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Threads eLetter

Threads Checks Out the Latest in Sewing Machines

This spring we test-drove 31 basic machines, and in the August/September 2002 issue of Threads, we share what we learned. Here are some tips for doing your own review.

by Carol Fresia and Judith Neukam

31 sewing machines, 2 editors
Threads editors Carol Fresia (left) and Judy Neukam spent quality time getting to understand the features of today's basic sewing machines.
This spring Threads editors test-drove almost three dozen basic sewing machines. We learned a lot about sewing equipment from this exercise, and, in our upcoming issue (No. 102), we'll share that information with you. So if you're in the market for a basic sewing machine, either for yourself or as a gift, we can help you make a smart choice.

When you're shopping for a car, you take several out for a test drive. Shopping for a sewing machine should be no different. We developed a routine to help us learn about and sample the features of each machine we reviewed. And we think that you'll find our method useful when you're evaluating and comparing machines on your own. Here's how we made our way through the field of sewing machines.

Swatch out, here we come
Before we even unpacked a machine, we cut swatches of a variety of fabrics that we believed were representative of the types home sewers would routinely encounter. These included a shirt-weight woven cotton, a sheer organza, a heavy denim, and three knits: stretchy mesh, cotton T-shirt interlock, and polyester fleece. We also made a quilt swatch: cotton batting sandwiched between layers of quilt-weight cotton. (If you plan to do other specialized sewing projects, be sure to prepare swatches of the fabrics you'll likely use, from leather and vinyl to canvas or chiffon.)

We collated a swatch set for every machine we sewed on. To simulate a two-layer seam, we folded each swatch in half, and double-folded the denim yet again to get a four-layer "jeans hem" effect.

After we unpacked and set up the machines, our next step was to learn to wind a bobbin and thread each one. You probably won't have to do this at a sewing machine dealer's, but be sure to ask for a demonstration of the process if you think it will help you get a better feel for the machine.

Swatch chains
When testing machines, bring along swatches of the fabrics you sew most frequently or find most troublesome. Test utility and decorative stitches by sewing your swatches into a chain, and label the chain with the name of the machine. Attach any notes for future reference.

Ladies and gentlemen: start your engines
With our swatch sets in hand, we sat down at each machine and sewed a sample chain: We stitched a row of straight stitches on each swatch, linking the fabrics together into a chain. We added a row of zigzag stitches and a selection of utility stitches, and made a sample buttonhole. When you do your trial runs, test any decorative stitch you think you'll use frequently, and examine the buttonhole carefully for evenness and density of stitching; if you think the buttonhole needs improvement, ask the dealer for assistance in tweaking the settings.

We also tried out other features, such as needle threaders, clippers, reverse stitching, and memory functions if present. To keep track of each machine's performance, we wrote the manufacturer and model name/number of the machine on each swatch chain, and attached our notes.

Get a head start with our comparison chart
We think you'll enjoy the process of trying sewing machines, but even so, we've done some of the work for you. Our article is quite extensive; it contains a chart describing the features available on basic machines, so you can decide which ones you'll need for the sewing you plan to do.

We also provide a comparison chart of the machines we sewed on to help you narrow down your choices before setting out to shop. This lists each machine, describes its features, and includes the manufacturer's suggested retail price. And finally, we give you some tips for getting the best deal when you do decide to make your purchase.

For convenience, we've provided the comparison chart in pullout form in the magazine so you can take it with you when you go out to do your own test drives. You can also download our online version of the comparison chart, which includes room for taking notes.

Carol Fresia and Judy Neukam are editors for Threads.

Photos: Scott Phillips

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