Sewing machine features explained: a buyer's guide

Lynn Wright / 24 May 2018 ( 02 April 2020 )

Here’s our guide to the most important sewing machine features to consider when shopping and help you decide which sewing machine is best for you.



Although all sewing machines share the same basic function, the sheer range of features available on different models makes choosing the best sewing machine far from simple. Here we guide you through some key sewing machine features to look for so you can better understand what to look for when shopping and how to find the perfect sewing machine.

Types of sewing machines

Electronic sewing machines

Electronic sewing machines have a single motor that drives the needle, in conjunction with a feeding mechanism, through your fabrics. The motor is operated by a foot pedal –press harder on the pedal to sew faster – leaving both hands free to guide the fabric. Most have a dial on the side that lets you change stitch type and length. Available in a wide choice of models with prices ranging from around £50 to £300, electronic sewing machine are great all-rounders suitable for both novices and experienced sewers alike.

Computerised sewing machines

Computerised sewing machines have built-in computers that automate stitching, making them simple to use. Operated by touchpad screens or LCD displays, they offer hundreds of different stitches and patterns, and can automatically adjust the length, tension and speed for those you select. Most can memorise your stitches so you reuse them again in the future, while premium models let you program your own embroidery patterns or download designs from the internet. With prices starting at around £250 and rising to more £2,000, a computerised sewing machine can be a major investment. However, they’re far more versatile than electronic machines and let you complete sewing project faster and more effectively.

Overlocker machines

Overlocker machines give a professional finish to the seams and hems of a garment by trimming excess fabric as they stitch. With their limited functionality, overlockers need to be bought in addition to a sewing machine. 

Sewing machine features to look for

Automatic buttonholer

An automatic buttonholer lets you sew a buttonhole in one step without having to stop and turn the fabric or manipulate a dial. Some sewing machines let you place the button in a slot on the foot, so the machine can sew the correct sized buttonhole to fit.

Auto thread tension 

Some sewing machines automatically calculate the correct thread tension for your fabric automatically, although most offer an override option so you can adjust this manually.

Feed-dog adjustment

Feed dogs are the zigzag shaped teeth that guide your fabric through the machine when you are stitching. All machines should allow you to lower the feed dogs below the sewing surface to do free-style embroidery or darning.

Free arm

This cylindrical arm on a sewing machine lets you sew sleeves and trouser legs. It is usually concealed in the body of the machine, so you first need to remove part of the machine bed so the arm protrudes.

Controls

Choose a sewing machine with easy-to-use, responsive controls. Electronic machines, for example, should respond to variable pressure on the foot pedal, while dials and touchpads should be easy to read and use. In addition, ensure there’s enough room to the right of the needle for your fabric and hands.

Weight

Consider how you plan to use and store your sewing machine. If you have to haul it out of a cupboard or other storage place every time you want to sew, look for a lightweight machine that’s easy to lift. If you sew home furnishings or upholstery, consider buying a sturdier machine that copes well with heavier fabrics.

Integrated dual feed

Useful when sewing two pieces of fabric together such as in quilting, this ensures both fabrics feed smoothly across the sewing plate avoiding ruching.

Needle position

This lets you move the needle from left to right to change the stitching line, or move it up or down when you stop stitching. With the needle down, you can lift the presser foot and turn the fabric to sew in a different direction without creating a jump stitch.

Automated needle threader 

A hook and spring operation that guides the thread through the eye of the needle. A handy feature that helps prevent eye strain and gets you sewing faster than a mechanical needle threader.

Lock stitch facility 

This ensures all stitches are securely locked off at the end of the sewing sequence by using a reverse stitch.

Presser foot

Your sewing machine may come with several presser feet, which hold the fabric against the feed dogs. You can buy additional feet for your machine but look for a multi-purpose foot, a zipper foot and buttonhole foot as a minimum. The ability to adjust foot pressure is also useful for sewing differing fabric thickness and weights.

Top loading bobbins

With older machines, the bobbin must be slotted into a recessed compartment, which can be a little fiddly. With some modern machines you can drop the bobbin in at the top of the machine, saving time, and its clear cover lets you see when thread is running low.

Stitch selector 

On basic models, you change stitch type by turning a dial on the side on the machine. Computerised machines have touchpads and LCD screens that let you select from hundreds of stitch types.

Which sewing machine is right for you?

How often will you use a sewing machine

There’s little point buying an expensive sewing machine with lots of features if you plan on using it for the occasional sewing project or repair job. If so, opt for a basic, lightweight electronic sewing machine that can be easily stored when not in use.

On the other hand, if you’re a passionate hobbyist or dressmaker who uses a sewing machine regularly, then a model with plenty of stitch functions, accessories and time-saving add-ons such as one-step buttonholes and seam neatening is a good choice.

What will you use the sewing machine for?

Along with frequency of use, you should consider how you plan to use your sewing machine as different models suit different tasks.

Simple tasks and repairs

If you’re a beginner or sew only occasionally, then a basic electronic sewing machine for around £100-£200 will suffice. Choose a model with a range of stitches – including a straight stitch in various lengths, a choice of zigzag stitches and an automatic buttonhole – along with a selection of foot attachments.

Dressmaking

If you enjoying making clothes, then opt for a mid-priced sewing machine with a wide range of features. These should include a free arm for sewing sleeves and pockets, and a decent range of machine feet such as a concealed zipper foot, blind hem foot and piping foot. If you can afford it, consider a model that has an overlocker stitch, for neatening seams.

Embroidery and crafts

If budget allows, plump for a computerised sewing machine that offers a wide range of stitches and pre-programmed patterns so you can create multicoloured hoop embroidery designs.

Singer sewing machines: a comparison

When it comes to sewing machines Singer is one of the best known and loved brands, along with Brother, Janome and Minerva. It's important to shop around and read reviews to find a brand and model that's right for you and at a price you are happy with. YouTube can be a great resource to see these machines and others in action.

These three Singer sewing machines are good examples of machines aimed at a beginner, intermediate and experienced tailor or craftsperson. Features vary considerably between them, as does the price point.

Singer 1507: cheap, portable and ideal for beginners

If you’re looking for fuss-free, easy-to-use compact machine, the Singer 1507 fits the bill. Users find it easy to use, with hassle-free feeding, straightforward threading and smooth sewing. Ideal for beginners, it has easy-to-follow instructions and is lightweight enough to be easily carried from room to room – it even comes with a handle to make carrying easier. It has a 4-step buttonhole setting for professional-looking results, and a 4-segment feed dog to ensure fabric is picked up and carried through accurately, and features seven built-in stitches. A removable arm lets you tackle sewing cuffs, collars and sleeves as well.

Singer Talent 3321: perfect for those looking to up their skills

The Singer Talent 3321 is an ideal beginner’s sewing machine for those looking to develop their sewing skills. With 21 different built-in stitch patterns, it allows for a wide variety of finishes to fabrics and clothing. Ten different stretch stitch patterns allow you to work on more challenging fabrics such as Lycra with confidence. Button attaching is simple with a 4-step system and a simple drop-in bobbin system makes set-up and thread changes fuss-free. Users like the fact it is well made, uncomplicated to use and is good at stitching thicker fabrics.

Singer Confidence 7640: for the advanced tailor

With 200 built-in stitch patterns (including letters and numbers) and a handy push button stitch selector, the Singer Confidence 7640 sewing machine is both versatile and highly precise. Aimed at skilled sewers, who want a range of easy-to-use options, the Confidence 7640 delivers great results on a range of materials – from denim to knitwear. A clever Drop & Sew bobbin system makes thread changes and set-up simple, and delivers up to 750 stitches per minute. For seam reinforcement, a single push of the button will switch to reverse. Users love the quality and detail, including a helpful LED point light for fine sewing work.



The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.