About this time last year, I wrote a blog about quilting gadgets and notions you may want to either gift another quilter or buy for yourself. Since 2020 has brought about unprecedented “stay-at-home-ness,” I realize two things: Those of you who have picked at the fringes of quilting want to dive in, and those of you who have already taken the deep dive into the art may have worn your faithful sewing machine completely out. If you fall in either group, a new machine may be on your Christmas list and this blog addresses what to look for in a machine. I don’t recommend particular brands of machines, but want to highlight the features I feel are important. As you’re shopping for machines, you’ll have to weigh your budget against the features which are absolutely necessary for you and those which would simply be nice to have. I’ve listed the features in no particular order, but have ranked them in my opinion of importance. Please note, this blog concerns the domestic, stationary sewing machine, not mid-arms or long-arms. That’s another blog for another day.
For those of you who don’t know what this is, here’s a picture:
It’s roughly the area between the needle and the right side of the machine. If you plan on constructing bed-size quilts, you want the harp to at least be standard-sized – roughly 7- to 9- inches. This area allows you to comfortably piece blocks, and then have plenty of room to join the blocks into rows and sew the rows together. Anything smaller than the standard harp size may make things a bit too crowded. For those of you who want to quilt your quilts on a domestic machine, a larger harp (those 11-inches and above) may be worth the investment, as the larger space allows for more bulk and makes it easier to turn the quilt. The machines with larger harps not only have more room from left to right, but also in height, which is important if you’re quilting a queen-size or larger quilt. In addition, the larger harp allows you to turn your machine sideways and use a portable quilt frame such as this one from John Flynn
As a sort of makeshift mid-arm. This can also be done with machines which have standard harps, but the extra room sure makes it easier. You will pay more for the extra harp space.
Rank: If you only plan to piece tops, a standard harp will do great. If quilting those large tops are in your future, it should have careful consideration.
How this function works varies from machine to machine, but as a whole, it means when you stop sewing, the needle remains in the down position, holding your fabric in place. This is important if you must raise your presser foot and pivot. Without this feature, your material can shift, and throw your block unit or applique off – even with the judicious use of pins.
Rank: Must have.
Believe it or not, not all sewing machines come with lights. I know this from personal experience. A few years ago, I purchased a sewing machine for my oldest grand darling (and yes, it was a “real” sewing machine, not a toy). When I got it home, unpacked it, and plugged it in, I was astonished the machine had no light. None. Moral of this story: Buyer beware. Read the outside of the box to see what comes with the machine.
Let me also add this is not normal. Nearly all sewing machines have some kind of lighting. Newer machines come with LED lighting. Most of us are familiar with this type of light. It’s brighter and clearer than standard bulbs. And when you’re sewing late at night, the LED lights are extremely helpful – even more so as your eyes age. However, if the machine you purchase doesn’t come with this feature, don’t despair. There are other wonderful lighting options such as Ott lights or LED light strips which attach to the machine’s harp, etc.
Rank: This is a work-around. If the machine you can afford doesn’t have LED lights, you can purchase an alternative LED light source that’s extremely affordable. I do imagine in the future, LED lighting will become a machine standard.
Automatic Needle Threader – This is now pretty standard on nearly all machines except the very basic ones. After you’ve worked your way through the threading process, during one of the last steps, you’re able to have the machine thread the sewing machine needle for you. This takes the guess work and squinting out of pushing the thread through a tiny eye.
Two of my machines have the automatic needle threader. Three do not, and neither does my long arm. I have found this feature is the one which gives me the most issues and the one that tends to breakdown first. I also find myself avoiding this feature and threading all the machines manually.
Rank: For me, this isn’t a deal breaker, since I don’t typically use this feature. However, if you have really bad eyesight, you may want this option.
I’ll admit, this one’s a deal breaker for me, and it’s probably due to traumatic experiences in high school home economics class. When I was in middle school, this class was mandatory for eighth graders. In high school, juniors and senior had to take it. Typically, it consisted of one semester of cooking and one semester of sewing. And I swear the school purchased the cheapest sewing machines they could find and they all had front-loading bobbins. The bobbins and bobbin cases were constantly giving us problems. In fact, it was so bad, once I was through with the classes, I pretty much had sworn off sewing. Push the clock forward several years and I had a daughter and wanted to sew for her. My husband decided to buy a machine for me, and my biggest caveat was it could not use a bobbin case. With my limited history in all things textiles, those had been nothing but a HUGE pain.
I will also admit that bobbins and bobbin cases have come a long way. I use one with my long arm and it really gives me no issues at all. But all my other machines? Except for the Featherweight, they’re all top-loading. To me this type of bobbin is easier to use, easier to trouble shoot, and easier to load.
Rank: For me, this is a must have. In fact, it’s a deal breaker. I avoid purchasing machines which use a bobbin case. However, this is entirely a personal preference.
I feel I must explain this one. This part of the machine:
Is called a take up lever. Some of these have a slot which you thread, and others have a hole. You really want a slot. It speeds up the threading process. I also like machines which allow you to access the inside next to the thread take up lever. My Janome swings open on the left side so I can access the bulb and the lever. Why is this important? If your machine is not working correctly, the first trouble shooting process you undertake is making sure the machine is threaded correctly. Having the slotted take up lever and being able to look on the inside of the machine just makes your life easier. You really don’t appreciate these features until one of two things happen:
- Your thread keeps breaking and you have to determine why, or
- You’re working with raw-edge applique and you have lots of thread changes (because most of the time your thread should match the fabric with this applique process).
Rank: This is a must have for me – an avid machine applique artist.
Easy Needle Access and the Ability to Move the Needle to the Right or Left
It’s an inevitable fact the machine needle will break – even if you change the needle religiously. There are two factors which should be considered about the needle mount – ease of access and security. In other words, the machine should be structured so not only is it easy and quick to change the needle, but when a new needle is inserted, the mount securely tightens around the needle so it doesn’t fall out. Most machines have this feature, and when a new needle is inserted, the needle clamp screw is tightened with a screwdriver. This is a pretty standard item, but when you purchase a machine, I would ask the dealer if changing the needle is an easy process. If you purchase the machine in a shop (verses on-line), I would ask for a demonstration.
I also think it’s important the sewing machine has the ability to move the needle. Remember the ¼-inch seam is not the Holy Grail of Quilting. It’s more important the block come out the correct unfinished size. Most often, the standard ¼-inch seam will take care of this. However, there are times when you need to make your seam larger or smaller to achieve the right unfinished size. The ability to move the needle makes this not only easier, but also keeps all the seams a consistent width.
Rank: Must. Have.
Various Ways to Stop the Needle
My Janome 7700 (affectionately known as Big Red) has three different methods I can use to stop my needle. There’s a stop-and-go button I press with my finger which is right above the needle, the standard pedal, and a knee-lift. Most of the time, I use the button – because most of the time, I’m piecing. However…if you are actually quilting the quilt, it’s important to have the ability to stop sewing on a dime, no matter whether you’re straight-line quilting with a walking foot or free-motion quilting. When you use the button there is a second or two delay because you must remove your hand from the quilt and press the button. A couple of seconds doesn’t sound like a great deal of time, but it can mean a half-an-inch or more of quilting you didn’t want. In contrast, as soon as you stop pressing the petal or knee lift, the needle stops immediately (and hopefully with the needle down).
Rank: If you plan on quilting any quilts on your domestic machine, you at least want the machine to have either the knee-lift or pedal option. If the machine will only be used for piecing, any or all of these ways to stop the needle will be fine — I wouldn’t pay extra for another option. One will be plenty.
Sewing machines – even the most basic ones – now come with an array of stitches. I purchased two basic sewing machines for the grand darlings this year and they came with 32 stitch options. And the more bucks you invest in a sewing machine, the more stitches it has. I brought Big Red home in 2008, and she has over 250 stitches, plus can perform monogramming in four fonts.
Now ask me if I’ve used all those stitches…go ahead…ask.
I purchased her for her large harp – not the stitches. Out of all those stitches, I probably use about 25 pretty regularly. I’ve dabbled with about 100 of them. I’ve never used the monogram function because I have an embroidery machine.
Truth be told, a quilter needs only one stitch if he or she is just piecing and quilting– a straight stitch. If you plan on machine applique, you’ll need a zigzag stitch (for finished-edge applique) and a blanket stitch (for raw-edge applique). Those three stitches are really all you need to get started.
What should be taken into consideration is the machine’s ability to control stitch length/width and sewing speed. No matter if you only see piecing in your quilting future, the ability to lengthen or shorten stitch length is important. It’s a function quilters use regularly. Likewise, the ability to control speed is equally important. There will be instances where you will need to sew slowly – curves, tiny seams, complicated piecing – and if your machine has a speed control function this really aids in accuracy because the machine controls the speed, not you. If you want to sew faster, you must manually change the stitch speed.
Rank: Minimally, the machine needs a straight stitch and a zigzag stitch. It must have speed control and the ability to change stitch width and length.
The more money you spend on a machine, the more feet comes with it. The day I walked out of the quilt shop with Big Red, I had a total of 15 feet in the storage compartment, in addition to the zigzag foot which was already on her. Some of these feet I have used so much I’ve had to replace them. Others have never seen the light of day. So, with all those feet, which ones do quilters really need?
- The Standard Foot — This is the foot which is typically used to sew a garment seam or a straight line of stitches. Chances are this foot was on the machine when you purchased it. I use this foot anytime my seam needs to be larger than ¼-inch – for instance on the rare occasion I make bags.
- Quilter’s Foot – This is the ¼-inch foot. Generally, it has a phalange on the right side to help you keep the edges of your block units lined up, so you sew a consistent ¼-inch seam. Keep in mind this is a full ¼-inch. If you’re purchasing a sewing machine which has been designed with quilters in mind, this foot usually comes with the machine.
- Zigzag Foot – With Big Red, the standard foot is also the zigzag foot. But this may not be the case with yours. If not, make sure it comes with a zigzag foot under the circumstances you need to finish seam edges or you decide you want to try finished edge applique.
- Open-toe Foot – This foot is used for the blanket stitch. If you see raw-edge applique in your future, you will want this foot. It’s also used with other decorative stitches.
- Walking Foot – You all know how much I love this foot. I’ve written an entire blog on just this one foot (https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2020/09/30/almost-everything-you-need-to-know-about-a-walking-foot/). If you want great straight-line quilting (without rulers), easy paper piecing, or the ability to sew on binding without a lot of hassle, you want this foot. With some machines, it’s part of the purchase. If you’re paying major bucks for a machine and a walking foot isn’t included, I would insist that the dealer throw it in for free – they’re not that expensive. Otherwise, generic walking feet can be purchased from a machine dealer or on-line – you just have to know if your machine has a high shank or a low shank – which should be in your manual.
- Darning Foot – This is typically used for mending clothing, but quilters know it’s also used for free-motion quilting. Even if you can’t see yourself quilting your quilts right now, at least be sure a darning foot is available for your machine (if it doesn’t come with it). You never know when you’ll catch a wild hair to drop those feed dogs and free motion quilt.
Those are the six feet I would recommend for any quilter’s sewing machine. There are some optional ones I would suggest.
Scant ¼-inch Foot — Like the Quilter’s Foot, this produces a quarter-inch seam, but a scant one. Some quilt patterns call for a scant seam, which is a thread or two less than a full ¼-inch seam. Also like a Quilter’s foot, the Scant Foot will keep your seams a consistent size.
Ruler Foot — This is a fairly new foot to the domestic machine arena. Typically found on long arms and mid arms, these now have been designed for either high or low shank domestic machines. Quilting with rulers and other acrylic templates once were the sole domain of long and mid arms. With the ruler foot for the domestic sewing machine, all sorts of quilting possibilities have opened up. This may not be the first additional foot purchase you make for your machine, but if the free-motion quilting bug bites you hard, this foot is worth the investment – which is way less than $100.
Zipper Foot – This foot may come standard with your machine. If not, you may opt to add it to your wish list if making bags are in your plans. It’s just too hard to sew in a zipper without a zipper foot.
No matter what, make sure all the feet you bring home accommodates all the stitches on your machine. If one of those stitches require a “special foot at an additional cost,” ask that it be thrown in as part of the purchase. It’s not fair you have to pay extra in order to use one of the stitches on your newly purchased machine.
Rank: Standard foot, quilter’s foot (1/4-inch foot), zigzag foot, and open-toe foot are the minimum number of feet you need. I would push to have the walking foot and darning foot thrown into the purchase price. The other feet are great to have, but can wait to be purchased at a later date.
I touched on this feature in my blog about the walking foot. Dual feed is the machine’s ability to feed the fabric through the top and bottom at the same time – both fabric layers are fed evenly over the feed dogs. This keeps the top fabric from crumpling or shifting. We know it works in tandem with the walking foot, however, it also works independently of the foot. This means more accuracy in piecing – the pieces of fabric will start and stop evenly – and it makes lining up the seams much easier. Dual feed also is a great help when sewing on borders. This feature doesn’t come with all machines and honestly, I can’t find a price variance that makes sense. I’ll play on my home court with this one: Janome. Some of the less expensive Janome machines have it and some of the more expensive ones don’t.
Rank: Must have. This is one feature I don’t think you’ll regret having.
The Ability to Lower the Feed Dogs
All those quilters out there who are piecers and appliquers, and have no desire or simmering compulsion to quilt their own quilts on a domestic machine can breeze over this part. But for those of you who think quilting is a certainty or even a probability, let’s talk feed dogs for a second.
If you read my blog about cleaning your machine (https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2020/09/09/your-machine-needs-a-spa-day/) you know what feed dogs are. They are the are metal teeth-like ridges which emerge from a hole in the throat plate of a sewing machine. Feed dogs move as you sew, gently gripping the bottom fabric to help it pass through the sewing machine and produce a high-quality stitch. If you’re quilting with a walking foot, you leave the feed dogs up. If you want to free motion quilt, then most of the time you’ll drop the feed dogs. This means they stay beneath the throat plate and don’t grip the fabric at all while your free motioning.
There are a couple of items you should consider if you think you’ll drop your feed dogs in the future. The first is the machine’s ability to handle it. Some of the machines produced with garment sewers in mind don’t handle dropping the feed dogs well. Eventually it will throw the timing off if you’re dropping them a lot. And by a lot, I mean your free motioning several large quilts a year. Machines which are advertised as Quilters’ Machines (those made with quilters in mind – and everything quilters do to a machine), generally don’t even hiccup if you drop the feed dogs 365 days a year. They’re built to withstand it.
The second item to consider is the ease of dropping those feed dogs. It should be a quick and easy process. With Big Red, it’s a button on the side of the machine. With my Juki 2010Q, the button is on the front. My point is you shouldn’t have to dissemble anything to be able to drop the feed dogs. It also shouldn’t be an additional up-charge.
Rank: If quilting your own quilts on your domestic machine is a certainty, make sure it can handle dropping the feed dogs and make sure it’s an easy process. With some of the more inexpensive machines, you want to make sure the machine actually will let you drop the feed dogs at all. For me, this is a deal breaker. My machine must let me drop those dogs.
Thread Cones and Thread Cutters
Quilters use thread – and lots of it. Because of this, it’s usually more economical in the long run to buy it in bulk, and sometimes this means purchasing cones of thread instead of the standard spools. So, it’s a great thing if your machine can handle cones of thread fed from a cone stand like this:
Most machines can, but it’s a good idea to check with the dealer to make sure.
Another wonderful feature on some machines is an automatic thread cutter. I never had one until I bought my Janome 7700. And I quickly became spoiled to it. I find there’s always that moment of aggravation when I’m sewing on a machine which doesn’t have an auto cutter and I actually have to pick up my own scissors and cut my own thread.
Rank: Both are must-haves. Once you use an auto cutter, you’ll never go back to not wanting one.
Free Arm Capabilities
This means the sewing machine can do this:
And while this feature is primarily for garment making (think sleeves, cuffs, and other small, tight clothing areas), the free arm comes in handy if you want to make bags (which a lot of quilters like to do) or if you find yourself sewing tiny seams. I use this feature when I make miniature quilts.
Most, but not all, machines come with this feature.
Rank: Not absolutely necessary if all you can see yourself making is quilts. However, if you think you may dabble in clothing construction at all, you probably will want a free arm. And FYI, all of my machines have free arms – even my Featherweight 222. Yes, I use this feature that much.
If you sewed for any length of time, you’ve played Bobbin Chicken. It goes a little like this: You’re nearly through with a seam and the thread in your bobbin is running dangerously low. You try to finish the seam before the bobbin completely empties out. On a good day, you win big – even if there’s less than an inch of thread left on the bobbin.
On a bad day, you think you’ve got a 5-foot border sewed on only to find your bobbin thread ran out four inches after you started the seam.
This is why, sewers of all types of projects, a bobbin alarm is important. It lets you know when your bobbin thread is running low. Some machines come with them. Big Red does not have one. My next machine will.
Rank: Must. Have. And it needs to sound like an airhorn.
This is literally a tabletop which attaches to your machine and expands your sewing area:
If you’re sewing a large quilt or something equally as bulky, an extension table helps steady that extra bulk. Many of the newer machines come with these tables, especially those made with quilters in mind – the table supports the quilt as you join the rows together to make the top. If you’re quilting your quilt on your domestic, the extension table is invaluable, as it holds the bulk of the quilt sandwich and supports it.
Rank: I feel it’s a must have. If you think only small quilts are in your future, you can get by without one, but even with those, an extension table is a big help. How firm am I in this belief? Every one of my machines have an extension table – even if I had to pay extra to get it. If your sewing machine brand doesn’t have an extension table, sometimes you can find a generic one that works or if there’s someone in your life who’s good with tools, one can be made to fit your machine. Google “make your own sewing machine extension table” and lots of sites will pop up.
I know this is a long blog, but there’s one more item I want to discuss and that’s where should you buy your machine. If at all possible, purchase your machine from a local dealer. This idea has more to it than simply supporting your local quilt shop or machine dealer. It has to do with support, service, and education. When you buy local, there’s a better chance if you have a question about the machine, you can pick the phone, call the shop, and get an answer pretty quickly (or send them an email or text). The usual scenario when you go into a shop to purchase a machine, no matter how much or how little you’re spending, they’ll let you test drive that machine and compare it to others. If you’re trading an old machine in, they generally will give you at least what the trade-in is selling for on Ebay. If it’s a complicated machine, they’ll walk you through the basic steps of threading, changing the needle, and programming the stitches before you take the machine home. When you need your machine cleaned or it has other problems, you return the machine to the shop because the shop will have a tech who can perform cleaning and repairs. And many times, the shop will offer free classes with your machine so you can really learn how to use all its features. This type of purchase is a win-win. It’s good for you and the shop owner.
I am also realistic enough to know we’ve lost a lot of quilt and machine shops even before this pandemic hit. I stopped counting the ones which have closed for good because of COVID. Buying a machine from a local store may not even be an option for you. So let me offer this advice – no matter if you had to drive miles to purchase your machine, or you bought it on-line or from a big box store — find a good sewing machine technician in your area. Ask local guilds or other quilting groups for recommendations. If the same name keeps popping up again and again with great reviews, add that person’s name to the contact list in your cell phone.
Another option facing the sewing machine consumer is dual machines – machines which can sew and embroider. Most of these machines are stellar – they do both equally well. What has to be considered is the machine can’t do both at the same time. An embroidery machine with a single needle can take quite a while to stitch out a pattern (I did a llama for my daughter that took five hours and 30 thread changes). Time-wise, if you can make it work for you not to have access to the regular part of the sewing machine, and you have the budget for a dual machine, you may want to invest in one. If you don’t want to tie up your primary sewing machine for a long time with an embroidery project, you may eventually want to invest in a separate machine which only embroiders – which is what I did.
Hopefully, all of this information isn’t too overwhelming. Everyone purchasing a sewing machine must weigh their budget against what features they absolutely must have and those they simply want. Don’t buy the first machine that crosses your path. Do some research. Read some reviews. Talk to some other quilters (in person or online). Find the one which is the best fit for you.
Now for a little administrative change. As a blogger, I’m constantly looking for platforms to increase my readership. My blog is announced on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at this time. And many of you are my beloved friends on Facebook. However, in the past several months leading up to and through the political upheaval in the United States, Facebook has become a very unhappy, ugly place.
This makes me very sad, because Facebook is one way I keep up with my friends from all over the world and stay connected to relatives who live far away. However, for my own mental well-being, I have decided to limit my Facebook activity on my page to this blog only. Sherriquiltsalot will continue to be linked to my Facebook page, but for at least the immediate future, that will be the ONLY item showing up on my page. If you want to continue to see pictures of my quilts, please follow me on Instagram @sherrifields61. Yes, I know Instagram is owned by Facebook, but at least it’s a happier, more politically neutral space.
I’m also on MeWe as Sherri Fields. And as always, you can leave comments on my blog and I do respond.
Until next week, Level Up That Quilting,
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam