December Survey - Machine Must-Haves

The December survey question was inspired by members Maggie and Sharon who are both looking for advice on buying a good machine for quilters. So tell us "What are the top 10 features you recommend in a sewing machine for quilters? As a bonus for beginning quilters, list the top 5 features you recommend in a machine that costs under $500. 

Congratulations to Denise Armitage,  Arteria McCummings and Jeanette Moravec whose entries were selected at random from all of the entries below. Each of them will receive a $10 gift certificate to the Keepsake Quilting online store. To participate in the January contest, click here: January's QCA Survey Contest - Do Your Pets Help You Quilt?

Jo Anne Krebs in Clovis, CA  

Top 5 must haves: 

1. 1/4 inch foot
2. free motion (darning) foot
3. walking foot
4. auto threader
5. speed control    

Bunty Kiley:  

1.  Feet:  walking foot, 1/4" foot, embroidery foot, zipper foot, open toe foot, darning foot for free motion quilting.  
2.  80+ built-in stitches  
3.  Good name with good waranty!  
4.  Built-in button hole stitch or two or three  
5.  Needle threader  
6.  Ability to lower feed dogs for free motion quilting  
7.  Service Center within 45 minutes from your home.  
8.  Nice if possible, embroidery arm to attach to machine  
9.  1-3 built-in alphabet systems  
10.  Optional, Ability to download patterns into system.    

Denise Armitage:

Top Five for under $500

1.    Needle down option (needle will stop up or down depending on setting).  Invaluable for stopping to turn corners when doing machine applique, button-hole applique stitch or satin stitch.
2.    Ability to use a variety of sewing feet, including a walking foot (very helpful for applying binding).  A built in walking foot might not happen under $500.
3.    Ability to drop  feed dogs for machine quilting.
4.    Free arm capacity.  Sewing the hem on a wine bottle bag or a cuff is so much easier using the free arm.
5.    Multiple stitches installed in machine.  Varying width and length of stitches will often give one a much greater variety of stitches.  New technology makes this very affordable.

And Continuing on for the Top Ten:

6.    Low bobbin thread warning.  (Lots of us lived without that for many years, but it is very nice to have!)
7.    Knee lift mechanism for raising and lowering the presser foot.  (Again, I sewed for years without it, but it is sure nice to have!)
8.    Larger bobbin thread capacity.
9.    Stitch regulator for free motion quilting. (Available on some machines as a plug-in foot similar in size to a walking foot)
10.  Embroidery modules on machines are becoming so reasonable as the technology becomes available. Wonderful to have.

What I left out:
1.   Automatic buttonhole.  If you have sewn for a long time, you know that they can be done with bar tacking, zig-zag, and  lots of confidence.  But how often do you really use it if you have one now?
2.   Quarter-inch sewing apparatus.  There are many ways to achieve it without a fancy foot or attachments.
3.   A camera lens that shows where needle is positioned.  Incredibly useful but only available so far on very expensive machines.

Ida Hansen in Odem, Texas:  

The ten top must-haves for machines for quilters:

A well balanced stitch.
Walking foot
Automatic pressure foot lifter for pivoting
1/4 inch foot with fabric guide
Serpentine stitch
Blanket stitch
'Go to beginning of stitch pattern' button
Needle threader
Ease of operation
Open toe foot.

5 must-haves on machine under $500.
A well balanced stitch
Serpentine Stitch
Walking foot
3 step zig zag
1/4 inch foot, preferably with fabric guide

Arteria McCummings:

I started quilting this May and have found the following to be my machine must haves.

1. Needle up/down <$500
2. Auto-Lock Stitch
3. Auto Thread Cutter
4. Exclusive motor Bobbin winder which allows you to winds a bobbin while you stitch
5. Extension Table <$500
6. Knee Lift <$500
7. Adjustable Foot Pressure
8. Monogramming
9. Cone Size Thread Spools with Thread Guide <$500
10. Auto Needle Threader <$500  

Janiece Cline:  

I have piece and quilted for almost 30 years now, and I have taught quilting. 

When asked about sewing machines for "newbies" I tell them that the most important thing to have in a machine is one that has a good straight stitch that can be adjusted in length.  If your stitches don't form correctly, no matter how precise your cutting, stitching and pressing are, it will come back to haunt you.  Secondly, I would suggest a machine that has an adjustable stitch length, making it easier for a new quilter to learn paper piecing.  The third thing I would suggest in a beginner machine is one that either comes with, or has the option of purchasing, a 1/4" machine foot.  And finally, if possible it is nice to get a machine that can do invisible machine applique with the above features.   

It is possible to have all of these features in one machine under $500.  Janome makes a great little machine, the Gem, which has them all.  I have recently purchased my second such machine, and it does everything that I could possibly need for quilting classes, and it is a little workhorse.  I purchased the first machine several years ago, when it did not have a stitch length adjustment, nor did it have the ability to do invisible machine applique.  I have used the machine alot, and it is still in great running condition and I am giving it to my soon-to-be daughter-in-law to get her started on piecing quilt tops.  The machine I updated to is the AQS 2009 and for under $500, you just can't beat it!    

Deinya Mautz of Jacksonville, FL:  

I have three machines: a beloved Singer Feather weight (a self-given retirement present in memory of my mother and both grandmothers), a Brother embroidery machine selected by my husband as a surprise present, and an old Pfaff with limited embroidery. First, spend a lot of time looking at machines-are they metal, plastic, or a combination. Lift them to see if you can manage them, especially if you will be taking it to classes, etc. I like a hefty machine if it is only to be at home, and a medium for mobility. I don't think the ultra-light are stable for long use. Next, forget about all the fancy stuff. If you are just starting, you probably won't use most of the fancy stuff for quite a while and when you do you will want another machine. My sister selected a Janome with basic stuff and is quite happy. Go to every dealer you can find. You simply must have a good relationship with them regardless of the brand.  I would NOT recommend buying your first machine from WalMart or JoAnn's-you will benefit from good back up service. The Brother dear's shop in my town smells like tobacco-don't know if it is true or not, but that has stopped me from dealing with him. A good dealer may have some excellent used machines that will serve as a first machine for you.  Must haves include: easy threading with a good needle position and bobbin insertion, a good light in the work area, automatic needle down position, good solid tension.  An on-machine thread cutter is handy, but be sure it is in a good spot. Are there various feet that come with the machine such as a free-motion/quillting foot and just maybe a good 1/4 " foot as well. If not, count on investing in those. How easy is the manual for instructions? Since you may use this for routine sewing or mending, test the button  and zipper applications. Also, is the machine overall size suitable for your size? I am small, but like to have a good sized work area. Also, the sewing bed of the machine is important-is it big enough and can you change the size? Most importantly, can you think of this machine as a good friend rather than a piece of exotic  Most importantly,try eveyrthing and spend a lot of time with machines even though the pressure may be on to make a decision. Come back at least once to try the machine again for a good "fit'.  

Claudia Baker:  

1.       Ability to drop the feed dogs

2.       ¼ inch foot for piecing

Maia Birchmoon:  

Top 10 features for quilters:

Ideally, a foot that will give a perfect 1/4" seam with the straight 
stitch plate and center needle position

Adjustable needle position to achieve a perfect 1/4" seam or scant or 
whatever you need to make it work for you

Large throat/harp/space to the right of the needle

Needle up/down button and programmable to always end with needle down

Knee lift or tap foot controller to lift presser foot

Integrated dual feed: IDT, Accufeex, PDQ etc

Easy feed dog drop without a feed dog cover

Extra high presser foot lift feature

Adjustable presser foot pressure

Auto tie off and cut

TOP 5 for a machine less than $500:

Accurate 1/4" foot using center needle position and straight stitch 

Needle up/down button

Knee lift or tap foot controller to raise presser foot

Included walking foot

Easy feed dog drop

Salam (peace),  Maia

Karl Fabian:  

1...dual feed.....a must

2. Machine with the largest throat you can afford. I recently bought the Pfaff 4.0 and the throat is great. The newest Janome is slightly larger but it did not have the pressure foot "hovering" feature.

3. pressure foot hovering feature. When you stop the machine, the pressure foot lifts ever so slightly ( needle still in the down position)   allowing you to move the fabric and continue. Great for applique.

4. quilting stitches.....especially the ones that look like hand stitching ( cheater stitches)

5. auto scissor handy

6. variable tie offs ( great for applique)
allows you to chose whether you have a tie off at the beginning...the end...and, of course, you can program the scissor cutting feature at the end as well

7. free motion foot with open toe and the feature that allows the foot to go up and down as you are in motion. That feature gives you more control.

8. quarter inch foot with the essential

9. open toe applique foot. Allows you to see exactly what you're doing.

10. needle up or down feature

In short....the Pfaff 4.0    

Vivian B., Bronx, NY:  

Good Morning!   I came to quilting having sewn clothes in a previous craft life.  Six years ago, after I had already been quilting for two years, I started looking for a new machine and found it.  That machine served me well and I made twenty-eight quilts (or quilted projects) with it between the time I bought it and this past summer when I upgraded to a new machine.  

The things I looked for at the time and appreciated having with that first machine were:  

1.  Needle Down function
2. 1/4" foot provided with the machine, not as an extra purchase.  (But look at these carefully, while one came with my machine, I found it hard to read the markings on it and use it and wound up buying a generic one that worked much better for me).
3.  Walking foot provided with the machine, not as an extra purchase.
4. Ability to drop the feed dogs (unlike in the old days when you needed a plate to cover them).
5. A darning/free motion foot provided with the machine, not as an extra purchase.
6.  Decorative stitches beyond basic straight and zizag (how many depends on how much you are willing to spend).
7.  An acrylic extension table (provided with the machine) or a compatible sewing table/cabinet that can be purchased as an accessory and allows the machine to be set into it to create a flat surface.
8.  (Optional) A padded, rolling travel bag if you intend to use the machine at quild meetings, classes, retreats, vacations or friend/family visits.  

The machine I bought six years ago had all of the above except #8 and including the extension table and cost a little under $500 purchased from a T.V. shopping channel.  Two years ago, my MIL (because I had been coming to her house to give her quilting lessons) gave me #8 and I must say it is one of the best gifts I have received and enjoyed.  Although I have upgraded to a new "at home" primary machine, my old machine is still my "travelling" machine.   As I said, I upgraded to a new machine this summer and the following list represents the additional features I was looking for this time around.

If a gift giver is willing to spend a little more money, some other things a quilter would appreciate/surely use are:  

1.. An extra-wide (larger than the standard 5" of most machines) harp area (sewing bed space) for free motion quilting.
2.  A thread stand attached to the machine (for use with monfilament and decorative threads or cone spools.
3.  A (hands-free) knee lift for the presser foot.
4. A built-in thread cutter.
5.  Different kinds of darning/free motion feet (closed, open and large/clear).   

The first feature was the one I primarily looked for in buying a new machine but the other features are what made an expensive purchase more than worthwhile.  

Jeanette Moravec:  

What are the top 10 features you recommend in a sewing machine for quilters? 

1. That it comes from a store with in house service department with a good reputation

2. That it comes with free lessons on how to use all of the features

3. That it has a good warranty.  If they are willing to to give a good warranty they must feel confident in the quality of their product right?

4. smooth start and doesn't need oil except at yearly maintenance 

5. programable needle up/ needle down option

6. built in walking foot that is in sync with the feed dogs.

7. straight stitch needle plate & 1/4 presser foot available

8. winds a good tight bobbin

9. bobbin low alert

10. basic antique quilting stitches, especially the blanket & quilting stitches. 

List the top 5 features you recommend in a machine that costs under $500.  

1. That it comes from a store with in house service department with a good reputation

2. That it comes with free lessons on how to use all of the features

3. That it has a good warranty.  If they are willing to to give a good warranty they must feel confident in the quality of their product right?

4. smooth start

5. easy needle up/down

Martha Richter:

My newest requirement for a machine that I use for my quilting projects includes portability, lightweight and reliability.  Because of traveling to take classes or simply spend a day with my quilting buddies, I found that it was too difficult to carry my complex (wonderful) machine for these outings.  So I found a simpler, smaller machine that is working out beautifully for these purposes.   Kathy in CT:  

My must have list includes: needle down capability; free hand system (knee lift); needle threading aid; speed control; ability to wind bobbin while sewing. I have a Bernina 200/730 and love every feature!

Grandma Edie:


I have three machines.

one is a basic Babylock (manual) and I use that to go to courses.

The other two are the Bernina 150QE (which is great and cost us $1700 when new and I'm sure you can get that one for $500 or a little more)  and I also have the

Babylock Espire (computerized completely).  Between my new babylock  (which cost  the same as the Bernina as we got both of them on sale) and the Bernina I realize that to quilt you must, must, must have the following:
needle down button (on both Bernina and Babylock Espire I have that and it's a blessing)

  1. needle threader
  2. reverse
  3. be able to adjust stitch length and width
  4. thread cutter
  5. bobbin can be wound (on the Babylock Espire) on the machine without having to unthread the needle and take out the spool of thread
  6. bobbin is low warning (on the Babylock Espire) and it's  a wonderful thing to have
  7. walking foot
  8. 1/4" foot for quilting
  9. free motion quilting foot
  10. be able to lower the feed dogs ( I can't do that on my manual Babylock but can on my other two) and basically that the machine can handle feeding the quilt sandwich through it to quilt it.

Sally Lee:

Top five

1.  Built in one-handed Needle Threader
2.  Automatic Thread Cutter
3.  Adjustable foot pressure
4.  Speed adjustment
5.  Free Arm

Terri Costa in Los Gatos, CA:

Hi ~   These are my machine requirements - not especially in this order....  

1.    Large area between needle and body of machine  
2.    Needle threader (mine keeps breaking - I would love to have it working)  
3.    Needle down position when stopping  
4.    1/4" foot  
5.    Bobbin threader on machine where you don't have to remove the thread.  Two spool holders accomplishes this.  
6.    Flat, detachable surface surrounding sewing area of machine  
7.    Lettering and embroidery designs  
8.    Reverse button  
9.    Zig zag stitch  
10.    Knee pedal that acts as power pedal (like foot pedal).  I seem to remember one of my mother's machines having this feature.  It would sure save on repetitive foot strain.  

Just in case you are wondering, I have a Janome machine at this time.  I still have my Bernina that was purchased 43 years ago as a wedding present.  I would love to have another Bernina some day....

Marty Eubank:

Needle "up-down" A feed dog that drops and the control is easy to use! Good lighting Control of needle movement right to left Built in walking foot   Hard to do just five, and keep it under $500.  Think you can find these!


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