Sewing Machine Shopping

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

Pros

  • 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).

Cons

  • 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).

Missing Features

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)

Shortcomings

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.

Must-haves

  • 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.

Desirables

  • 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.

The Candidates

Here’s my thoughts about each of the choices I considered.

Brother

VQ3000_01_L

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.

Bernina

BERNINA-560BER560

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.

Other Brands

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.

Vintage

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

juki

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.

16 thoughts on “Sewing Machine Shopping

  1. Corey

    You made a great decision to get the Juki F600, you will not be disappointed.

    It offers great features at a great price point, I have looked at alot of high end machines and the pricing is just over the top for what you get.

    Juki – F600, TL-2010q (semi industrial st8 stitcher) and their 735 serger are all great machines that you can get all of them for under 3,000.00 and you will be pretty much set. These are on my list of machines. I looked at the Janome 7700qpc, great machine 2500 bucks 11 inches of work space, same features as the juki f600 except with a built in walking foot similar to the pfaff idt. I also looked at the bernina 580, 780, over the top machines i had pricing determined based on similar to prices in the UK, i have no idea why bernina in north america charges 1500 to 2000 dollars more for the same machine available in the UK, the pfaff creative performance 5 grand, but i did not like the fact you have to press a button to lower the presser foot or lift, bugs me totally. I also looked at the brother machines you listed, however, the pricing is still ridiculous considering i can get 3 Juki machines for the price of a sewing only brother machine.

    Right now I do alot of sewing, alterations, home dec, garment construction, and believe it or not i generally use vintage singers (201, 15-90/91’s all with upgraded motors and yes i restored most myself and can fix them. ) they are easy to maintain, just clean and oil and they are good to go. The 201 I think I could even hook up a servo motor and have a close to industrial sewing machine. I also use an inexpensive singer superb which works great, and i get good buttonholes and precise sewing. Newer singers get a bad rap but have great features of expensive machines at 1/10 the cost of those expensive machines. Watch KevenSews on youtube, he does some great reviews and demos on new singers and his reviews have inspired others and myself to venture with a new singer.

    Frankly if you are doing mainly garment construction, all you need is, a good st8 stitcher with some speed, zigzag and a good buttonholer.

    The point is: you made a good purchase decision and I think you will be very pleased with the machine. The reviews are terrific on it on sewingpatternreview and I have tired one and love it over all the other nonsense about bernina, high end janome, pfaff and brother sewing machines.

    If you have any questions, let me know .. happy sewing
    corey

    Reply
    1. mportuesisf Post author

      Thanks for the info. The TL-2010q (along with the Brother PQ-1500s) are definitely on my radar if/when I decide to go for a straight-stitch machine. If my Brother 1034D serger gives way, I’ll definitely check out the Juki 735. Previously, I had figured that if I had to buy a new serger I would just get a Baby Lock.

      Reply
  2. Wil

    The Juki looks like a great machine. It will be interesting to see how you like it.
    I have a Singer Quantum made by Juki and it is a heavy-duty machine. I like it.

    Reply
  3. Corey

    BabyLock Sergers are great, really if you look at the imagine or eclipse dx they will meet your needs for 2-3-4 thread serging, they are more expensive then other sergers, I own a babylock proline 097 all mechanical not computerized in any way 2-3-4 thread serging. Its reliable. I also have 2 janome sergers, a 5 thread compulock which is ok, and a 7933 i got from hancock fabrics when i was in kentucky and needed a serger (250 bucks) was a good deal.

    If you get the juki, 735, what you get is a serger 2-3-4-5 thread serger plus cover stitch. Everything depends on whether you need a separate machine for coverstitch or not. with the 735 , it is the same machine as the Bernina serger, made by the same company, same plant, same everything. What i do when I don’t want to setup my 5thread serger for coverstitching, is i do serge on the hem, then i just run to parallel lines of stitching and its pretty close to the same.

    Reply
  4. Mssewcrazy

    I think the juki sounds like a great choice for your needs in a modern machine. I’m told the bernina 1300 I got was a juki manufacture and the comparable juki branded model was much cheaper. I am a big fan of the bernina walking foot and if there is one specific to the juki which I am sure there is, you might consider it. I use the walking foot a lot on my berninas. I enjoyed your analysis of the various machines. Should you ever go down the vintage sink hole, do the same research. My 66 sews well but I prefer the powerful 201 model that is gear driven with a potted motor. My retired singer guy is a big fan of the 201 and oddly enough the post World War II Japanese clones which are copies of the class 15 singers which he also likes. I learned to sew on a pink atlas and it weighs a ton made by brother and of course have a restored one of those which was a nostalgia purchase but it is impressive in the quality and performance. I sew on modern and vintage, just depends on what I am sewing. Jeans hemming or heavy sewing tasks I don’t bother with the modern machines. It costs a couple of hundred dollars when they have to go in. They embroider, sew on knits or special projects. When I made quilted embroidered totes for the grandsons, I jumped around. Embroidery on modern machine, quilting on semi industrial straight stitcher with the heavy duty cutter not wimpy like the computerized machine auto cutters. Next up will be jeans hemming for hubby on one of the vintage machines. Then on to boxer sewing on the 201 with that nifty little st stitch foot. I don’t advocate anyone having lots of machines. I just like trying out different types. Conclusion there is no perfect machine when you sew on many different ones. Depending on what you sew, they all have plus and minus in their abilities. I love the things a modern machine can do and don’t plan to be without a really nice one. I also like the precision of that tiny straight stitch foot and the narrow space of the feed dogs that the vintage offer. I was sold on adding a vintage when I realized I could sew a perfect flat felled seam or top stitch no special foot needed. I don’t worry about the timing or a repair if I hem a bunch of jeans for dh or grandsons. Before the vintage and the heavy duty straight stitcher came here, I sewed a heavy tote on the lovely computerized pfaff and $300 later for service and timing reset, I decided that wasn’t the best use of a modern machine. They get the finest threads while the vintage and the industrial gobble up linty factory cones and horrid heavy out door gear that dh is always wanting something sewed on.thought you might enjoy the rambling about the various machine experiences. I know you will love your nice juki and it will have you sewing again and loving it.

    Reply
    1. mportuesisf Post author

      MsSewCrazy,

      The F600 comes with the walking foot in the box. I don’t know if it lives up to the standards of the Bernina walking foot, but I didn’t have to spend an extra $200 to get it.

      And thank you for the advice on vintage machines. It took some time and thought that I realized I wanted the versatility of a modern machine for my primary sewing, and that a vintage machine should be an excellent add-on to that experience. But one thing at a time for now. If I go vintage, I want to take the time to do my research first.

      As for the Juki and working with jeans, I read through the entire 87-page PatternReview thread on Juki machines. The F600 had lots of glowing reviews from owners, some with testimonials on how well the machine performs for jeans-making. I have a cut of Japanese selvedge denim that’s waiting to be made into a pair of jeans – a project I’m looking forward to doing on the Juki.

      Reply
      1. Mssewcrazy

        Probably they make the walking feet too for bernina or it comes from the same manufacturer so that sounds good you are getting the one designed for your machine. I know the bernina walking foot is expensive but I have used it a lot and it is well made. Maybe not $200 worth but buying berninas and accessories will always be a costly experience. The combo bernina I have now , I am not going to replace when /if it ever dies. I like brother embroidery machines more and I am happy with the other great machines here for sewing . I was actually disappointed with the newer bernina the first time I top stitched a collar corner and found no control due to the wide feed dogs – nature of the beast I guess with the wide stitches and embroidery functions in a combo. Do let us hear your thoughts on the new juki after you sew on it for awhile.

        Reply
        1. mportuesisf Post author

          Your experience with the collar points and the wide feed dogs on the Bernina is exactly why I shied away from it.

          The Juki has 7mm feed dogs, which I’m used to from the Brother. We’ll see how well it works.

          Reply
  5. shari

    I just bought a Juki TL2000Qi. I sew mainly women’s garments, some men’s. I bought it because my Janome DE 5124 (bought used from Ken’s) was having difficulty with multiple layers of denim. Also, I was looking for a solid straight stitch. I’ve had it about a month. It sews beautifully. It’s my first machine with a thread cutter and I really like that feature. I like the wider and higher harp area too. It comes with a walking foot but I haven’t needed it yet and I sew a fair amount of knits. I am very happy with my purchase. I tried out a lower end Bernina before buying the juki. Nice machine but I wasn’t blown away given the price. Also, I wanted mechanical not computerized. I wish the Juki did buttonholes but I don’t do that many anyway. Looking forward to review of your Juki.

    Reply
  6. Corey

    I tired one and I absolutely love the machine JUKI TL-2010Q, I am looking forward to getting one.
    As far as buttonholes, you might be able to use a vintage singer buttonholer depending on if it is low or high shank, regardless, if it is high shank you can alway purchase a high to low bridge and attach the buttonholer and away you go. Also vintage singer zigzaggers might also fit.

    I won’t know until I purchase one and all my attachments a go.

    Reply
  7. shari

    Corey, the Juki TL2000Qi (and later model 2010Q) are high shank. I like the idea of using a vintage singer buttonholer with a low to high adapter, thanks for the suggestion. My old Janome can do buttonholes but there’s no keyhole option and it won’t work on jeans, too thick. I ended up doing a keyhole buttonhole on the jeans by hand. It’s not pretty but it works!

    Reply
    1. Corey

      The TL-2010Q is just an awesome machine. Vintage singer buttonholers with the templates will have you covered. I use a combination of the vintage buttonholer and a new computerized machine. If i had the F600 i would probably do most of my buttonholes on it.

      Believe i have looked at alot of high end machines and they do not warrant the prices. Personally I think the sewing machine companies are insane with their pricing on these models. They all seem easily prone to breaking, miss timing, etc. I am so cautious about buying one, except the Juki Exceed F600.

      As i said in a previous post for 3 grand you can get 3 awesome Juki machines that will have you completely set for garment, home dec and even outdoor patio furniture covers.

      Reply
  8. shari

    Forgot to mention that it’s easy to drop the feed dogs on the Juki TL2000Qi , which makes using the buttonholer even easier.

    Reply
  9. Jonathan

    Sadly, I arrived too late to weigh in on the topic of purchasing a sewing machine. I have several vintage machines. I don’t think it’s necessary to become a restoration/service person to own a vintage sewing machine. Don’t buy a vintage machine that looks like it’s had a hard life. Or one that’s been sitting in a thrift store for weeks that people have stolen parts off of. The instruction manuals clearly point to all the places a machine needs oil or grease. Parts and accessories are easy to find on ebay. People who own new electronic machines love all one button features. I prefer a vintage machine that’s over engineered and offers durability.

    Reply
  10. Casey

    Do I or still like your Juki F600? I am debating Juki F600 and a juki 2010 and or a bernina 570 or 740.

    Reply
    1. Michael portuesi

      Would I buy the F600 again? Absolutely – though it’s not perfect and I do have some issues with it. Perhaps its time to write a long-term review.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *