The Sewing Machine–What a Girl Wants, What a Girl Needs

Over the years, I’ve created what I think of as the ULTIMATE SUPPLY LIST for a machine piecing class.

I thought I would share the list, and see if any of you have suggestions to add. Here we go.

Okay, wait a minute.

I just realized that the first thing on the list–the sewing machine–could be talked about for several hours. So we are going to break this supply list down into at least two parts.

Part One
The Sewing Machine and Its Feet and Features

Of course any sewing machine with a good straight stitch will work for machine piecing. That means a $150 vintage Kenmore found at your local thrift store will probably work just fine. But if you are serious about being a machine piecer, you will eventually want to upgrade, and when you do, these are the features you are going to want on your machine.

This is my trusty Bernina 640. I love her, but I would never tell you to go out and buy one just like it. Instead, I would say buy a machine within your budget that has and does the following things.

The Sewing Machine--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl Needs by Maria ShellNEEDLE UP/DOWN
The needle up/down option is usually a button on the front of your machine that allows you to tell the needle to stop in the down position. If your machine does NOT allow you to choose, you can ask your sewing machine maintenance person to change the setting so that your needle ALWAYS lands in the down position instead of the up position. I have done this on all of my old machines. If your needle is in the down position when you stop sewing, it is helping you hold the fabric in place, and that’s good thing. See the little needle symbol with the arrows–that’s needle up/down.

A free-hand-system looks like this and attaches to your sewing machine via a small hole on the right side of your machine. Many machines now have this feature.

The Sewing Machine--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl Needs by Maria ShellUnfortunately, many quilt makers do not take advantage of FHS to improve the quality of their work. If you are serious about your craftsmanship you need to learn how to gas your machine with your LEFT foot and use the FHS with your RIGHT knee. I am super serious about this folks. This is a power tool in our world. Notice the bar extending out and down on the right side? That’s it!

Sewing Machines--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl NeedsOkay- because this is so important to me, I will share of photo of my  white Alaskan legs. This is how you do it.

The Sewing Machine--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl Needs by Maria ShellIf you are never going to piece a hand drawn line i.e. you ALWAYS use a ruler OR if you are never going to piece a curve or a circle then okay. You don’t need to learn how to use a FHS, otherwise you do.

I am addicted to my heel tap needle up and down. What this means is that with a tap of my heal on my foot pedal, I can bring my needle up or down while still keeping both hands on my fabric. From what I understand, and please correct me if I am wrong, only Bernina’s have this feature. See the needle up/down icon on the bottom of the pedal. That is what you want.

The Sewing Machine--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl Needs by Maria ShellUP-RIGHT THREAD SPOOL
Ideally, your machine will you both the option of a horizontal thread holder and a vertical thread holder. As you can see my machine has both. But if you can only get one, get a machine with a horizontal thread holder. I, and my students, have found that a horizontal thread holder usually means a more consistent tension and stitch especially if you are machine quilting. (It is not as important for piecing, but if your piecing you are probably also quilting, right?)

Sewing Machines--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl Needs by Maria ShellSTRAIGHT STITCH NEEDLE PLATE Almost every machine has a single stitch needle plate that you can buy at your local dealers or on Ebay. Here is my regular stitch plate and my straight stitch needle plate. The regular needle plate has a very large opening so that you can do all kinds of fancy stitches. The single stitch needle plate only lets your needle go up and down. This gives you more control over your fabric and your stitching. It greatly reduces the chances that your feed dogs will eat your fabric. Just remember, you will break your sewing machine needle if you try and do a zigzag with your straight stitch plate attached to your machine. (The straight stitch is on the top–see the two tiny holes? The regular needle plate in on the bottom–see the tiny hole and the big hole?)

Sewing Machines--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl Needs by Maria Shell EXTENSION TABLE These are a bit spendy–about one hundred bucks–but they are totally worth it. I find that having the extra table area dramatically improves my control when working with large sections of a quilt. I can keep the entire quilt on the extension table and this reduces drag which sewing machines do not like. Most local Sew and Vacs will order these for you. Plus it creates a handy shelf. See how I have my bobbins tucked under the extension. I like that too.

Sewing Machines--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl Needs by Maria ShellTHE FEET
While we are doing this, I might as well tell you about my FOUR cannot live without feet.

THE QUARTER INCH FOOT (Bernina #37) Almost every machine has one of these. Essentially, if you use the edge of this foot as a guide you will get a consistent quarter of an inch seam which is the best width for machine piecing. It is a stable seam width that does not add additional bulk to your quilt. You CAN use the edge of a regular foot as a guide, but your seams will be bulkier, or you put a barrier of some kind on your machine to help guide you. Both work, but a quarter inch foot is worth money. It is. Mine looks a little tired its been used so much.

Sewing Machines--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl Needs by Maria ShellHOPPING FOOT (Bernina #9) This is the foot you need to do any sort of free form stitching. You do not need a fancy uber expensive embroidery system. You need a hopping foot and couple of machine quilting classes. You see, free form machine quilting is the SAME as free form embroidery. The only difference is the stabilizer. Here is a jacket I made many, many years ago using my home machine, a hopping foot, and fabric stabilizer.

A quilt has three layers which help stabilize the fabric. If you are free motion stitching only one layer, you need a stabilizer. And I think that is as far as we need to go on the topic. Just remember a hopping foot can be used for ALL kinds of free motion work not just quilting.

Maria Shell Sewing Machines--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl NeedsSome people call this foot an free motion embroidery foot, some call it a darning foot, some call it a free motion quilting foot. I call it a hopping foot because it does ALL of those things and it hops. The hopping along with your skill set is what creates the free motion. There are dozens of hopping foot options out there. I own a few of them, but I always seem to go back to the basic #9.

Maria Shell Sewing Machines--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl NeedsTHE WALKING FOOT
If you sew beyond two small pieces of cotton together, you should consider purchasing a walking foot. The walking foot mimics the feed dogs underneath fabric. So this means you now have feed dogs on top and below your fabric. This gives you incredible control. Have you ever sewn two long pieces of fabric together and when you got to the end one piece was several inches longer than the other? Well, if you had used walking foot that would never have happened. The walking foot helps feed the two pieces of fabric evenly under your needle. It’s such a beautiful thing.

Maria Shell Sewing Machines--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl NeedsTHE JEANS FOOT (Bernina #8) I actually tried to become a Janome machine lover, but I couldn’t do it. Two reasons–I needed my heel tap needle up/down, and to my knowledge Janome does not make a Jeans foot. I think of my Jeans Foot as the almost Walking Foot. It gives me great control with thick fabrics (think bindings) while given me MORE visibility than I have with a walking foot. Try it, you might like it. I use my Jeans Foot when working with thick fabrics, attaching bindings, and top stitching wools. See how it has a very small hole for your needle? You can not zigzag with this foot. You will break the needle.

Maria Shell Sewing Machines--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl NeedsBecause I might use all of these feet on any one given day, I keep them in a little crock next to my sewing machine.

Maria Shell Sewing Machines--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl NeedsSo now you know all I know about the features I love on my sewing machine. Was that TMI? I kind of feel it was.

Do not feel like you have to spend a lot of money to get these features. In fact, if you are really serious about this, all you really need to do is find yourself an older Bernina. For a reasonable price let’s say 600 to one thousand dollars you can have a machine that will hold its resale value and do everything listed above. My favorite model is the Bernina Record.

Maria Shell Sewing Machines--What a Girl Wants, What a Girl NeedsIt has all of the features you need, plus it is mechanical, and a work of art. The later models even have the heel tap needle up/down. If there are people out there who want to learn more about these machines, just let me know and I will begin talking.

What are your favorite sewing machine features and feet? Do tell.

This entry was published on June 23, 2015 at 3:06 PM. It’s filed under My Process-Quilts, Thoughts and Opinions and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

32 thoughts on “The Sewing Machine–What a Girl Wants, What a Girl Needs

  1. barbmort on said:

    Ha! What timing! My friend Tamara just asked about sewing machines. Read her blog, it’s delicious. Thanks for the machine info, I sent her your link.

  2. A very helpful list! I take my Bernina for granted and won’t anymore. In addition to the feet you mentioned, I also use a couching foot pretty regularly. Thanks for taking the time for a helpful post,

  3. I think most of the things you listed are probably wonderful to have, but not necessary. Even $600 is beyond the budget of many people, and I would hope we don’t exclude people from the joys of quilting because they can’t afford to be in the club. That said, I do love my needle-down option, having both vertical and horizontal spool holders, and multiple feet to choose from. My “back-up” machine was very inexpensive, about $200 on a very good sale, and doesn’t have the needle-down. Otherwise it does everything I need. The most important thing is the quality of stitch, which is very good.

    Thanks for the list. A lot of people will find it helpful.

    • Melanie- you are absolutely right. That’s why I suggested that when you start out piecing you find a solid expensive machine that does a great straight stitch. But if this hobby becomes a habit it is worth it to learn all the potentail that can exist in a sewing machine. I’m curious about your $200 dollar machine. Is it a Bernina? Thank you for stopping by!

      • I’m still not sure what potential I need in a machine besides ease of use and a great stitch. My $200 is a Kenmore. I don’t do my quilting on either it or my Elna, as I have a long-arm. But from what I’ve seen of others’ piecing skills, their machines are not what is holding them back. Thanks.

      • Thanks Melanie for you good points. I have found for me personally that some of these “extras” have made a difference in the quality of my work, but that may not be the case for anyone else. It is good to have all these different view points expressed. I think readers really appreciate you sharing your knowledge too. Thank you for taking the time share.

  4. Thanks, Maria, for such a helpful list of machine features. I especially liked your feet comments and learnt a lot. Just a comment about the thread spool holders. The vertical holder is for the horizontally, non-crossed wound thread so the spool turns as the thread is pulled off. The horizontal holder is for the diagonally wound thread and the spool is stationary as the thread is pulled off. Each one stops the thread from getting twisted, often the cause of thread breakage.

    • Lesley- Thank you! I knew there was a reason for the different spools, but I didn’t know what it was. Now I’ve learned something too which is one of the great things about this little sewing world we live in.

  5. Thanks for this post, Maria. I am frequently asked about machines and I always start with Bernina models for some of the same reasons you listed. It is true not everyone needs a machine starting at $600 UNLESS you are serious about entering judged or juried shows with your quilts. Then a machine that has good stitch quality is a must. Any Bernina that has an oscillating hook system will be a work horse for quilting. If a high price is a problem, look for one of these models from dealers who take trade-ins, check eBay and local Craig’s List postings. Sometimes you can find a barely-used, quality machine, for a song. A good machine is worth every penny, many times over.

    • Laura- Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I’m with you. I’ve tried all kinds of machines in all price ranges, and I always come back to Bernina. And it does NOT have to be the new fancy Berninas either. The Bernina 830s and 930s are out there, and if you look and are patient you will find a good one in your price range. Good to hear from you!

  6. Marla on said:

    I have an older Bernina Record 930 and I love everything about it, except it does not have the needle down feature or the heel tap foot pedal. Thanks for the suggestion to have the machine set to always stop needle down. Mine is due for a service so I’ll ask about that.

    • Marla- Glad to hear you learned something new. I think my maintance guy charged me 25 dollars to change it from always up to always down. It is totally worth. Thank you for stopping by and commenting!

  7. Great post – have had a Bernina for years but I learn something every time I read more

    • I know! I am always learning. Each month Bernina has a featured foot, and I am trying to follow along. And improving my garment construction skills is also expanding my knowledge base. Thank you for stopping by!

  8. OMG, I’m such an idiot! I have been trying to use the FHS while still using my right foot on the pedal which results in sitting WAY over to the right of the machine and scrunching my shoulders sideways. It never occurred to me to use the other foot. Thanks so much for this post…. the other info was also helpful, I need to get a straight stitch needle plate too – I had never stopped to think how that would help that annoying munching of fabric. So not TMI for this sewing newby!

    • Sharon! You are not a newby, but I really would like of photo or trying to work the FHS and the gas pedal all with your right foot! As always, it is good to hear from you.

  9. Get Stitchy with Sarah on said:

    I was fortunate enough to get a Bernina Record for a really good price. It is probably the best machine ever!

    • I have one I purchased for only $350. It was not complete, but it is in excellent shape. I’m with you Sarah. I’ve tried lots of machines and I always come back to the Bernina 930 as the best simple complete machine. Thank you for stopping by and commenting!

  10. Ha. No, not TMI. Even with your legs. It’s interesting to see your tools and how you use them.
    I haven’t ever done machine quilting, and I piece on an old singer featherweight that belonged to my grandmother. It does a straight stitch like a champ, but there are many things it just can’t do.

    • It seems like every sewing machine has its limitations. I wish I could design my own machine! Those featherweights are beautiful little machines. I love their looks and the stitch they make. Thank you Carrie for stopping by!

  11. Carole on said:

    I have a Bernina 1230 and love it and have for many years. I was told it was the last mechanical “B” before they started to make the gears out of nylon vs. metal. I do not know if this iss true but I assume it to be. I have had very little trouble with it, however after sewing safely for more than 52 years I accidentally pressed the down option on my foot pedal while my finger was in the way and jumped back from the pain of the needle piercing the end of my finger, breaking off the needle. I did not know if the fragment was there, but the next morning, the throbbing showed the infection was starting. An x-ray proved the fragment was indeed in the soft tissue of the 3rd digit and then the fun started with probing to find it with a clamp. Just a warning that accidents happen regardless of your experience so enjoy the up/down needle option but watch your heel!

    • Carole- That is terrible! I have almost had that happen a couple of times. I am always afriad that my foot might get a little trigger happy when my fingers are in the way. I have only stitched my finger twice in all of these years and fortunately it was a quick in and out. The needle stayed attached to machine. It is kind of like being biten. I wasn’t quiet sure what exactly had happened. I hope you finer is better now. And that you are staying cool!

  12. Jody morgan on said:

    I agree, except I wouldn’t trade my Pfaff for anything else. I love, love, love the built in walking foot (even feed foot). It is so much less cumbersome than the walling foot attachment, and I always piece using the even feed. Pfaff is the only machine that has this, although Janome has something similar, but it only works with one foot (a deal breaker for me). The other must have for me is an open toe foot – I use it for stitching down binding and for blanket stitch applique, or any other time I need to really see where my needle is hitting.

    • Jody- those are excellent points! I wish the Bernina had the elegant even feed foot of the Pfaff. And the pointers about the open toe foot are so true! Of course, you are one of my original teachers, so I would expect you to have good advice. Thank you Jody!

  13. Thank you so much for all the info on your machine. My hubby tried to sew something while I was at work and completely destroyed my machine, fortunately in was a very inexpensive machine. The first thing I was greeted with upon coming home was, ” I’m sorry I will buy you a new sewing machine, all l I could do was sit down and just look at him. Soon after we started to move so I have put off the new machine just yesterday I started researching machines to see what I would like to have as options your post that I stumble upon was wonderfully helpful. Thank you for all the great info.

    • I am glad you found the info helpful about the sewing machines. It’s a big decision and it does help to think about what you REALLY want and need in your machine before you go shopping. It is very easy to start wanting way more than your really need. I wish you the best of luck in finding your dream machine!

  14. barbmort on said:

    I was just reading your and Sharon’s comments… re: left foot for driving…. I use my right foot on the gas, and I also use my right knee for the foot lifter. It is a habit I got in to when I sewed canvas boat covers on industrial machines. I also have a box (or use a brick) that is the same height as my foot pedal, and I put my left foot on it to keep my feet the same height – so I don’t throw my back out. We sit a long time at our machines!

    • Wow. I had not thought about keeping our feet the same height. That is a very good pointer. Now, if I can only remember to do it! Thank you Barb for stopping by.

  15. I love the needle up / down feature on the Foot Control 💕💕Love Glenn💕💕
    You Sew with your Left Foot?

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