What to Consider when Buying a Mechanical Sewing Machine
Sewing experience, machine performance, productivity, efficiency and machine durability are the core attributes that you should consider before acquiring a model.
There are additional considerations that you should take into account when searching for a machine; and these attributes and considerations are explained below.
Relatedly, if you are an expert user of vintage sewing machines (which come with a hand-operated machine pulley), then the consideration you made before acquiring a high-quality vintage model also applies to mechanical models, which are just improved vintage models whose build designs incorporate modern mechanics.
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1. Performance and Operational Design
Mechanical sewing machines are durable devices whose operational designs determine their performance qualities and user experiences.
Because you need such a machine for professional (or professional-like) work, then performance becomes a key consideration.
More so, performance-to-price ratio remains the most reliable determiner of whether you have got value for your money. As expected, the primary goal here is to protect you from making a wasted purchase/acquisition.
As stated earlier, operational design determines performance output, and this is because it provides an ordered layout of which stitch patterns the machine can make depending on its programming which is hard-coded in the mechanics of the thread unit.
It also determines how reliably it can make these patterns on different types of fabrics that are fed through the needle-thread assembly.
The feed mechanism and presser foot assembly are also important as it determines the maximum (fabric) thickness that can be fed into the machine.
To note, mechanical models are not built for handling very thick fabrics and this makes them unsuitable for normal quilting. Still, high-quality models do support very light-duty quilting.
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Top Loader or Front Loader?
The process of loading the bobbin thread influences your sewing experience.
This thread is wound around the bobbin, and the bobbin then inserted into the bobbin case through an opening at the top of the machine bed (which is called top-loading); or through an insertion slot at the front of the machine bed (and this is called front-loading).
It is imperative that you choose a model that you are comfortable working with; and beginners are advised to go with the top-loading types. This also raises a question about bobbin winding when the thread is used up.
There are two methods of bobbin winding available – manual winding which requires you to remove the bobbin and then thread it, and automatic winding which allows the bobbin to be wound while in its bobbin case.
For beginners, it is better to use manual winding models as they are cheaper and are most likely using this machine infrequently, but for professionals, choosing one that supports automatic bobbin winding is recommended.
Still, if you are an expert user who finds a model whose stitch patterns can be tweaked to produce professional-grade stitches that mimic heirloom and monogram; then go for it if you have enough cash.
Regarding the feeding mechanism, you must check the feed dogs if you are looking for a drop-feed model. The number of jagged teeth on each feed dog determines its grip, with more teeth providing better fabric grip.
The basic advice is that you should choose a model with a minimum of 7 points/teeth per feed dog.
Stitches per Minute
Another important performance factor to consider is the number of stitches the machine can make per minute, which is rated as SPM (for stitches-per-minute).
Most home-use models run at 700SPM, while commercial-grade variants can exceed 1000SPM. The SPM determines how fast a fabric is stitched up, and you should choose a model depending on your intended workload.
There is also need to mention high-capacity mechanical models that come with twin needles for sewing parallel lines in fabrics. You should consider it if your workload mandates it.
Almost all high-quality mechanical models come with a free arm which allows for stitching of sleeves and pants, as well as other pieces of narrow, round fabrics. You should always choose a model with free-arm capability.
The other critical component that affects machine performance is a built-in needle threader which automatically loads a thread through the eye of the needle before starting to sew.
This is important as you may need to use different threads when stitching the same garment, and this built-in feature saves time compared to manual threading of the needle (which is further compromised if you have unsteady hands and not-so-good eyesight). Therefore, automated needle threading is a must look-for feature in high-end, high-quality models.
In general, mechanical models tend to last longer than electrically-powered models. Still, the functional lifespan of different mechanical models varies depending on their build materials, operational designs, and degree(extent) and frequency of maintenance needed to keep them working as normal.
Durability is primarily determined by the materials used and build design, and it is therefore imperative that you should choose a model made from metal or metal-composite materials, and whose build design allows for efficient distribution of mechanical forces and dampening of vibrations, which could otherwise cause internal parts to vibrate out of sync, or degrade force transmission through the rotating shafts.
Models with metal cases can also withstand violent knocks, especially when they fall down.
Regarding maintenance and repair, they are relatively easy tasks as the parts are fairly cheap and available; and the process of replacing the defective parts is also straightforward.
Even so, should critical parts of the machine such as the needle-thread assembly or machine casing break, then it is advisable that you take the machine to an authorized repair depot which is usually stated in your warranty policy. It is for this reason that you should acquire a high-quality model, as it is usually covered by warranty.
3. Warranty and Repair Policies
High-quality mechanical sewing machines come with warranty which support post-sales repair as part of their after-sales package.
Warranty is important as it shows that you have acquired a genuine machine, while it affords traceability for the manufacturer – for example, if a specific defect is found disproportionately in one specific model, then the manufacturer can recall all the batch manufactured within a specific period, usually by calling their authorized dealers who then contact the purchasers.
A user guide is also important as it not only contains information about how to use your machine, but also how to troubleshoot it which allows you to quickly judge whether a defect can be repaired at home or if it needs professional restoration.
You must also check the repair policies so as to familiarize yourself with what types of defects and damages the manufacturer and seller are ready to repair for free.
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4. User Needs & Skill levels
Another important consideration is what you intend to do with the machine. If you are a beginner, a model that is easy to use and comes with a decent set of stitch types is acceptable. Generally, well-designed starter models come with 12 stitch types.
Even so, it is recommended that you acquire an easy-to-use high-performance model that can allow you to engage in basic dressmaking, and as your skills improve, you can still use the machine for professional tailoring. This obviates the need for you to purchase different machines as you gain skills and expertise.
Choosing a model that accommodates all skill levels also allows you to complete ambitious and highly-innovative projects which build on basic designs to create intricate and complex stitch patterns.
You can even make embroidery-like patterns depending on your skills. Likewise, the model must be able to make buttonhole stitches.
5. Buttonhole Stitch
When stitching clothes, especially shirts and blouses, you need to make button stitches for reinforcing buttonhole edges so that they (buttonholes) can that hold buttons firmly in place.
This requires the machine to be able to make different types of buttonhole stitches, and when appraising any model, you need to check on its set of buttonhole stitches as this gives you the necessary allowance to create different types and sizes of buttonholes, without the risk of the fabric unravelling at the buttonholes.
These buttonholes can be for traditional buttons, or for fitting eyelets, as well as for attaching appliques to clothes.
The process of making the buttonhole stitch differs from model to model, with some using a 1-step process, while others utilize the complex 4-step process.
You need to choose the model that supports a process that you are comfortable with, and beginners are advised to use models that support the 1-step process, while experts can go for models supporting the 4-step process.
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6. Controls and Ergonomics
Mechanical models evolved from vintage hand-operated models, and this implies that they give the sewist a great degree of freedom on how to set and use the machine.
The dials on the machine should help you to select the stitch type, and also control the stitch length. More dials, or highly-calibrated dials, offer better performance than standard dial types because they give the user more control over stitching; and it is recommended that you should favor models with a good set of well-calibrated dials.
When using this machine, you need to set the tension of the thread and cut the thread when necessary. Some models come with automatic thread tensioner, as well as automated thread cutter. You should favor these models over those that lack these automation capabilities.
The number of control dials and knobs impact casing design, which in turn influences the ergonomic design of the machine head. This is because their placement influences the lengths of the upright and horizontal arms, as well as the sewing head shape and size.
High-quality models with foot pedals feature an ergonomic design with well-calibrated controls, and are also highly responsive to movements of pedals.
7. Add-ons & Extras
The basic models are packed as the machine only. Some manufacturers ship their models with free-of-charge add-ons such as thread packs, fabric scissors, additional transparent bobbin covers (which allow you to see how much thread is still available).
Pre-setting the machine can also be considered as an add-on service as it obviates the need of the user setting and calibrating the machine, especially with regards to setting thread tension, presser foot height, and needle position.
Expectedly, you should prefer a pre-set machine (if you are a beginner) over models that require you to do manual setting.
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8. Fabric Unit
The key factors to check about the fabric use are the fabric feed space and speed at which the fabric is fed through the needle-thread assembly.
The feed space determines the maximum thickness of fabrics that can be stitched at once, while the fabric feed speed determines (alongside SPM) how fast the stitching can be done.
It is advisable that you choose a model with adjustable feed speed so that you can comfortably sew different stitch patterns on the garment.
9. Portability and Storage
How frequently you plan to use the machine must be considered. In fact, it should influence the quality and duty profile of the model chosen.
Normally, if the machine is to be used infrequently, then it is preferable you go with a medium-duty, medium-performance model; with the choice changing to a high-performance, heavy-duty model if the machine is to be used frequently.
Also, infrequently used model can be temporarily fitted in improvised sewing tables, and then removed and stored when not in use. Such machines need to be lightweight and portable as it allows you to easily attach and detach it from a sewing table.
It is also important to note that sewing machines must be fitted on sewing tables – dedicated, improvised, or otherwise – for you to use it. If you have a sewing table, then it is imperative that you choose a machine that fits in that table, as this table functions as both the worktable and storage table.
Models to be fitted on dedicated sewing tables or sewing workstations can be heavy, and this is in line with the previous advice that you should go for a heavy-duty, high-performance model if you plan to use it frequently.
Consideration of the aforementioned factors allow you to narrow down your choices. The next step is to pick out a model that fits within your allocated budget, and if the price range still exceeds your budget, then you can choose which features to sacrifice so as to choose cheaper models with reasonable performance.
You should also keep in mind that you must lower your expectations regarding machine performance as the price falls down.
Still, it is not recommended that you choose a plastic model over a model made from metal or composite materials. The reason for this, apart from a fragile case housing, is that a plastic model is designed for very light-duty work, and it is preferable that you choose a medium-duty to heavy-duty model.
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