Having already made my decision to upgrade to a fancier sewing machine, what was a fun pastime has now turned into an imperative. It’s a real downer having projects midway through the pipeline without having a way to finish them.
I’ve mentioned before that another of my hobbies is amateur astronomy. Like sewing machines, telescopes are very specialized and technical pieces of equipment. Also like sewing machines, each type of telescope is suited for particular types of astronomical observing.
When I first got into astronomy, I went through several telescopes as I learned more about the hobby. At a certain point, I knew enough about astronomy and the type of observing I like to do that I could invest in the best telescope choice for me.
Now I think I’m at the same point in my sewing “career”. My Brother PC-210 has taken me from complete beginner to a moderate skill level and the ability to produce some nice garments. And I also know the kinds of projects I like to do.
So I made two lists. One was a review of sorts about my current machine, what I liked and didn’t like about it. And the other was a list of what I wanted out of the next machine.
My Current Machine
- The controls are super simple. Just dial the number of the stitch you want. Stitch length and width are two sliders.
- It has a needle-down function that remembers its setting even when off. I leave it in needle-down all the time, and have developed the habit of hitting the needle-up button right before removing the fabric.
- A single stitch button that will take a half-stitch every time you press it. Great for pivot points, such as pockets, cuffs and collars on shirts.
- One-step buttonholing and bar-tacking.
- Automatic backtacking at the start and end of seams.
- Automatic threader which almost always works, with a wide variety of needle sizes and thread weights.
- Adjustable presser-foot pressure.
- Relatively quiet operation.
- Has enough piercing power to get through heavy fabrics, including multiple layers of denim (but see the Shortcomings section below).
- Forgets settings when you switch stitches. So if you set the stitch length on straight stitch, jump to zigzag, then jump back to straight stitch, you have to choose your stitch settings all over again. I’ve messed up several seams by stitching without checking the settings first.
- You sometimes need to disconnect the foot pedal before the machine will let you do certain things, such as wind a bobbin or sew a buttonhole. I know why this is so from a technical point of view, but it is excessively annoying.
- There are no numeric indicators on the stitch width/length sliders. I basically have to do a test stitch any time I want to adjust stitch width/length, and if I find an ideal setting there’s no way to save and return to it (see the first point).
The PC-210 lacks the following features that are available on its fancier cousin, the PC-420, and on fancier machines in general.
- No straight stitch throat plate.
- No automatic thread cutter.
- No knee lift.
- Does not have a true basting stitch. (I just set it to a straight stitch at max length, which works okay)
These are the issues that really make me think about upgrading to a better machine.
- The machine is prone to thread nests when you start sewing – holding the threads at the start of a stitch is recommended.
- Has feed issues at the very start of a seam, especially if the rear feed dogs haven’t had a chance to grip the fabric. I often have to handwheel the machine at the start of a seam until I’m sure the feed dogs are actually moving the fabric.
- Also has feed issues when encountering bulk. Some of this can be mitigated by tweaking the presser foot pressure, using the height adjustment button on the presser foot, and also the jean-a-ma-jig thing. But even going over flat-fell seam intersections in shirting fabric can give this machine issues.
- Buttonholes are fantastic when it works, on lightweight shirts and such. But it often has feed issues with heavy/uneven fabrics (the waistband on jeans, thick wool felt, or even the pocket flap on a chambray shirt), causing it to stitch repeatedly in one spot and botching the buttonhole. This is a potential project-wrecker.
- Buttonhole ditch spacing can’t be adjusted. Sometimes it is too narrow for some projects and the buttonhole stitching gets cut when the hole is opened. This was a big problem for me on the wool felt laptop sleeves, which have split stitching on the buttonholes.
- When sewing curves, sometimes I have issues getting feed dogs to take the fabric when going around curves and have to raise/lower presser foot. Some success in curves is skill, but some of it is also the machine.
The Next Machine
With all that in mind, here’s the list of things I was looking for from the next machine.
- Feeding capability for dealing with heavy fabrics. The number one thing I want in the new machine is better feeding capability. I want to make jeans, and things like heavy coats and would like fabric feeding to be as hassle-free as possible.
- Adjustable presser foot pressure. Again, to handle a wide range of fabric weights including knits.
- Expanded buttonhole capability (more styles, full control of stitch parameters)
- Needle down when sewing stops.
- Knee Lifter (or a similar feature, such as auto-hover where the presser foot automatically raises with needle down when sewing stops)
- Adjustable needle position.
- Auto Needle Threader. I’ve gotten used to this feature.
- Auto Thread Cutter. I’ve seen these used enough to know I want this feature.
- Straight stitch plate option.
- Digital display for stitch width, length, etc. I’d really like to have repeatability for my stitch settings.
- Variable speed control (speed limiter). The PC-210 has this, and it’s sometimes nice when doing intricate/precision sewing.
- A true basting stitch.
- Auto backstitch feature (the PC-210 does have this, I only use it sometimes)
- Dual feed option. I don’t sew with many super-challenging fabrics, but the walking foot addresses a lot of this stuff. Also, in her Craftsy “Sew Better, Sew Faster” series Janet Pray shows how to handle fabric to avoid shifting and get seams that line up.
Nice to Have, But Hardly Necessary
- Automatic tension adjustment. I’m okay with doing my own tension adjustments.
- Compatibility with Brother accessories (feet, bobbins).
- Decorative stitches. I’d find use for them in certain projects, but I don’t need lots of them.
Not willing to Pay For
- Embroidery Features. Embroidery is a sub-discipline of sewing that looks like it requires lots of time, training, equipment and supplies to do well.
- Specialized Quilting Features. I’m just not a quilter.
Here’s my thoughts about each of the choices I considered.
I’ve written about my test-drive experience with the Brother Dreamweaver earlier. The price the dealer quoted for the VQ-3000 (their top-of-line sewing-only model) was $4000, which sounds to me like MSRP or pretty close.
This is a nice machine, and sewed really nicely, but I also think this machine is overkill for me. It has some features (like the laser guide and the digital positioning pen) I don’t ever see myself using. And though the MuVit dual feed foot is impressive, I don’t see its necessity a whole lot in the kind of sewing I do.
I was interested in trying out Brother’s recently announced Q-series line of machines, which apparently have the same extra-long box feed mechanism found in the V-series machines like the Dreamweaver. Ideally, they would offer the same sewing experience without the extra glitzy features. But these machines are still nowhere to be found and the rumors I read on PatternReview make it sound like they may not be discounted very much compared to the V-series machines. Anyway, I need to make a purchase now so I’ll choose to take a pass on Brother for the time being.
I’ve tried out the Bernina 350 at a sewing expo and the 560 at a local dealer this summer. Upon telling the salesperson my interests and needs, I was steered straight to the 560 and did a test drive.
I can say that the Berninas offered the smoothest sewing I’ve yet experienced. They are also super quiet. I was shown how the feed could handle knits without stretching and warping, yet turn around and stitch right over multiple layers of denim without a hiccup. Very nice. And the decorative stitches – oh, the decorative stitches! Plus, the 560 can be upgraded for embroidery if one day I decide to take that up.
But I did have one big issue with the 560. It’s a 9mm feed dog machine, designed to do fancy decorative stitches. I’m concerned that the wide feed won’t work well for the precision sewing that I would like to do. I was able to do a tight curve without too much trouble, but would want a lot more experience on the machine before commiting to it.
I don’t remember the exact price I was quoted for the 560 at the dealer. But Bernina (kudos to them for making MSRP plainly visible on their website) prices this machine around $4500. For this price, it doesn’t have a dual-feed option, unlike the Brother – you have to jump up to Bernina’s next tier of machines to get that.
Which brings me to one of my issues about Bernina. Their machines are clearly stratified in tiers of features, and you have to pay a lot more to get a certain feature than on competing brands. I considered the Bernina 530, which may be a better choice for me because it has 5.5mm feed dogs rather than 9mm feed dogs. But this machine, MSRP $3100, doesn’t have an automatic thread cutter. You have to get the 560 for that. Competing brands have automatic thread cutters available at much lower price points.
And Bernina is super-expensive when it comes to accessories. You get few accessory feet with the base machine. Bernina’s feet are proprietary and very expensive. Their walking foot sells for somewhere in the neighborhood of $200. Other machines often include the walking foot in the box.
I don’t dispute Bernina’s quality. And they’re pretty machines. It’s just that for the price I want to be sure I’m getting the perfect machine for garment sewing, and I have reservations about that. I’m also concerned about how much more money I have to spend on accessories to round out the machine’s capabilities.
Singer/Viking/Pfaff – I never seriously considered purchase of a modern Singer, which now seems to be a brand name for a mediocre machine. I am concerned about all these brands now being part of one conglomerate. I briefly considered a modern Pfaff before reading this horror story thread on PatternReview, and hearing they no longer manufacture their machines in Germany.
Janome – I just can’t get excited about this brand at all, for some reason. I don’t know why.
I haven’t dipped into the world of vintage machines. I’ve read on several blogs, on Pattern Review, and in the comments section of my own blog that I should try a vintage machine. The advantages, as I understand them, are:
- Inexpensive. At least compared to the modern machines I’m looking at. Modern machines in the same price range as vintage are simply not as good.
- Exquisite straight-stitching. The old vintage machines like the Singers are the benchmarks for a quaility straight-stitch.
- Precision stitching. The vintage machines have straight stitch throat plates and narrow feed dogs which make precise stitching around tight curves easy.
- Heavy-duty. The old machines are over-engineered. They are sturdy and though they are not “industrial” they can deal with heavy fabrics.
But here’s some of the things I’m not so fond of about vintage machines:
- They are a pain to buy. You basically have to scour thrift shops, look on Craigslist, EBay, or the Shop Goodwill site. This might be a fun pastime, but I really would like to purchase a machine from a reputable dealer and get on with things.
- You become a restoration/maintenance person. You don’t know what condition the machine is in when you buy it. The vintage Singer 66 I spotted on ShopGoodwill would need to be cleaned, and inspected. Then probably lights, power cord replaced and bobbin tire replaced. Then serviced and tuned.
- Finding parts and accessories is a chore. The Singer 66 was a bare machine. At minimum I’d have to find or build a base for it, probably find a compatible sewing cabinet, pay somebody to make one, or make one myself. Back to Craigslist and EBay. And for extra accessories, such as bobbins, feet, and replacement parts, more scouring EBay.
Basically, I don’t want to acquire another hobby collecting, restoring and maintaining vintage sewing machines. I don’t have a whole lot of free time. I just want to sew.
Maybe there’s websites that will sell fully restored, working machines, complete with new parts, sewing cabinets and full lines of accessories for these machines. And someone will tell me about them. But I just have this feeling that vintage machines are a Pandora’s Box that I don’t want to open, at least for now.
But there’s another issue with these vintage machines. I don’t see myself having a straight-stitch machine of any type (vintage or modern) as my primary machine. I want a primary machine that is versatile, and can do a wide variety of tasks like zigzag stitches, buttonholes, bartacks, and knit sewing. I also want modern conveniences like automatic threaders and thread cutters.
So while I see myself getting a straight-stitch machine in the future to augment a general-purpose machine, I wasn’t going to get that Singer 66 right now for all the things I like to do.
The Juki F600
I tried out the Juki F600 at the sewing expo earlier this year and it has the same smooth, high-end feel I get from machines like the Dreamweaver, and the Berninas I’ve tried. I really liked the dual foot pedal control which sews when you press with your toe, and cuts thread if you press with your heel.
The F600 checks off the boxes on my wishlist very well. Included with the machine is the wide extension table and the walking foot, both of which are really important to me. The only “nice to have” feature I miss out on is a dual-feed option, but we’ll see how well the F600 does in practice.
The buttonhole feature on the F600, in particular, looks superior to nearly everything else out there. It has 16 styles, even more than those offered on the Bernina 560 (11) and the Brother Dreamweaver (14). Like the Bernina, it can adjust the ditch width of the button hole. And it has a special buttonhole foot with a digital sensor, and a bottom plate that lets you sandwich problem fabrics in-between. This isn’t available on other machines and is a huge step up from my PC-210. This looks very useful for the projects I do.
Looking at the manual online, the Juki operates very, very similar to the Brother. It even takes the same bobbins. So moving to this machine should be an easy transition for me.
I ordered my Juki F600 from Ken’s Sewing Center and it should arrive the middle of next week. Ken’s has a bonus offer including a carry trolley (in pink) plus needles and bobbins, and they have a 10% off coupon on all Juki machines. Which made the purchase from them an easy decision. I visited a local dealer here in San Francisco to give it another try, but they didn’t have it set up in a demoable state and the shop owner started making offers like a used-car salesman. So I went with the online route.
I accept the fact that if the machine needs service, I’ll have to go through Ken’s, box it up, and send it away. But I hear they do service what they sell. While that doesn’t sound convenient, my experience with local service options panned out pretty poorly so who’s to say Ken’s is any worse?
I’m looking forward to the machine’s arrival and putting it through its paces.