What to Look for in a Sewing Machine for Quilting

I have regrets. A few years ago I did a minor upgrade to my sewing machine while I was living abroad. The prices were wild in Korea–nearly double than that in the US. I had been sewing for years at this point and wanted a better machine, but living on a meager foreign English teacher’s salary,  I thought more of the expense than what I was actually getting. As I’ve quickly out-paced that machine and look to another upgrade, I’ve learned a lot about what’s available in sewing machines and what I need out of them. Whether you’re a new quilter looking for their first machine or an experienced one with cash for the big upgrade, here is what to look for in a sewing machine for quilting and how to prioritize features to choose.

 

Large Throat Space

The sewing machine’s throat space is the circle of room to the right of your needle. At first glance, it’s rather unimportant space that looks similar on most machines. But let me tell you: it’s invaluable to quilters. If you choose to quilt on your domestic machine, you’ll need to squeezethe bulk of half your quilt or more into this space (see below). Even just an extra inch of throat space can give you the room for free motion quilting designs or feel more confident with straight-line quilting.

 

throat space

 

My biggest regret when I bought my new machine from Korea is that the throat space was smaller than on my original Singer (to the right below). Now, of course I have still managed to quilt queen-sized quilts on it, but I think the results could have looked a lot better on a machine with a little more wiggle room.

 

What to look for in a sewing machine: large throat space

 

These days there are machines with  more than 10 inches of throat space. There are even long arm machines that you can buy for your home with 20+ inches. But these are insanely expensive. I’m talking 1,000+ for the former, and 5,000+ for the later. If you’re a new quilter just getting into the game don’t worry about this too much yet. You can always rent time on a local long arm to see if you like that!

 

Extension Table

Extension tables are, well, little tables that have been build to fit around your sewing machine to give you more sewing surface to work with. This can help you keep pieces straight when sewing, so they aren’t just flapping off the front or back of your machine.

 

What to look for in a sewing machine: Extension table

 

This was actually a large reason I bought the machine I did. I thought it would create such a better sewing experience. And while it was a nice addition, I don’t feel like it was necessarily worth the added expense. The throat space would have been better. It’s also important to note that you can get these after market or generic ones that you can fit around your machine.

 

But! What I recommend more, is getting a table built that your machine sits in. This creates one large surface area around your needle that can help with tugging you can get as your fabric or quilt falls off the back of the machine. I can’t wait to build one once I get my own home!

 

Electronic Doodads

The choice between getting an electric machine and a mechanical machine isn’t often thought of these days. People always assume electric is better, but mechanical machines tend to break less, and when they do, it’s cheaper to fix. These days, both machines can have a lot of fancy options, but electronic machine tend to have more, as well as a fancy interface. Here is what you can find:

 

Automatic Needle Threader

This one is pretty self explanatory. You hit a button and the machine threads the needle for you. Of course, you still have to thread the machine first, but if you have trouble getting the thread through the needle this might be important for your. Fortunately, most machines I’ve come across these days have a needle threader that’s not button automatic, but does the job nearly as fast. I’d say de-prioritize it until you have a specific need.

 

What to look for in a sewing machine: automatic needle threader
My ‘no so automatic’ needle threader
 

The Needle Stop Position

If you’re sewing along and need to top and change directions or take out pins, you want your needle to be in the down position so your fabrics don’t accidentally move around on you. This can also be easily fixed by just turning the hand wheel, but we’re human. I, for one, have messed this up a few times. It’s not a very big deal if your stitches get a little off, but if you’re working on perfecting your quilting, it can create a little jump in the stitching that you’re not fond of. Again, I would de-prioritize this unless it’s a skill you’re actively working on.

 

What to look for in a sewing machine: needle position

 

Automatic Thread Cutter

When you’re finished piecing or quilting, this nifty button (link to youtube) will have the machine cut the threads for you. This way you don’t have to pull your pieces all the way over to the thread cutter on the side of the machine. It also cuts down on thread wastage and makes it so you don’t have to go digging for threads under your machine. This is a very nice thing to have, but, if you’re like me and prefer to have long ends on my quilting threads so you can tie them off and thread them back into the quilt, this may not be the most important choice. But to each their own. If you don’t know what you like yet, put this one further down on your list.

 

Speed regulator

A speed regulator (see the sliding bar with the arrows in the pic above) sets the top speed your machine can go. This is awesome for when you are just starting out or are working on a tricky part of quilting, because it allows you to push the foot peddle all the way down without worrying about going too fast. I used this a lot when I was getting used to my new sewing machine and trying out some new free motion quilting skills. However, I don’t use it as much anymore.

 

Automatic Stitch Regulator

This is the ultimate doodad and something I’ve been eyeing for a while now, but an automatic stitch regulator isn’t something most sewers need. An automatic stitch regulator is a computerized component that adjusts how fast the needle goes while you’re free motion quilt. This creates even stitches throughout your quilting. If you’re not using one, you’re quilting can end up like this:

 

Wonky Stitches

 

Now, of course, a lot of practice will help you get even stitches as well, but I don’t have that many quilts to practice on year–maybe one every few months. Even stitches are the ‘crossing the t and dotting the i’ of quilting. If you’re working to get into a fancy quilting show. this is definitely something to consider.

 

Feed dog adjustments

On the the topic of free motion quilting, if free motion quilting is something you want to get into, make sure your sewing machine has an option to deal with your feed dogs. Can the feed dogs be dropped? Does your machine come with a plate to cover them? While free motion quilting over feed dogs is possible by changing the stitch length to ‘0’, it’s nice to know the feed dogs are out of the way and aren’t the cause of any of your sewing troubles.

 

What to look for in a sewing machine: Feed dogs
This switch on the back of my Brother sewing machine drops of the feed dogs.
 

 

What to look for in a sewing machine: Feed dogs
A purple plate fits over the feed dogs of my Singer sewing machine.

 

Off brand parts

There are a lot of extra parts you may go through with your sewing machine. These include all sorts of presser feet (1/4″ foot, walking foot, stitch in the ditch foot…), extra bobbins, table extensions (see above!), and more. Take a moment to see if there are off brand parts compatible with your machine or look at how expensive parts would be if you have to buy name brand. The last you need after buying a $1,000 machine is to find out you have to spend another 50 bucks on a walking foot.

 

Things you don’t need in your sewing machine

There are a lot of things a sewing machine used for quilting doesn’t need to compared to other kinds of sewing (in my opinion). A lot of fancy sewing machines will have hundreds of stitches and embroidery–which are great if that’s what you want to use it for. But in quilting you only need a straight stitch that can go forwards and reverse (to tie off those ends!). And its also good if you can adjust the tension and stitch length. Beyond that, I’ve only used a decorative stitch once to hem the bottom of some curtains. Don’t be drawn in by all the extras you don’t need.

 

So, what to look for in YOUR sewing machine?

1. Always start with a budget. Think about how much you can spend and go from there. Even the most basic sewing machines can get you started quilting. If you can afford a new machine, you can always find them second-hand.

 

2. Think about what kind of sewing you want to do right now and the skills you want to learn in the future, then see what can fit in your budget.

 

3. If you don’t know what you’ll need, start with a cheaper $150-200 dollar machine (cheaper used!) and start sewing until you learn what you like or even if you like to sew!

 

4. Don’t get carried away with fancy electric machines, really look at what the machine offers you. Prioritize things you can’t change, like throat space (if that’s important to you).

 

Remember sewing is a journey of growth and development. Your first machine likely won’t be the one you die with, but knowing what to look for in a sewing machine will help prolong its life until you can save up a little extra cash for a machine that will take you to the next level.

Sew on!

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