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This guide aims to help you get to grips with the basics of sewing machines, from the differences between manual, electronic and computerised machines, all the way through to available accessories. After all, buying a machine shouldn’t be so complicated!
The basic ideology behind these machines is to mechanically stitch two or more pieces of fabric together using thread and a needle. Sewing machines decrease the amount of manual sewing in creating a garment, ultimately sewing quicker, with greater accuracy, and much more consistently. It's thought that the first sewing machine design originated in 1790 by English inventor, Thomas Saint, whereby he designed a wooden awl to make holes in leather, thus allowing a needle and single piece of thread through to hook underneath, forming locked chain stitches - however it's unclear whether this machine was actually built!
If we fast-forward a few years to 1829, we come to the first practical sewing machine built for regular use in factories, invented by French tailor, Barthélemy Thimonnier. Similarly to Saint's machine, his design also used the chain stitch method to sew straight seams, allowing him to aid in constructing clothing for the French Army. Although a huge step in the right direction for mass production in the clothing industry, this innovation quickly came to an end when worried workers allegedly burnt down the factory in fear of losing their jobs.
It's thought that the first modern sewing machine originated in America by Elias Howe in 1845 - sparking what was to become an intense patent battle between Howe and Isaac Singer. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, the ‘Sewing Machine War' saw much of the courtroom, yet made some incredible innovations that'd prove to change the face of sewing forever. From vertical needle positions and presser feet, to foot pedals, buttonhole stitching and the notable four-motion feed mechanism, there's no doubt that the rapid advancement of the sewing machine was predominantly fuelled by fierce competition.
The sewing machine's popularity quickly spread like wildfire, initially selling to clothing manufacturers so that they could produce standardised clothing sizes on a larger scale. However in the 1860s, this market spread to middleclass homes - allowing women to make and mend clothing for their families in a remarkably quicker timeframe. Singer Sewing designed and manufactured the first electronic sewing machines in 1889, although these machines weren't anything like you'd expect today - they were essentially regular machines with motors fastened to the side! As the 20th century progressed, as did innovation, and these motors were eventually encased in the machine.
Now in the 21st century, it's clear that sewing machines have come a significantly long way, with companies now offering computerised machines with multiple functions, catering for sewing, embroidery and quilting - but with so much choice these days, how do you know which machine is best for you?
1. What's your sewing skill level?
Beginners only really need a small selection of stitches and basic functions while they get used to using a sewing machine, whereas intermediate or advanced sewers will most likely require more complex features and a greater range of stitches, buttonholes and alphabets to expand their creative options. The key thing to take away here is this: there's no use splashing the cash on a machine too advanced for your requirements, or equally wasting money on one too basic for your skillset! Make sure your new machine complements the complexity of your stitching talents, keeping up with your creative drive.
2. What will you use a sewing machine for?
It's important to really think about why you're buying a sewing machine - what will be your primary reason for using it? There's no use buying a machine with hundreds of quilting features when you're only interested in dressmaking or making simple alterations, but similarly you won't want a machine with basic functions and a small workspace if you're looking to take on bigger tasks, such as creating a quilt or embroidering designs onto fabric. If you have specific projects in mind, those should be taken into consideration - but similarly, you may just be looking to try out a new hobby.
3. How often will you use a sewing machine?
If you believe you'll rarely use your sewing machine, there's no point buying the newest model with hundreds of stitches, features and accessories that'll never be used. If you usually stitch by hand or are considering a new craft, begin with something a little more basic to get a feel for it - you've always got the option to upgrade as your passion increases. In addition, if you know that you'll use a sewing machine very frequently, it's important that you buy a strong machine with a sturdy and durable frame - one that can withstand a lot of wear and tear. It'd be worth the extra money to know that you'll have a tool you can always rely on!
4. Where will you use a sewing machine?
This final thought may not be initially applicable to everyone - but it is a factor that may prove to be important in the future. Consider where you'll use your sewing machine, and whether it's likely that you'll need to easily transport it to another location. Where do you craft the most - do you prefer to create in your craft room, or do you like to travel to friends' houses or craft clubs? If your answer is the latter, and you know you'll be moving around frequently, you won't want to haul around a heavy machine with you - a more compact, portable machine may be best suited to your needs.