Selecting the Right Sewing Machine for Quiltmaking

Are you in the market for a new sewing machine? If you are interested in quilting, crafting, or dressmaking, this list will help you make the investment a wise one.  A cheap sewing machine will only frustrate and discourage you, so buy the best machine you can afford. If you have a limited budget, it is usually  worthwhile to seek out a local sewing machine dealer with a good reputation and ask about used machines. Some reconditioned "better" machines will cost about the same as a new machine of lesser quality. A reputable dealer will often provide a limited warranty on these machines and/or lessons on how to use the machine. He will be able to service what he sells and provide accessories and a manual.

The list here is specifically focused on quiltmaking. In a multi-purpose sewing machine, you will also want to see and test the buttonhole process at the store before you buy!  An adjustment to a "free arm" is important. You will want to have zipper, rolled hem, blind hem and some other feet. Those are usually included with a new machine.

Important Features
  • The needle can sew in three positions - a needle that can be moved to the right or the left gives you more freedom to adjust your seam allowance while keeping the fabric on both feed dogs.
  • The machine can be set to stop with the needle up or the needle down - This is particularly important for machine quilting and piecing inset corners.
  • The flatbed sewing surface is big and smooth. In dressmaking, a narrow free arm is useful, but for a large, flat quilt, we want a working table big enough to spread and support the weight of the quilt. If the bed of the machine is not very large, it should have a built-in extension or flat bed table accessory that slides up alongside of it. These can be purchased separately or made by a handy husband!
  • Foot pedal and electrical cords are long enough for comfort and safety - tripping over cords or having to stretch them across your workspace is dangerous and frustrating.
  • It has a good bright light that illuminates what you are working on. Make sure the light actually shines on the right place. Ascertain that replacement light bulbs can be obtained and installed easily.
  • The feed dogs drop down to disengage. Those little snap-on feed dog covers are a nuisance. Look for a machine that lets you disengage the feed dogs at the touch of a button.
  • The pressure on the presser foot can be adjusted - this controls how "heavily" the presser foot lies on the fabric underneath it. When free-motion machine quilting, you need to be able to move the layered quilt around easily under the foot.
  • A "lock stitch" secures the ends of the stitching lines neatly and precisely. If you have a very controllable backstitch, you can use this instead.
  • It has a good straight (not slanted) buttonhole or blanket stitch. This stitch is often used for machine appliqué, both decorative and invisible.
  • The accessories are readily available and affordable. Some of the top quality machines require you to use their specialized feet, which can cost up to five times as much as the generic low shank feet. Even if you are willing to pay for the attachments, you want to be able to purchase them conveniently. Make sure that they are easy to change.
  • It comes with a good owner's manual - preferably written by someone whose native language is English.
  • A sturdy machine can accommodate a variety of threads. If the seller tells you that it can only tolerate a certain brand of thread, start looking for a better "workhorse" machine - maybe an older used one. They are not so temperamental.
  • There is a local dealer who will honor your warranty. I really do recommend buying your sewing machine, new or used, from a reputable dealer who knows how to maintain and repair the machines he sells. If you are buying a new machine, he should offer a good warranty and free classes in how to use it. Look for at least a partial warranty, even on a used machine, if you are buying a computerized sewing machine.
  • It has a convenient and sharp thread cutter built into the machine.
  • Most machines use a standard-sized needle, but do check on that. You don't want to have to special-order needles.


For free-motion quilting, (stippling), you will need a darning foot. This foot has a spring or hinge and it's nice if it is open in the front so you can catch the thread ends and see where you are going. 

For straight-line quilting and for sewing the binding on your quilt, you will need a walking foot. This is a box-like contraption that is also called an even feed foot or a plaid-matcher foot. Several of the newer machines have this feature built into them and you do not need a separate attachment. You want to be able to disengage it when you don't want to use it.

A 1/4" piecing foot is used to achieve a perfect seam allowance. I prefer to use an all-purpose foot, move my needle into the right position and use my first plate line as a guide, because then the fabric is pressed down firmly on both feed dogs and on both sides of the seam. Usually, the use of the 1/4" foot positions the fabrics only on one feed dog, so they tend to pull to the left.

Your Dealer, Your Friend

Test-drive the sewing machine before you buy it. Bring your own fabrics, because the ones available in the stores are usually stiffened for a nicer-looking finish. Bring some calico and a small "quilt sandwich" of calico and batting.  Test every stitch and see if the store owner will let you try specialty threads in it.  The dealer is almost as important as the machine itself!  If the dealer is unfriendly and uncooperative during the sales process, he is unlikely to improve when you are looking for help later. Comparison shop.  Don't be afraid to "haggle", especially for a used machine. Ask about its history. Ask what "reconditioned" means to him.  A reputable dealer  with a long-term business vision will see you as an investment in his own future. He knows that if you buy a basic machine today and are encouraged by its easy and reliable operation (and his good customer service), you will probably want to upgrade eventually.  You will recommend him to others. Word-of-mouth advertizing and customer loyalty are important to these small businesses. If you find a good dealer, your machine is doubled in value!

© 2003 Catherine Timmons

If you found this article helpful, please feel free to print a copy for your personal use. If you would like to publish it in your quilt guild newsletter or share it elsewhere, please contact me for permission. 

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