As a college fashion instructor, 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 beginner sewing machine. 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 as a career!) I’ve put together this guide to demystify the sewing machine buying process.

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This post was updated June 2024

Recommended Machines

Overall Pick: Janome HD-3000

A Janome HD-3000 sewing machine set into a drop down sewing machine table surrounded by plants. My pick for the best beginner sewing machine.

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 its 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 someone 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 pretty well for a 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.

Janome HD-3000 Buying Options

Amazon

Joann

Sewing Machines Plus

Budget Option: Singer Heavy Duty 4423

At around 210$, the Singer Heavy Duty 4423 is a good, affordable beginner sewing machine. 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!

The main issue people have with this machine is that repairs and serving costs feel out of line with the cost of the machine. This has given the Singer HD machines a reputation as “disposable” machines. However, if you’re at all handy you can clean and do simple repairs yourself. This not only will save you money, but also means that you don’t have to wait around for a repair technician to have time to work on your machine!

Computerized Option: Juki HZL-F300

As much as I love a very basic machine, there is one computerized sewing machine that I think is a good investment for beginner sewists: the Juki HZL-F300. The thing that first attracted me to this machine was its superior buttonhole. The school I work at actually uses this very machine in our sewing lab as a dedicated buttonhole maker!

The HZL-F300 also has a wide range of both functional and decorative stitches, as well as the ability to embroider letters in three different fonts. So, if you’re thinking you might want to get into machine embroidery, this might be a good starter machine for you.

This machine has too many other features to fully list, from automatic tension control to an independent bobbin winder. There’s also the ability to add on a knee lift, which is one of my favorite features to use!

The main downsides to this machine are price and overall complexity. I found it priced between 575$ and 750$, which is significantly more than my top pick and the budget option. The price is fair for all that you get with this machine, but it might be more than a beginner wants to spend. Also, as a beginning sewist, you may find that you don’t really end up using most of the stitches or become overwhelmed by the many features.

The other issue is that, beyond very basic things, I wouldn’t recommend most people attempt any repairs themselves. However, I can say from experience that this machine can stand up to significant abuse. It’s still going strong after about two years in the sewing lab. I have needed to fix the timing once or twice, but that is extremely easy to do and the manual provides clear instructions.

This machine is a good choice for a beginner sewing machine if you know you’ll want a professional to do all your servicing, enjoy having lots of options to play with, really want a knee lift (they’re so worth it!), and have a little extra to spend.

Juki HZL-F300 Buying Options

Amazon

Sewing Machines Plus

Almost Industrial: Juki TL-2010Q

The Juki TL-2010Q is marketed to quilters, but it’s actually a semi-portable version of industrial straight stitch machines like the Juki DDL-8700. In fact, I used to recommend that those with the space for it get an industrial machine. However once I had a chance to play with the Juki TL-2010Q, I changed my mind. This machine has nearly all the upsides of an industrial, while at the same time being much easier to move.

If you’re a fashion students with industrial machines at your school, the Juki TL-2010Q will look at feel very familiar. It has a front load bobbin, minimal controls, and you can even get a knee lift! The main difference is that it uses a built-in motor instead of a separate one. This allows it tot be picked up and carried around like any other home sewing machine. This is great if you move often or don’t have a fully dedicated sewing space.

Like other non-computerized sewing machines, it’s not hard to do basic cleaning and repairs at home. My mother has had this machine for a few years, and I’ve found it easy to open up to clean out lint and stray threads.

The main downside of the Juki TL-2010Q is that it only can do a straight stitch. No buttonholes, zig zag, or decorative stitch. However, when garment sewing 99% of the time you’ll be doing a straight stitch. And a straight stitch machine like this one is the best tool for that job.

This machine is also the most expensive on the list, usually going for about 1000$. For most people, I would probably recommend this more as a second machine, once you’ve got a year or two of sewing experience. However, if you’re a fashion student this might be worth the investment.

What To Look For When Buying a Beginner Sewing Machine

If this is your first sewing machine, the options can be overwhelming. Below are the things I look for when buying a sewing machine. Specifically, how robust is this machine? How am I going to clean and repair it? Does it have all the features I need?

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.

Photo by Victoria Nazaruk on Unsplash

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 servicing 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 Add-Ons and Accessories

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!

The presser foot and needle of a high shank sewing machine from the side.
Photo by Vlady Nykulyak on Unsplash

Needles

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.

Other Accessories

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!

Additional Machines

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.

Conclusion

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!