Over the last decade or so, I’ve taught in the fashion department at several different colleges. Usually, I’m teaching things more on the textiles side, but I’ve been known to take on a sewing class or two when the need arises. No matter what I’m teaching, I still find myself answering a lot of questions about sewing tools, ranging from small things like what fabric marking tools to use to how to find best sewing machine for fashion design students.
Most fashion students quickly realize that having a machine at home is, if not essential, at least high desirable. But, like all sew garment sewists, they get overwhelmed by all the different options. If you’re new to sewing your own clothes, (whether for fun or for school!) I’ve put together this guide to demystify the sewing machine buying process.
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Power and Durability
Having a strong sewing machine that won’t easily break and is simple to fix is the going to be the priority when you’re a fashion student. No one wants to have their machine stop working during finals week! Additionally, you also want to have a machine that can handle whatever fabrics you throw at it. When you’re in school, you should be experimenting with as many different materials as possible. While portable machines are never as robust as industrial ones, some are definitely better than others.
Look for machines that have mostly metal parts on the interior. These tend to hold up better than machines with a lot of practice parts. As a fashion student, you also should pay attention to the number of stitches per minute. A machine with over 1000 stitches per minute is going to feel more like the industrial machines you use in class than a slower machine will.
If you can’t try out a machine person, I recommend doing a quick YouTube search for any machine you’re thinking of buying. Usually you can find a video review or two where someone puts the machine through its paces. Look to see how it handles denim or other thick fabrics.
Who’s Going to Help When Things Go Wrong?
Before you get your heart set on a machine, it’s vital that you make sure there is someone nearby who can service it for you. Most sewing machine repair shops can handle most brands of machines, but you always want to do a quick bit of research to confirm. And if you plan on going back home for the summer and bringing your machine, you need service in both locations. Anytime you move a machine over a long distance there’s danger of damage. Figure out serving and repair before you buy and you can avoid any moments of panic later.
The Only Three Stitches You Need
Sewing machine makers love to advertise that their machines can make dozens, even hundreds, of different stitches. But honestly, as a garment sewer you only need three: straight stitch, zig zag, and buttonhole. If you go into lingerie or sew a lot of knits you may find having a few different zig zag options useful. And when I was working in costuming, I really liked having access to a blind hem stitch. But honestly, the basic three are all you need for the vast majority of fashion school garment sewing.
The other thing to pay attention to, is the type of buttonhole your machine makes. I generally prefer an automatic buttonhole, but a manual buttonhole just requires a bit more practice to master. Specialty buttonholes are nice to have, but for a new sewist, I generally don’t think they’re worth spending extra for.
Bells and Whistles
New machines, especially the pricy ones, tend to advertise all sorts of fancy features. While these have a place, often they’re just one more thing to break.
Needle threaders are a great example of this. While they’re increasingly common on even less expensive machines, most people I’ve met find automatic needle threaders to be frustrating to use, especially on a new machine. More than once I’ve seen a student spend 15 minutes fussing around with a needle threader when it would have only taken a few seconds to, you know, just thread the needle. If you’re a person with steady hands and good eyesight, there is no reason to spend extra just to get a needle threader. However, if you have vision or dexterity issues that make threading difficult, then an automatic needle threader might be good choice.
I feel the same way about just about every other feature. Push button start and stop is great if you have foot issues, but unnecessary otherwise. Onboard computers are fine for embroidery machines, but overkill on a basic machine. Automatic thread cutters seem like a great idea, but usually trim the thread too short and cause the machine to come unthreaded. And so on…
My one really controversial opinion is that I don’t think any fashion design students should use a speed adjuster to slow down their machine. Most good programs have you working on industrial sewing machines in class. These usually go twice the speed of a home sewing machine and have finicky foot peddles. Using a turtle paced sewing machine at home is only going to make it harder to get used to the fast industrials. But, I admit that some student have told me they found the ability to slow down helpful, so it is entirely possible that I’m wrong about the usefulness of speed adjusters.
Sewing Machine Feet
One thing I do think is worth spending extra on is additional sewing machine feet. Pay close attention to what feet come with your machine and price out the cost of buying any additional ones that you think you’ll need. Most modern machines use universal snap on feet. However, some brands like Paff have a proprietary snap on system. Addtionally, some types of feet are attached using other means. You can find a good breakdown of sewing machine presser feet and shanks in this article from MadamSew.
For a fashion design student, I cannot recommend enough having an invisible zipper foot (in addition to a standard zipper foot). This usually isn’t a standard accessory, but invisible zippers are used a lot in modern, industrial-style sewing. Invisible zippers are so much easier to sew in with the right foot!
If you’re a new garment sewer (but not trying to replicate industrial sewing), get an overcast stitch foot. This lets you do a zig zag stitch right up to the edge of the fabric. It’s a great alternative to using a serger or overlock machine to finish your edges. I’ve used it myself when making clothing and I’ve seen it several times on vintage garments. It’s not quite as secure as the serger sewn edge finish, but it’s also a lot less bulky.
What you’re planing on sewing will effect the other feet you need. There’s a great list of commonly used feet here if you’re not sure what to look for. And if you’re on the fence, the good news is that you can always buy more feet later!
When you first get your sewing machine, you’ll want to buy a lot of needles. Needles need to be changed not just because they break (which they will!) but also if they get dull, develop a “burr”, or are just the wrong size for the material you’re sewing.
Home machines use a universal needle type that is easy to instal. The size of the needle is usually expressed by two numbers, with smaller numbers meaning finer needles. For general sewing, get a bunch of 80/12 or 90/14. I also like to have some 75/11 on hand. These are great for fine, light fabrics but also can handle medium weight fabrics in an emergency. I’d also get some 100/16 size needles for bulky fabrics. And if you plan on sewing knits, get some ball point needles.
You may find you need other sizes once you have a better idea of what fabrics you like sewing, but those will get you started. You can find these in your local fabric store, but if you’re looking to stock up I’d recommend placing an order on the tailor supply website Wawak.
There are four other accessories I recommend that students buy: lots of bobbins, a good lamp, a sewing machine table, and (if compatible with their machine) a knee lift.
No matter how many bobbins you have, they all seemed to be filled with the wrong color thread. I don’t make the rules, it just happens. Fend this problem off by purchasing lots and lots of extra bobbins. Just make sure they’re the right ones for your machine.
While most sewing machines have a small light to help you see things directly under the machine, you’re going to want additional lighting. Find yourself an adjustable task lamp (ideally one that clamps onto the table) so that you can easily get light where you need it when you need it.
A sewing machine table is also a game changer in my opinion. Though this won’t be practical for everyone, it is worth the extra cost if you can swing it. Ideally, you want something that is on the low side (especially if you’re short!) and has the ability to drop in the machine,so that the table is level with the sewing surface. A low table is essential, because your feet need to be firmly on the ground to reach the peddle. To protect your back and shoulders, generally you want to be sewing so that your bent arms are level with the table when guiding your fabric through.
Home machines rarely have the ability to be set up with a knee lift, which I consider a tragedy. Knee lifts allow you to raise the presser foot just by moving a lever with your knee. This is fantastic when pivoting on corners and just generally improves workflow when sewing. They’re standard on industrial machines, but not common on home machines. If you have the option, like with this Brother PQ1500SL, definitely get the knee lift.
Bonus: a good chair. My sewing set up currently uses a cheap folding chair, because it happens to be just the right height. But if I was sewing more, I definitely would be looking into something a bit more cushy and supportive. I’m still a bit jealous of my aunt, who picked up two of these at a quilting show a while back. They’re just the right height for sewing and they have storage in the seat!
Budget Option: Singer Heavy Duty 4423
At around 210$, the Singer Heavy Duty 4423 is a good, affordable option for a new sewist. The stitch and stitch size selection are both done manually through dials, so there’s no on-board computer. The buttonhole is a one step. And the machine has a powerful, fast motor. This machine looks to be able to use most standard snap-on presser feet and can also use generic low-shank feet, making it pretty versatile.
There doesn’t seem to be a significant difference between the 4423 and the other Singer Heavy Duty Machines, so when shoping around, look at the included accessories closely to find the best deal. For example, this 4452 is more expensive than the 4423, but also comes with an extension table, walking foot, and other bonuses. That might make it a good deal for you. Just remember that a bonus isn’t a bonus if it’s something you’ll never use!
If you’re completely new to sewing, you may also want to consider getting a little extra help when starting to use your machine. An in person class from your local sewing store is always best, but if that isn’t an option, you should check out this Fast Start course from Creative Live. Over the course of about 2.5 hours, the instructor shows you how to use the HD 4423 and its various features.
Mid-Price: Janome HD-3000
The machine I use now, and then one I sewed the garments for my dissertation on, is the Janome HD-3000. When I bought it, I was looking for a no nonsense, sturdy machine that I could use for years. It’s been about 8 years now and I haven’t regretted the purchase at all.
For it’s price point (usually about 450$ -500$ depending on the included accessories) this machine is very solid. When I was researching it, I remember seeing a video of one sewing through a wooden ruler! And while it can get a bit caught up going over really bulky areas (like when you have multiple layers of denim suddenly overlapping at a seam junction), it handles them no worse than any other home machine I’ve used.
After nearly a decade and multiple cross country moves, my machine is still working just fine. The reverse button was getting a little sticky, but I was able to fix the issue myself with a little oil. This machine is simple enough that you shouldn’t have any problems finding someone to service it and the brave (and out of warrantee) should be able to solve small issues on their own with the help of the service manual.
One of the reasons this machine has held up so well is that there just isn’t a lot that can break on it! Everything is mechanical, so there’s no computer to malfunction. I am glad that I upgraded to the version with an automatic buttonhole. However, if you’re interested in this machine but need something a little less expensive, the HD1000 is usually about 350$. This version has a four step buttonhole and a front load bobbin, but is otherwise similar enough.
If You Have Room for Two: Juki DDL 8100
If you have the space and budget, you may consider getting an industrial machine. This won’t have a buttonhole or zig zag stitch, but it will give you the best straight stitch possible. The other benefit of buying an industrial machine is that everything above the motor is pretty easy to service. I was able to teach myself many basic repairs using the Sewing Gold YouTube Channel.
The machine I’ve used the most is the Juki DDL 8600. That doesn’t seem to be in production anymore, but the DDL 8100 and the DDL 8700 are comparable. Based on some research, including this no-nonsense comparison video, I’d recommend either the DDL 8100 or the DDL 8700 for a design student. When comparing prices, look at what accessories (table lamp) and motor types are included to get a real feel for the difference.
Other Things to Consider
When I was studying fashion as an undergrad, having a sewing machine of my own was vital. However, I used my serger just as often and found it to be almost more important than owning a sewing machine. The thing was, while I had access to sergers in the sewing lab, they rarely had the color of thread I wanted and undergrads were not allowed to change the thread on our own. This is with good reason. Industrial sergers are complicated to thread and often temperamental. But it meant that if no one was around to help me, my sewing progress ground to a halt.
Having a serger at home meant that I could use the color that I wanted and work even when the lab was closed. Mine was a (now discontinued) five thread Viking Huskylock 905 that is similar to this Singer model but a four thread overlock would have been fine too.
The best sewing machine for fashion design students is a simple, powerful machine that fits within your budget. While the machines I’ve recommend all are great choices, any sewing machine is going to make your life easier as a design student.
Let me know on Instagram if you have a favorite sewing machine or other must-have sewing supplies for new students!