Choosing a sewing machine for making clothes

Buying a sewing machine suitable for dressmaking needn't cost you a fortune.
WeaverDee explains what you should be looking for.

If you're in the market for a new machine for dressmaking, it can be a minefield when it comes to which features you really need. Here’s some helpful points from WeaverDee to help you in making the right choice which will suit your budget and requirements.

Most sewers will spend between £100 to £500 maximum on a sewing machine, and basic to mid range models will fit the dressmaking bill perfectly. 

For general garment construction you’ll require the following stitches:
1. Straight stitch - used for making seams and hems
2. Zigzag stitch - used to neaten the raw edge of seams
3. 3-step zigzag - for attaching elastic and neatening lightweight fabrics. Also very handy for mending.
4. Blind stitch - for invisible hems. Lets you turn up hems without the stitching showing on the outside of the hem.
5. Overcast/overlock stitch - will do a better job when neatening seams, particularly on stretch fabrics. Also used for closed seams where the two layers of fabric are sewn and neatened in one operation.
6. Stretch stitch -  for seams on jersey fabrics. The stitches won't break when the garment gets stretched.
7. Buttonhole facility - depending on the price and feature level of the machine, there are two types to consider.
·      Buttonhole 1 – Step – auto sizing
Automatically produces a buttonhole to match the size of the button being used on the garment. The size is gauged by placing a button (from the garment) into a receptacle in the buttonhole presser foot. Buttonhole is then sewn out in one, non-stop operation and can easily be repeated throughout the garment. The main benefits with this system are they're very easy to use, perfectly neat, and every buttonhole is the same size.
·      Buttonhole 4 – step
This system is generally found on more basic machines. The process is far more complicated than the 1 – step system because the buttonhole is produced in four stages with the size of each buttonhole being individually marked out. Beginning with the buttonhole dial, set at stage one.  The first side of the buttonhole is sewn until the length is reached and sewing is then paused. The dial must then be set to stage two and a few bar-tack stitches are sewn and then paused. The dial is then turned to stage three and the second side of the buttonhole is sewn and then paused. Finally the dial is set to stage four to sew the second bar-tack. 

Handy presser feet
These are the most commonly used and ones most useful to those who like making
their own clothes:

Zipper Foot - for accurate zip insertion
Concealed (invisible) zip foot - for easier insertion of concealed zips
Overcast/overlock foot (use with the overcast / overlock stitch) - makes it easier to neaten seams. The foot has a guide that helps to keep the fabric edge in line; it also helps prevent the fabric edge from curling in.
Blind stitch foot (use with the blind hem stitch)
This foot helps maintain a straight line when sewing the hem. Also allows you to align the strike point of the hem with the needle so that the stitching doesn't show on the outside of the garment.
Button sew-on foot - makes it easy to sew buttons onto the garment - it's a real time saver.
Narrow hemmer - produces neatly folded narrow hems (usually of 2 or 3mm) perfect for hems on dresses and blouses made in lightweight fabrics.
Walking foot - for slippery, stretch and fabrics with a pile. This foot solves the problems encountered when sewing tricky fabrics:
·      Jersey fabrics
-Because the fabric stretches as it's feeding through the machine, you'll find the seam will have a waved or curled effect. The walking foot prevents the fabric from stretching resulting in a perfectly flat seam.
·      Satins, Silks, Dress Linings, Velvet fabrics
When sewing seams on slippery fabrics, the lower layer will feed along more so than the upper layer causing the seam to pucker. The walking foot ensures that both fabric layers are fed through the machine evenly, producing pucker free seams. The walking foot is also the perfect aid for matching striped or patterned fabric and for sewing quilted layers.

Which type should I go for and what are the differences?

Basic mechanical sewing machines
Basic mechanical machines will generally feature stitches for alterations, repairs, basic dressmaking and soft furnishings. As well as the plain straight and zigzag stitches, most basic models will have overcast, stretch and blind hem stitches along with a 4-step buttonhole.


Recommendations from WeaverDee from left to right: Brother LX17 - currently £99, Janome 2015 - currently £85 and Janome 2200XT - currently £119

Mid-range mechanical sewing machines
This range will offer a larger number of stitches, possibly a few decorative patterns and (depending on make and model) a 1-step buttonhole. You should normally expect to pay from £99 up to £250 for a mechanical machine. Mechanical machines are actually more difficult to operate than its computer counterparts. For example, once you've selected your stitch, you'll then need to work out where to set the stitch width and length controls, as well as having to find out if a different presser foot is needed. That’s fine so long as you're prepared to read through the instruction manual each time you want to make a change. However, getting the settings wrong may lead to poor results.

Recommendations from WeaverDee from left to right: Janome J3-24 - currently £179, Janome Sewist 525S - currently £229 and Husqvarna Viking Emerald 116- currently £249

Recommendations from WeaverDee from left to right:
Janome 423S - currently £279 and Bernina 1008S- currently £674

Basic and mid-range computerised sewing machines
You'll find basic and mid-range computer machines available that are perfect for dressmaking and they're easily affordable - you don't need to buy one with thousands of fancy stitches. However as you look higher up the range, you may find that some of the gizmos on the mid range models could prove useful.

Due to popularity, sewing machine manufacturers are now producing more computerised machines than mechanical. From a user standpoint, they've become more popular due to simplicity in operation. Recommended stitch settings for the task at hand such as width, length, thread tension (depending on make and model) are automatically selected for you, and the info screen will even tell you which presser foot is required. You can easily change the stitch settings to your own preferences when required. Making buttonholes on this type of machine couldn't get any easier; they're of the 1-step variety, plus you'll have a choice of styles from standard, stretch, keyhole and rounded end to cater for a varied range of garments and fabric types.

1. Knee-operated presser foot (often referred to as knee lifter).
This system leaves both hands free to position the fabric.
2. Auto thread trimmer
This snips off the thread tails at the start and end of the seam.
3. Auto tie off
This ties off the thread tails with a neat little knot.
4. Needle stop Up/down
You can make the machine stop with the needle down in the fabric ready to pivot; it's ideal if you have lots of corners to turn.
5. Speed limiter
This enables you to select a speed range that suits you comfort zone. 

Thanks to WeaverDee for their expert advice on choosing a sewing machine for dressmaking. For more information about any of the sewing machines above, visit the WeaverDee website or click on the images. 

Please note: prices shown here are as of  1st November, 2015 and are subject to change.