close-up of Janome sewing machine

Dressmaking for beginners – all about sewing machines

Do you need a sewing machine to make clothes?

In theory, no. After all, people managed to do dressmaking for hundreds of years before the invention of the sewing machine.

In practice, yes. Sewing clothes by hand takes ages – fine if you enjoy it and have the time. Hand sewing can be very soothing, it’s much more portable than a sewing machine so can be good to do when commuting. For making most clothes however, I’d recommend getting hold of a sewing machine even if you are a beginner.

Options for borrowing or buying a machine

You might be able to borrow a sewing machine from friends or family – strangely, people who have sewing machines often don’t seem to use them very much. It’s good to see if like dressmaking or not before you take the plunge and buy a machine.

Another option would be buy a second-hand machine. Charity shops often sell them for around £30. You could also put a request on Freecycle if there’s a group in your area. If you’re buying a second-hand sewing machine, make sure that there is a manual. If there’s no manual, you might be able to get hold of a copy online – there are several websites that sell them. Search for “sewing machine manuals”.

If you decide to buy a new machine, you might as well buy a decent model. There’s no point in buying a really cheap machine. There’s lot of choice available and you can get a good machine for around £200.

Best sewing machines for beginners

All the machines sold now are electronic – you plug them in and operate the motor using a foot pedal. There’s one big choice to make: non-computerised or computerised.

What you go for really depends on what you are want to sew and how much you want to spend. Non-computerised machines tend to be straightforward to use and cost around £130-250. Electronic/computerised machines are more expensive (starting around £250-300) and can do a much wider range of stitches. My feeling is that for beginners a non-computerised machine is probably going to be just fine.

Some of the big brands of sewing machines include:

  • Brother
  • Elna
  • Singer
  • Janome
  • Pfaff
  • Viking Husqvarna

Different people have favourites but I think that all these brands are pretty good. I’ve had a Janome 419S (very similar to this Janome 423S) for the last few years and have been very pleased with it. It cost about £200 and is a pretty sturdy, straightforward machine with a very clear instruction manual.

How to buy a sewing machine

I’d recommend going to a shop and having a look at sewing machines to get an idea of what’s available. Try your local sewing shop or John Lewis. However, shop around before buying as there are some good deals available.

Good online shops include Jaycotts and Sewing Machines Direct. For reviews of sewing machine suppliers, check out The Sewing Forum’s member’s feedback and recommendations of suppliers.

Make sure you try out any second-hand sewing machines before you buy – don’t buy a machine untested unless it’s very cheap and you can afford to take the risk.

What to look for when buying a sewing machine

  • All-metal parts – a good-quality sewing machine will have a plastic case covering an  all-metal body. The cheapest machines use a plastic chassis and parts as well – avoid these as they are a bit flimsy.
  • Adjustable speed control – essential in my opinion, especially for beginners, so that you can slow down for the tricky bits. You want a machine that will sew faster if you press harder on the foot pedal.
  • One-step buttonhole – a lot of new machines have this feature and it’s much easier to use than a four-step buttonhole.
  • Multiple needle positions – this is a very useful feature. Being able to change the position of the needle can really help with hemming, topstitching and inserting zippers. My machine has two positions – centre and left – and I find I use that flexibility a lot.
  • Warranty – make sure that the sewing machine comes with a warranty, especially if you are buying through a special deal online. The standard warranty is 20 years mechanical, 2 years electric and 1 year labour.

If you’re trying out a machine in a shop or watching a demonstration, try to get a feel for whether the machine is sewing quietly and steadily or whether it is jiggling. Does it sew straight or pull to one side? How does the machine manage with different fabrics?

Finally, have a look at the instruction manual if you can. Is it well laid-out and easy to understand? It will make your life much easier if it is!

What’s an overlocker and do you need one?

Also known as a ‘serger’, an overlocker is used to finish hems. It trims the fabric and sews the hem in one operation, and is used for making pretty much all commercially-made clothes.

If you look at the hems inside anything that you are wearing, you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s a very neat and professional-looking finish and is especially useful for working with stretchy, knitted fabrics.

However, beginners don’t need to bother buying one of these machines. All sewing machines have zig-zag stitches which you can use instead. Overlockers are best for experienced dressmakers as they are quite difficult and complicated to use.

Getting to know your sewing machine

Once you’ve bought, begged or borrowed a sewing machine, it’s a good idea to spend a little time getting to know it before you get stuck into a sewing project. Have a look through the manual and familiarise yourself with the main parts of the machine and what they do. Practise winding a bobbin and threading the machine – follow the instructions until you can remember what to do.

Practise sewing a on a piece of scrap fabric so that you can get a feel for the different speeds and learn to sew in a straight line. There’s a really good introduction to getting started with your new sewing machine in the book Sew Everything Workshop.

Read more

  • Dressmaking for beginners
    Equipment and books, courses and tutorials, where to get help and inspiration, choosing patterns and buying fabric.

If you have any recommendations or things you’d like me to cover in this guide to dressmaking for beginners, please leave a comment.