With large numbers of us looking for new hobbies, sales of sewing machines have sharply risen during the pandemic – 127 per cent at John Lewis & Partners alone. Thanks in part to the rising popularity of programmes like The Great British Sewing Bee, many people are discovering the therapeutic nature of crafting something.
Movements like Fashion Revolution are encouraging us to fight against the environmental and ethical impact of fast fashion too, while a growing number have been inspired to mend, alter and customise their clothes rather than buying new.
So, you’ve got your shears and fabric at the ready. But it’s easy to become completely overwhelmed by the variety of sewing machines on offer.
Where do you start? Too many features can be confusing for a beginner, so we would advise avoiding gimmicks you likely won’t use and choose a model that suits your particular needs. The essentials are a quality straight stitch, zig zag and buttonhole, plus the ability to change both the width and length of your stitches is helpful too. Beyond that, deciding on features depends on how much you are going to use the machine and what for.
A large selection of presser feet may be useful if you intend to sew clothing, as they provide you with the ability to install zips and buttons with ease, and they also aid you to achieve neat stitching. However, if you like the idea of quilting and making decorative items for the home, a large number of decorative stitches may have a greater appeal.
We would recommend looking out for a speed control function and a button to position your needle up or down, as both can help a lot with control and accuracy. Features like a knee lift are really only beneficial to those who sew a lot, but simple additions like a needle threader can make a beginner’s life a lot easier.
There are two main types of machine and this list covers both. If you’ve sewn a little in the past, selecting stitches using the dial of a mechanical sort might feel more familiar and straightforward, but computerised models can be very intuitive to use and often come with more options and a screen to show you which stitch style, width and length you are currently using.
We’d usually advise trying before you buy, but with current restrictions making that difficult, we’ve tested a variety of machines at various price points and enlisted the advice of some of the best home sewers in the business to bring you a shortlist of machines and their best features.
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Bernette by Bernina B35 sewing machine
Bernina is the brand of choice for most professional seamsters and seamstresses, but its machines come with a hefty price tag. The company launched its Bernette range in 2017, which offers the same superb stitch quality and durability that it is known for but at a beginner-friendly price point. The B35 is a traditional-style mechanical model with three dials to select stitch style, width and length.
It offers 23 stitch styles, a one-step buttonhole and seven snap-on presser feet – everything a budding sewer needs, in a machine you can rely on. Being able to drop the feed dogs for free-motion embroidery is an added bonus. Previous owners of expensive Bernina machines have reported being just as happy with this more affordable cousin, and we can see why.
Janome J3-24 sewing machine
This is a great entry-level machine from a trustworthy brand. We found it better value than the similar J3-18 and J3-20 models, as it offers more stitch styles and the ability to adjust the width of all of them, plus a one-step automatic buttonhole. A one-step buttonhole is preferable to the four-step version, as the machine does all the hard work for you, reducing the chances of you ruining your garment at the final hurdle.
With a nice selection of features and stitches, without it all being too overwhelming, this is a good choice to learn the sewing ropes.
Husqvarna viking emerald 118 sewing machine
If you need a little help getting your head around all the features, this machine comes with a handy reference chart explaining which presser foot, pressure, thread tension and stitch style, length and width are best suited to different fabrics and techniques.
This model is packed with features that tick all the boxes for beginners and beyond. It comes with a generous eight snap-on feet and a quality hardcover, and the machine itself is weighty and durable, handling multiple layers of thick fabric easily. We also loved the addition of a speed-control slider and needle up/down button. It’s now available to pre-order.
Singer Featherweight C240 sewing machine
The big bonus of this machine is the integrated even-feed feature. On most machines, the feed dogs (which pull the fabric through the machine) operate from below, but an even/dual feed grasps the fabric from above too, which means all the layers of the material move through the machine evenly. This is particularly great for quilters, but is beneficial when sewing any kind of garment – even tricky fabrics like velvet won’t shift around.
It is packed with other useful features too, like an automatic thread cutter, speed control, top-loading bobbin and needle up/down button. We noted that it sewed smoothly and quietly too.
Brother LS14S sewing machine
This is the most basic machine on our list, without all the bells and whistles of other models, but it has all you need to create a nice straight stitch, a zig zag and a four-step buttonhole. Its simplicity means it’s very simple for a complete beginner to use; so easy that it would even be a good choice for kids to learn on.
The top-loading bobbin with clear plastic cover provides easy access and the ability to see when it is running out, and the two needle positions are a real plus. If you’ve got goals of moving on to making more complex garments, you might out-grow this one quickly, but for mending, alterations and customisation, you couldn’t ask for more. Fantastic value for money from a reliable brand.
Janome 780DC sewing machine
This particular model is used on The Great British Sewing Bee, and has ample features to keep a more experienced sewer happy, but is simple and forgiving enough for a newbie to learn on.
On computerised models such as this you can choose to operate your machine with the start/stop button, although we personally prefer the control provided by using the foot pedal. It handles a wide variety of fabrics beautifully, from fine silk chiffon to tough denim and corduroy. The variety of stretch stitches it offers (like the lightning bolt) would make this a great choice if you can see yourself making a lot of stretchy garments like T-shirts, activewear or even underwear.
Singer 4411 heavy duty sewing machine
This machine has a powerful motor and sturdy metal frame, making it ideal for tackling thicker fabrics such as denim or leather, or even projects such as upholstery or making your own curtains.
It stitches smoothly and can still be used for delicate and lightweight fabrics, but it does sew at some speed, which might put off beginners wanting to sink their teeth into intricate projects. The stitch quality and ease of use surpassed our expectations when tested.
Pfaff Smarter 160s sewing machine
Pfaff is a popular brand within the online sewing community and well known for its quality. The adjustable needle position and presser foot pressure makes this model stand out from others in the same price bracket. The 140s is slightly cheaper, but the 160s has a one-step buttonhole, which we think justifies the extra cost. Twenty-three stitch styles make this little machine versatile, and it comes with a five-year warranty.
However, if you want a machine to grow with your skills, we’d consider upgrading to the Pfaff Passport range which is more costly but features integrated dual feeds, like the Singer Featherweight.
Brother FS130QC sewing machine
If you’re looking for multiple stitch options you can’t beat this Brother – there’s a whopping 130 to choose from. It’s a fully computerised model, so you can easily browse through stitch choices on the LCD screen.
The included extension table, walking foot, free-motion embroidery foot and quilting guide make this machine both great value for money and perfect for those interested in decorative machine stitching. While this might sound complex, we found it easy to operate. The one-step buttonhole and great stitch quality make it ideal for garment sewing too.
John Lewis & Partners JL110 sewing machine
If you’re on a budget, this basic machine will do the job very nicely. The 14 stitch options are plenty for most projects and the classic set-up means you can get going quickly. Best for sewing light to mid-weight woven fabrics, this will be great for alterations but not ideal if you see yourself progressing onto more complex projects like jeans or working with stretch fabrics.
Disadvantages are a lack of stitch width selection and the front-loading bobbin, which can be tricky to access if you get in a tangle. But it is a very sturdy machine for the price and comes in a lovely selection of colours and prints. It’s currently out of stock online, but you can sign up to be notified as to when it becomes available again.
The verdict: Sewing machines for beginners
It was a close contest between the Bernette B35 and Husqvarna viking emerald 118, but the B35 wins on quality and versatility for an excellent price. It’s simple enough for a complete beginner to learn on, but with enough features to tackle more challenging projects. The emerald 118, meanwhile, is worth considering for the ease of the top-loading bobbin and added speed control. The Janome J3-24 also provides a good balance between the number of features and ease of use.
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