Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Search For the Perfect Machine, Part One: Background

If you aren’t at all interested in purchasing a sewing machine (or in the intricacies of the machines on the market these days, or in my personal quest for one), then ignore this post and I’ll be back with sewing projects later. But I have benefited so much from the online sewing machine reviews out there (though I haven’t even bought a machine yet), and I hope to help other people who are looking to buy make an informed decision as well. So here goes: the story of my quest for a machine.

I received my first sewing machine for Christmas about a year and a half ago. It was a mid-range Kenmore from Sears and in most ways, it is a very good machine—so good, in fact, that I had taken to saying that I was very “utilitarian” when it came to sewing machines, and I didn’t anticipate buying a new one anytime soon. Mine seemed to perform the basic functions that I needed: it sewed a straight stitch (if not very well), had the needle up-needle down function (which I love and now cannot live without), and I could free-motion quilt if I really wanted to and had lots of time to unpick lines of stippling. My mother, who sews professionally, told me that it was a good starter machine, and I could upgrade when I figured out what I loved doing and what features I needed to accomplish my sewing goals. I was like, “Whatever, Mom. Who cares about sewing machine features, as long as the machine works?”

It is an excellent machine for the casual sewer or quilter (check out the reviews here). Less than a year after I got the machine, however, I pebble-quilted a quilt that was less than 46” square. Quilting that pattern broke the machine, as well as did considerable damage to the quilt that took me days to fix. I also watched Criminal Minds the entire time I did it and had nightmares for weeks. I learned two good lessons that day.

My machine was deemed irreparably damaged by the terrifying Sears technician lady, and the company gave me a new one (after a LOT of arguing…NEVER EVER buy anything from Sears. They have the worst customer service on the planet). The “issues” that I did not realize were issues in my first machine are very problematic in my second one: the tension is horrible (I can’t ever achieve correct tension), the machine constantly sucks the fabric down into itself, I get nests on the back of every line of stitching, the bobbin winder doesn’t work, the harp is extremely small, etc etc.

And yet, I still wasn’t thinking about getting a new machine. My machine is special to me because it was my first real sewing machine and the best gift I’ve ever received (thanks, Mom!), and it does feel like a bit of a betrayal to get a new one.

But then one day I got to thinking about quilting either of my two recent (and large) projects on my machine. I knew it wouldn’t work. And I started to get so frustrated by the bobbin thread nests on the back of every piece of fabric I sew. And I realized it is somewhat sad that my machine simply cannot sew through more than four or layers of fabric without creating teeny tiny stitches that are impossible to rip out. And also…I should be able to sew through Shot Cotton or any slightly shreddy fabric without the machine eating it and trapping fibers in the bobbin race.

So it was time for a new machine.

Luckily, MQX took place two days after this resolution, and the very first machine I tried was the machine that had become my Ultimate Sewing Machine Fantasy: the Aurora 440QE. The Bernina Stitch Regulator feature was mind-blowing (see a great review/instruction guide on it here). The 440, however, is extremely expensive, and the harp space is narrower than I would like it to be.

Which brings me to now.

I have looked through every sewing machine forum and review and joined every Yahoo group imaginable. I have narrowed my search down to several contenders, which I have grouped together Final Four-style (matched in groups of two by price). The contenders are:

1. Janome 6600

2. Elna 7300 (Quilting Queen)

3. Bernina 350 PE with BSR

4. Elna eXcellence

5. Janome 7700 (Horizon)

6. Bernina Aurora 440QE

Come back tomorrow for a list of reviews and the features of each machine. I will do a side-by-side comparison of all of the features pre- and post-test-drive! Now off to the dealership to try a few of them out...


  1. I love shopping and reading about sewing machines!
    some random thoughts. if you think the 440 is too small then the 350 shouldn't even be on the list (though I find it extremely cute and if I had unlimited funds I would prob buy it just to have it as a travel machine or something). I liked the 440 but it was missing some things I liked in my janome, and the harp space on the horizon can't be beat. the bsr thing is cool I guess, but do I need the machine basically quilting for me? also, you could pocket your savings and get a stitch regulator later if you want. ALSO if you're into utilitarian and really only want to quilt I would add some straight stitch machines like a juki or a babylock quilt pro.
    I'm glad you're looking into new machines because your machine shouldn't be so finicky about something like shot cotton. I just sewed it on my machine and it was a nonevent. I think it's the same on my featherweight.

    ok I'll shut up for now

  2. I second everything yahaira above said, especially about the Juki! I have the Juki 98Q and love love LOVE it! Big throat space, needle down, automatic thread cutter, straight stitch (I don't miss any other stitches AT ALL!) knee lift (a must if you do a lot of machine quilting!), and best of all, that sucker is fast! It's industrial speed. I bought it because my fabulous MIL had bought herself two (one for her home, and one to keep at her quilt guild) and we moved cross country so I couldn't use hers anymore!

    Anyway, I'm sure you will enjoy whatever you get as it sounds like almost anything will beat what you have! If you want to play on a Juki, come on up and hang and play on mine!

    I would recommend that whatever you end up choosing, get something fast. I could never go back to a regular speed machine again! It seriously makes free motion quilting easy, fast and fun!

  3. Thanks for sharing your sewing machine journey! I have a 1982 Kenmore that still works pretty well, but I dream of being able to do FMQ and needle up/down :) Someday...