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Sewing Machine Features

Manual vs. Electronic Sewing Machine.

There are two types of sewing machines: manual (also known as mechanical sewing machines) and electronic.
Mechanical sewing machines are limited in their capabilities compared to their electronic counterparts. They use knobs and dials to adjust operations like stitch length and thread tension and offer far fewer decorative stitches, whereas electronic sewing machines rely on buttons that send electronic commands and enable great stitch and pattern variety. Most sewing machines on the market today are electronic -- as are three on our recommended list: the Brother CS-6000i (starting at $148), Kenmore 16231 (starting at $250), and Singer 7442 (starting at $170). A good quality, cheap mechanical sewing machine, like the Brother XL-2600i (starting at $80), is often recommended as one of the best sewing machines for beginners. AllSewingMachineReviews says it's easy to use and handily performs basic tasks, such as hemming.

There are pros and cons to cheap mechanical and cheap electronic sewing machines. People who don't plan to do an extensive amount of sewing and/or are buying their first cheap sewing machine may find that the simpler mechanical sewing machine is the better option. Ethical Consumer also points out that mechanical sewing machines are the greener choice because they don't use as much electricity as electronic models. In fact, a manual machine may use no electricity at all. One benefit of electronic machines is their accuracy; for example, when adjusting stitch length. This website notes that the electronic Kenmore 16231 produces consistent and even stitching.

As an aside, there's one other alternative: a computerized sewing machine, which is a more advanced version of the electronic sewing machine. Computerized sewing machines include a microprocessor and offer even better accuracy and more options, such as adding new stitch patterns. However, we didn't find any good cheap computerized sewing machines worth recommending. Prices start out in the cheap range but quickly climb into the thousands of dollars. If you're just into basic sewing (rather than advanced fashion design), there's no need for a computerized sewing machine.

Sewing Machine Stitches.

Cheap sewing machines come with an array of stitches, the number and type depending on the model. Four stitches are standard on cheap sewing machines -- the straight stitch, zip stitch, blind hem stitch, and buttonhole stitch (a.k.a. satin stitch) -- but you'll probably want more variety. One reason to pass on the Singer Pixie Plus Craft (starting at $45) is the lack of options beyond the four basic stitches. Cheap sewing machines that feature a wide assortment of stitch types include the Brother XL-2600i with 25, and the Singer 7442 with 30. An expert at SlipStitches says the stitch variety on the Brother XL-2600i is sufficient for most sewing needs. An expert at AllSewingMachineReviews concurs about the range of the Singer 7442 and likes its "embroidery quality."

If you want to go all creative and sew a feather, say, or a flower or holiday-themed design, you have some bargain choices. The Brother CS-6000i features 60 different stitches, which is one reason an Amazon customer chose this cheap sewing machine. The Kenmore 16231 offers a whopping 90 different stitch options, a truly impressive feat for a cheap sewing machine. One Kenmore 16231 user notes on the company's website that the diverse range of stitches essentially turns this model into an embroidery machine. Still not enough? There's always the Kenmore Elite Refurbished Ergo3 Embroidery/Sewing Machine Version 2.0 - 851SR (starting at $1000), a computerized sewing machine that comes with a whopping 673 stitches and 469 embroidery designs.

Sewing Machine Bobbins.

There are two types of bobbins: drop-in (i.e., horizontal) and vertical. Vertical bobbins move left and right to pick up the thread, and in general are harder to learn to use and work with; they're not very common nowadays. Experts prefer the drop-in bobbin because it's easier to see if you're running out of thread and easier to spot potential problems with the thread. The discount sewing machines on our list all feature drop-in bobbins.

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You may find that getting the hang of the bobbin takes some patience and persistence. One consumer writes on Amazon that she had problems with her Brother CS-6000i until she reviewed the manual. Another Amazon customer reports that her problems with bobbin winding on the Singer 7442 turned out to be user-related. A word to the wise: Read the manual carefully and follow the instructions.

Sewing Machine Needle Threaders and Free Arm Sewing Machines.

As any sewer knows, you need sharp eyes and steady hands to thread a needle. You can minimize the frustration by choosing a cheap sewing machine with an automatic needle threader. The Brother CS6000i, Brother XL-2600i, Kenmore 16231, and Singer 7442 all feature an automatic needle threader. Task accomplished in seconds.

Trying to sew pant or shirt cuffs is likewise a challenge. A free arm sewing machine is the salvation here; part of the platform either drops down or is removed to facilitate circular sewing. This is a must-have feature and our picks for best cheap sewing machines and good cheap sewing machines all incorporate a free arm.

Sewing Machine Feet.

A presser foot helps to hold the fabric in place as it moves under the needle. With all the different stitch and function options on modern cheap sewing machines, you need a range of presser feet -- one for a zipper, say, and another for edge stitching or zigzags. All sewing machines come with a basic presser foot, and some inexpensive sewing machines feature several: the Brother XL-2600i has six, the Singer 7442 has five, and the Kenmore 16231 and Brother CS-6000i have seven each. A site gives a thumbs up to the Brother CS-6000i largely because it includes a presser foot for every need, including one that's useful for quilting. Of course, you can always buy additional presser feet at a later time. But this is a pricey way to go: you can easily spend $10 to $50 on each presser foot. The cost-effective approach is to invest your money in a good inexpensive sewing machine that comes with the presser feet you'll be using over the years.

Sewing Machine Buttonholes.

A good inexpensive sewing machine should let you create buttonholes without much effort. But some, like the Singer 118 Featherweight II (starting at $199), make the job more complicated than others by requiring multiple steps instead of just one, as does the Janome ThreadBanger TB12 (starting at $199). This is where a designated buttonhole presser foot comes in handy. The Brother XL-2600i, Kenmore 16231, and Singer 7442 all feature a one-step buttonhole process, while the Singer 7442 lets you choose between two different buttonhole styles. The Brother CS-6000i is even more advanced -- it offers the one-step buttonhole but in seven different configurations, from round to oval to keyhole. One consumer writes on SewForum that the machine is worth buying for this reason alone.

Lightweight Sewing Machines.

Many cheap sewing machines are light enough to carry from room to room or to sewing parties with friends. The smallest machine you'll find may be the Michley LSS-208 Lil' Sew & Sew (starting at $25), which weighs only 3.6 pounds. The ultra-light Singer Pixie Plus Craft weighs less than seven pounds and the Brother XL-2600i weighs in at about 11 pounds. Consumers rave about the Brother CS-6000i on Walmart and note that its 13-pound weight lets them take it almost anywhere, although some report that the machine jumps around a bit. If you're concerned about stability, you might want a heavier model, like the 20-pound Singer 7442 or 21-pound Kenmore 16231. Another possibility is the Singer HD-110 Heavy Duty (starting at $228), which runs at commercial speed (1,100 stitches a minute) and weighs about 25 pounds.

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