Since I get emailed on a daily basis about what machines I've used and what is needed for free motion quilting, I figure this info would help a lot of quilters figure out what to buy, or at least what NOT to buy if you're machine shopping this Christmas.
No, I don't have them all still! I usually sell one to buy another, and have had, at most, 2 machines setting around the house at any given time.
This sounds really bad (and makes me feel a little sheepish at the expense), but in my defense, every time I bought a new machine I thought that that was it. That it would be THE ONE.
I've pretty much decided now that there will never be THE ONE. A perfect machine for piecing, applique, and quilting simply does not exist.
I feel this way because of the different needs quilting has verses piecing and applique. I can piece or applique easily on a $200 machine and my stitches won't look dramatically different from the stitches of a $1000 machine.
But quilting, especially free motion quilting, is a little different. The speed and tension of a machine can really make a difference, particularly when you're stitching at slightly higher speeds in free motion quilting.
This doesn't mean that you can't free motion on a domestic machine, nor does it mean that you MUST spend $1000 in order to be good at free motion.
I've simply found from personal experience that it works best to own 2 machines: one for free motion quilting and one to sew, piece, and applique.
I've also found from personal experience that beginner quilters are very hesitant to spend over $300 on a machine. I understand, I've been there myself.
It's hard to spend more on a machine when you're just getting started, especially if you're not sure if you're going to still be quilting in 5 years.
I look at it this way: chances are if you DON'T buy the machine you want, you WON'T be quilting in 5 years because you'll have given up!
Machine frustration is a very serious issue. It causes perfectly good quilters to quit because a person can only take so much of bad stitches and horrible tension problems before they start to go insane.
If you contemplate murder every time you sit down at your machine, it might be time to consider trying something new. But take your time with your consideration!
There's no use jumping into a new love affair with Mr. Right unless you're absolutely sure he's going to live up to your expectations.
It's so easy to walk into a dealership and be seduced by computerized wizardry. "It zigs! It zags! It quilts your quilts FOR you!" - I absolutely HATE that line.
The fact is, computerized machines don't often make good free motion machines. They make great embroidery machines with beautiful stitches, but can't usually handle free motion.
They're also like buying a multifunction Swiss army knife with 40 different blades and attachments when all you really want is a box cutter. It's a little too much bang for way too much buck.
Of course, it's good to keep in mind that this is all MY OPINION. My opinion is of course going to be biased to a machine that is:
- Affordable - I've never spent more than $1800 on a machine and I never will. I firmly believe that the best machines for free motion range from $650 - $1000, which is very affordable in comparison to the several thousand dollar longarms.
- Fast - No, free motion isn't pedal to the metal all the time, but in general, most people do stitch faster while free motion quilting.
- Simple - I don't need to zigzag, attach a button hole, or set a zipper with a machine designed for free motion. All I need is for the needle to go up and down perfectly - that's it!
- Decent Throat Plate - This is the distance between your needle and the back of your machine. I won't buy a machine with less than a 8.5" throat. Yes, you can quilt big quilts in less space, but it's not easy and won't make you a very happy quilter.
- Knee Lifter - Absolutely essential! This is a bar that sits next to your knee and allows to you lift the presser foot without taking your hands off the quilt.
- Needle Control - When the machine stops, I like the needle to end in the down position. I don't want to have to hit a button or turn the handwheel. I honestly couldn't quilt as well as I do without this function.
- Feet included - You're going to need a walking foot and a free motion darning foot. It's real nice if these are included with the machine, but sometimes they're not. You can always purchase a generic foot to fit the shank of your machine, which usually works just as well.
- Bright Light - I can live without this because I always use a bright stand light next to my machine to increase the light directly on the machine bed.
- Spool pin and guide - This enables the machine to easily feed large spools of thread. I really like to have it, but can live without it too.
Amazingly enough, when looking for machines I usually have trouble finding all of this info on the specs for the machines! It's like the manufacturers don't think we care about things like throat plate and the feet that are included with the machine!
So if you're searching for a machine and you can't find all of the info about it, call or email until you have all of the information you need. Don't buy a machine because the picture looks like it's big enough!
Of course, if you found a machine with all of these specs, chances are that machine will not be a domestic. It would probably be a semi-professional / semi-industrial mid arm.
Don't let this intimidate you! Mid arms are only slightly bigger and faster than domestic machines. They're also wonderfully affordable and fit perfectly into my $650 - $1000 range.
So why do I feel this way? What is the source for all this high flying opinion?
Well, we only know as much as we have experienced and my opinions are based entirely off of the machines I've used so far.
So let's start at the beginning of my sewing machine history:
A friend of the family decided to "loan" this monstrosity to us, complete with its own sewing cabinet, making this one of the largest pieces of furniture in my parent's house.
I can't say that I immediately fell in love with this machine, or that it was responsible for my dedication and love of quilting and fiber arts.
In fact, I largely blame my lack of machine abilities as a child on this machine. I sewed like crazy through grade school, but almost entirely by hand because this machine was so awful.
With no manual to read and learn from, and no knowledge or understanding of the different feet and attachments that might have been made for it, this sewing machine was mostly just a dumping ground for clutter until I hit high school.
It was my senior year that I finally dusted off this old Singer and put it to good use sewing my prom dress. By this time I had learned a little more about sewing machines and even played with a few at Walmart. I had learned that different feet made certain jobs, like setting in a zipper, easier.
I had talked a lot about buying a new machine, but kept making excuses. I always wanted to get something really nice, but just never seemed to have enough money. I instead decided to max out this Singer with all the bells and whistles I could find in my home town.
To make the machine more portable, I had my dad take it out of the horrible sewing machine cabinet. To this day I never keep any machines in permanent cabinets. I don't like the idea of being able to close the lid and hide my machine away.
After completing my prom dress, I began sewing more often. I even took the Singer to college with me. I was soon sewing more often than I was studying or going to class. It was comforting and the more I played with the machine, the better I got.
But the Singer was beginning to be a limitation. I was now getting into garment sewing more heavily and still could not find a button hole foot for the machine. I also still had no idea how to even execute a button hole because I still didn't have a manual. Buying a new machine was looking better and better.
It wasn't until the fall of 2004 when my fiance and I were planning our wedding that I decided to take the plunge. I had just dropped out of college and wanted to start my own business as a seamstress (talk about delusional!). I figured that a seamstress needed a good machine with lots of different stitches and functions.
So this was the first hard lesson I learned about sewing machines: if it's a choice between durability and gizmos, take durability.
But it mostly had a nice price tag. I believe I purchased this machine for around $250.00, which was the absolute most I could spend on the machine.
Going from a mechanical Singer with virtually no functions, feet, or stitches to this Brother was like drinking a margarita on a hot day. It was wonderful! I could do all kinds of things that I had never done before.
So I started sewing very heavily and began to really use my new machine. One of the first projects it was employed to make was my wedding dress. It turned out beautifully and I couldn't have been happier.
You know the part of a story when the clouds roll in and you know bad things are going to happen? It's about that time now.
After my wedding, I began working for a clothing manufacturer and for the first time in my life I was sewing every single day. This had been my dream goal before, but now I was faced with the very real realization that this was going to be very, very hard work.
Unfortunately my Brother machine also sensed the coming storm and gave out on me less than 2 months after I started sewing full time. I can't explain what happened except that the motherboard on that machine must have fried itself to a crisp. No stitches worked, the needle jammed, fabric didn't feed, you name it, it did it (or didn't do it).
To be fair, I still think that Brother machine was a good machine, just like the Singer was a good machine. Both of these machines would probably have worked wonderfully for the average, normal sewing hobbyist.
And I was anything but normal or a hobbyist at this point. I was now sewing 60+ hours a week and chugging out 40 - 60 garments as fast as I possibly could. I needed a machine that could take this work, so I decided to take a look at the mechanical machines offered in my area.
It ended up being a choice between the Bernina 1008 and Viking Prelude 340 and I ended up going with the Viking. This was another terrific little machine that was very affordable at around $300 and it really did pull its weight for awhile. With just 12 basic stitches, it's not going to monogram your dishtowels, but it will sew straight and even for 6 hours without stopping.
Unfortunately my relentless obsession with this seamstress job was leading me to push my machines harder and faster than ever. The Viking did break down after 5 months of heavy use. I took it in and a part was found to have broken. It was fixed and serviced with no problem.
But what was I going to do while the Viking was in the shop? I couldn't just sit around waiting for it to get fixed! I needed a backup machine!!!
So after calling around, I luckily found my local Bernina dealer had a Bernina 830 with little wear, lots of feet, and an excellent price at around $450. This was a very nice price considering all the extras this machine came with. I was also just starting to get into quilting and was able to purchase the piecing foot and walking foot for this machine as well.
The Bernina 830 started as my backup machine that I would use for quilting and sewing when the Viking was in the shop. Eventually it took over my sewing space and became my primary machine and the Viking became the backup.
The 830 had many features that most machines just aren't built with these days: almost all metal parts, large bobbins, easily removable plates for cleaning the inside of the machine, high speed, and extremely simple controls.
Even though this machine was more than 30 years old when I bought it, it was still a solid workhorse. I continued to sew more than 60 hours a week for 8 months on this machine until I finally decided I'd had enough and quit that terrible seamstress job.
For the record, I wish I had quit the week I had started. Some experiences are just meant to happen and I did learn a lot during that time, but it was also one of the most stressful times of my life.
So now I had two sewing machines, and two sergers (Simplicity Serge Pro and Juki MO-654DE) and no longer needed to sew like a mad woman. I was also pregnant with my son and had no desire to be speed sewing anything.
At this point my sewing machine obsession calmed down a bit. I knew I needed to do something with all the extra machines, but I wasn't in a big hurry to do anything at the moment. Quilting was now taking the #1 place in my life and I now viewed garment sewing with extreme distaste.
Eventually I sold the Simplicity Serger online. The experience was so positive that I knew I could sell the other machines as well.
The Bernina 830 was sewing just as beautifully as ever, but I was pining for the computerized functions the old Brother had had. Specifically a needle up / down function, which is so helpful when stitching on binding or free motion quilting.
I also realized that prices on Bernina machines were going to increase on Jan 1, 2008, so if I was going to buy, it had better be now! In a split second decision, I decided to buy a new Bernina and sell the 830 and Viking on Ebay.
I ended up buying the Bernina Activa 240, a computerized sewing machine with more than 250 stitches and 3 alphabets. I could finally monogram my hand towels! At $1800, this was the most expensive machine I had yet purchased and I ended up using store financing and paid off the machine over the next 10 months.
I really thought when I bought the new Bernina that I would use all the fancy stitches. I really planned on monogramming my hand towels. In the end, however, I never used any of those stitches after the day I brought the machine home.
Fancy stitches are nice, but will you really use them? I've spoken to many quilters who say the same thing - they buy a machine because it comes with so many options, but when they get it home, they never use those extra stitches!
This is definitely a case of too much bang for too much buck. I'd rather spend money on things I will really USE on a daily basis.
The Activa 240 had many features that I really loved. I really loved the extremely bright CFL light and knee lifter. The Bernina 830 had had a knee lifter, but it was prone to falling out of the machine, which was annoying.
I also loved the amazing array of feet and accessories this machine could get. I didn't like the price tags, but could often find good deals on ebay for certain feet I wanted.
But this machine fit me like the glass slipper fit the evil step sisters of Cinderella. I didn't realize it immediately. In fact I think I was in denial about it for a very long time just because the machine was so expensive.
The throat plate on the Activa series was so small, you can barely fit a crib sized quilt under it. I've managed to make it work by bunching the quilt, but my wrist was starting to hurt from all the pulling and tugging.
I was also starting to notice some small problems with the stitching. When free motion stitching, sometimes the thread would skip and not complete the whole stitch. This could have been because I was using very thin Bottom Line thread in the top and bobbin. I decided to get it serviced just to make sure.
After servicing, the machine was back to it's perfect self, but it still wasn't holding up to snuff with free motion. It's pretty sad that a machine can beautifully execute more than 250 stitches, but fail to stitch as nicely when the feed dogs are covered.
I realize now that I was expecting more from the Activa than it could ever give me. It was a great little machine and pieced and appliqued beautifully, but it simply wasn't designed to quilt the way I was wanting to.
The influence of these two amazing quilters cannot be described. I was finally able to "see" the quilt top and not be limited by the colors or shapes of the piecing, but to look beyond those barriers and find where the quilting design and texture should go.
This also began my love affair with trapunto and fillers. I started quilting The Duchess, which was my very first show quilt, but the Activa just wasn't cutting it.
The thread snapped every 5 minutes, the bobbin tension was out of whack, and I spent more time screaming and tearing my hair out than quilting. I needed another machine.
I began searching for a simplier, faster, heavy duty machine.
In my searching I found a breed of machines that only straight stitch. They're called "Lockstitch" machines. By taking away the ability to move the needle in any direction but up and down, these machines are far more precise and hold their tension perfectly.
I ended up buying the Juki TL-98 QE for $650 and sold the Bernina Activa on ebay.
So if you're counting, from 2005 when this sewing machine fiasco began, we're on the 5th machine.
When I got the Juki, again, I thought it was going to be the answer to all of my quilting needs. Again, I was disappointed.
The Juki was faster and could definitely handle free motion quilting, but the feet it came with were terrible. It was like a 2 year old designed the feet in honor of his giant lego blocks!
They were big, clunky, and impared my vision almost completely. I ended up modifying the free motion foot, and you can read more about this here.
The 1/4" piecing foot, however, was a different story. It came with this huge guide on the side that I couldn't rip off without damaging the foot (yes, I tried!) I couldn't piece with it!
While I love wholecloth, but I certainly wasn't planning on only doing wholecloth quilts for the rest of my life. The Juki was obviously perfect for quilting, but wouldn't fulfill my needs for piecing or applique.
Isn't it funny the way that fate works? Here I'd had the perfect machine for piecing - the Bernina Activa 240 - and I'd sold it to buy the Juki, which was the perfect machine for quilting, but now I needed another machine for piecing!
I was also starting to realize at this time that I really needed to split my sewing/piecing setup from my quilting setup. Quilting really requires a different table setup that you don't need for piecing, so it makes sense to have 2 machines: 1 for quilting and 1 for everything else.
This time I learned from my earlier mistake and bought the lesser model with less stitches, bells, and whistles. The Bernina Activa 210 remains my piecing, sewing, and applique machine.
Of course I'm still quilting with the Juki TL 98 QE, but I admit that I only "like" this machine. I don't love it.
Semi-industrial machines like the Juki give us the capability to stitch fast and with wonderful precision. In return, they demand from us better thread and care than most machines.
When I first got the machine I struggled with skipped stitches and poor thread tension and qualty. I had to stop mismatching thread, using any ole' needle, and start taking more care with the materials I used on this machine.
Now I quilt only with Isacord Polyester thread in both the top and bobbin and Schmetz 80/12 needles.
So that makes for 6 different machines since 2005. Now, what about the 7th that I'm pining for right now?
Recently I was doing some searching on ebay for a bigger machine. I like the Juki, don't get me wrong, but the 8.5" throat plate does get annoying when I know this machine could easily have been built bigger.
This machine has an 11" throat plate (*sigh*), knee lifter, and best of all, will still take the same feet as the TL98QE, so I can continue to use my modified foot or a generic high shank foot if I wanted.
I like this machine most because it seems like the very best mix of speed, industrial heavy dutyness, and convenience (it comes with a table!) The price is also wonderful at around $750.
But what are the limitations?
Well, this machine comes with a table, so it's meant to be used like a domestic sewing machine. The DDL is not something you can put on a frame without serious modification.
It's also not something you're going to be able to pick up and throw in your car for a workshop. This machine isn't exactly portable!
This doesn't bother me because I don't ever plan to quilt on a frame. I like sitting down to quilt. I like quilting the way I learned on a domestic - moving the quilt, not the machine.
This machine will also require different needles and continue to require high quality thread. But I think these allowances are worth it for 11 inches of quilting space!
Another huge downside with this machine is the lack of an automatic needle up/needle down feature.
I just recently found out about this and unfortunately, it's enough of a problem that I'm really wavering in my decision to try this machine. WHY can't we have a machine built with the size and features that we need???
So the jury is out on the DDL. I might stick with the Juki TL98QE and just keep searching or I may try it just to see how it works.
So that's it! You've now read my complete sewing machine history and I think you can understand why I feel the way I do about machines.
In truth, I'd love to be able to sit down at one machine and be able to piece, applique, and quilt without having to go to another machine.
Maybe my dream machine will be built one day, but for now I'm satisfied using the two I have and continually searching for the quilting machine of my dreams. I'll let you know what it's like when I find it!
Let's Go Quilt!
OPPS! I forgot one more machine. I also purchased a Universal something or another at a yard sale for $40 in 2009.
The jury is still out as to whether this machine is worth it or not, but I plan to overhaul it soon and will blog about the process. It's so fun turning junk into treasure!