds in the case. A Featherweight has a smaller throat than Bess, but if you prize portability, a Featherweight is a better option.
If you’re more interested in garment work, you’re probably going to want a zig-zag machine, especially if you have any intention of doing any work with knits. It’s possible to sew anything, including knits, with a straight-stitch machine, but you run the risk of popping any seams that run around the body and need to stretch. You can sew a princess-seamed knit dress with no issues, because the major seams are vertical and don’t stretch much, but a skater dress or a knit skirt needs to have stretch at the waist seam.
There are mechanical zig-zag machines; the earliest are from the 1950s. Most of them are pretty good, with some exceptions. The Singer 306 can be a difficult beast of a machine, because Singer specified needles for that model that are slightly shorter than the universals, and model specific bobbins that are now very rare, but are visually identical to a Singer 66 bobbin. The shorter needles and the funky bobbin mean the 306 is prone to timing issues.
A mechanical zigzag is far more complicated than a mechanical straight stitch. Just looking underneath, we can see the difference. Above is Bess, with her simple system of two crank rods. Below in green is Frika, my Viking 33-10, with her multiple brass rods and cams and springs. Frika is not that hard to work on, but Bess is absolutely easier.
But I don’t like grease and oil. I don’t want to tinker. Please don’t make me.
You are the person for whom nylon gear machines were invented. There are lots of them for not very much money. Here’s the advantage of a plastic gear machine — minimal maintenance. Brush or vacuum the lint out of the bobbin every garment or three, take it in for annual service once a year, and that’s your maintenance regimen. The manufacturers [edit: generally] don’t want you oiling it, because oil [edit: usually] degrades the gears. [edit: there are exceptions, but they’re the 20% in an 80-20 split. Read your manual, and download a manual if your machine doesn’t come with one. Thanks, Elena!] The downside is your machine may be in the shop for a week or six once a year. If you don’t trust yourself to oil your machine regularly, if you just want it to work — you need a plastic gear. Neither you nor your machine will be happy if you try to ask a Mechanical to behave like a Robot.
But don’t plastic machines break?
Sure, and so can metal ones, especially when they run dry or get lint-packed. The original plastic gears did break in the 1980s and early 1990s. They were using 1970s plastics technology and their users were used to oiling machines. Oil and plastic don’t mix, so after a few years, the oil ate into the 1970s ABS, weakened it, and the gears broke. We’ve improved our plastic technologies since then and the manuals are firm about not oiling. You do read your manual, right??? We use the same plastics in our super-efficient car motors now that we use in sewing machines. If car engine plastic gears can stand up to the massive torque needed to move 2000 pounds of car, they’re going to withstand denim. Even four layers. Most of the time, when a machine is struggling, the problem is the needle, not the gears. A sharp needle sews better.
But aren’t they weaker? Can they go through denim? Leather? Sunbrella outdoor fabric?
I have sewn denim and leather on my Robots. Go slow to start. Don’t pull. Which is good advice for all machines. Any plastic geared machine has at least as much power as any electric motor mechanical, and often more. Motors are cheap, and they’re more efficient now than they used to be. If you’re taking it in for annual maintenance, your service professional can tell you if you’ve got wear on your gears.
So what machine do I want? Just point me at something!! Decisions are hard!
Easy. Brother SE400.
It’s about $300, it can give you a taste of machine embroidery, but it makes great garments. It will help you with seam allowances and needle threading, it comes with a lot of feet, and it uses snap-on feet if you want ones that don’t come with it. It has excellent bed lighting and automatic thread cutting. It’s light, about 6 pounds, and compact. It needs annual maintenance and occasional dusting. It has 10 buttonholes and 57 other stitches. It will even sew on your buttons if you don’t want to do those by hand. You don’t need a serger with it; it has several very good overlock stitches. If there’s one machine you want to have for the next five years, this is the one I recommend.
But all of that talk about Mechanicals…?
Because the mechanicals are really good at what they do. So are Robots. If you can only have one machine, go for a Robot. It can do more with less, and if you’re still new, it will do things for you that are tedious and precise skills to learn, like buttonholes. If you live off-grid, you want a muscle-powered mechanical.
I can’t afford that.
That’s reasonable. I’m still going to suggest Brother over Singer for modern machines. Brother shares a lot of technology with Babylock and Janome. (There are licensing agreements; it gets complex; dealers will not admit this and will tell you the companies are not related, but it’s just like the Geo Prizm was actually a Toyota, with Toyota reliablity and build quality.) Singer has outsourced a lot of their design, build and development in a way that has not been good for the brand, and it’s much harder to find a Singer dealer when you need service.
Brother Designio DZ2400, about $152
There’s nothing to be ashamed of about not being able to afford a $3000 Bernina. (Which I don’t like, at all. I find them noisy and non-intuitive. And really expensive.) And there’s nothing wrong with buying an online machine or a Big Box machine, even though less reputable dealers will sniff and be disapproving.
I need something in the low two figures, not low three figures.
Now you’re looking at the used market, I’m afraid. Stay away from the very low priced, battery operated Amazon “mini portables”. They’re semi-functional, and very small, cute and light, but running on 4 AA batteries means they’ve got no power at all, and they don’t last long. Also, they’re pure straight stitch. Save the $25 for something else.
First, locate your local thrift stores and sewing machine shops. It turns out that a not insignificant fraction of the population think of a machine shop as something like a humane society for unwanted old machines. It’s worth asking your local shops if they’ve got something that was abandoned after repair or dropped off in the middle of the night. Often, they’ll let you have it for their refurb costs — they don’t want it taking up space. Thrift stores also accumulate them. In that case, the three things you’re looking for are:
- Can you turn the handwheel? Does the needle go up and down?
- Does it have a drop-in bobbin or a bobbin case? Drop-in bobbins are easier.
- Does the power cord look good, or is it cracked, split, showing wiring?
If the last is yes, skip it unless you feel good with electricity. Getting electrocuted by your own sewing machine is embarrassing, and it can kill you. If you can’t turn the handwheel, give the bobbin area a good look. There may be a thread-jam — even an inch of thread can make a machine act like it’s frozen. You also want the drop in bobbin if at all possible — they’re just easier to thread and maintain. And be patient — the right machine will cross your path.
At the same time, ask around. Lots of people have machines they don’t use. Put a Freecycle Wanted ad up. Scope Craigslist. Visit estate sales. And stay tuned — I’ve got some rehab posts planned.