When it comes to shopping for your first sewing machine, the immense variety of options can be both exciting and daunting. Not only are there a ton of models to choose from, but there are lots of subcategories to choose from.
We thought we’d put together a quick overview for folks who want to know the basics about the different types available. Below, you’ll find descriptions of all the common types you can find on the market. We compile buying guides for each of these, so you can learn the basics now, figure out what type you’re after, and then choose the right buying guide to read in detail!
Bear in mind that these are general rules of thumb. There are a lot of sewing machines which could fit into more than one category. For instance, you might find a model that’s big enough to be considered in the quilting category, but built heavy enough to qualify as a heavy-duty workstation.
We’re also not including industrial models here, since they’re only necessary for commercial users. If you’re a consumer looking for something to do demanding projects on heavy materials, you should try a straight-stitch unit. We have several recommendations in that category.
Standard/electronic sewing machines
The models that most of us think of when we hear the words “sewing machine” are what we would consider an electronic sewing machine.
An electronic sewing machine can also be referred to as a manual machine these days, even though that term’s not strictly accurate. “Manual” really refers to the antique sewing machines you’d operate by turning a crank or pedaling with your foot. These days, though, “manual” is understood to refer to an electronic machine without a computer.
Electronic/standard/manual sewing machines, however you refer to them, tend to have similar features across brands and models. They’ll have a pedal speed control, electric motor, and manual adjustment dials. Most of these machines have a number of stitches built in (~12-30), and they allow for basic adjustments to stitch width and length.
These are the most affordable sewing machines you can buy. Despite the increasing popularity of computerized models, you’ll find that electronic sewing machines are still at the top of best-seller lists.
We usually recommend these machines to beginners, since they don’t involve learning to use complicated computer menus. They’re also the best for learning sewing technique, since they provide fewer automatic shortcuts.
The downside is that they’re not as versatile as computerized machines, and those who already have technique down pat will find them less convenient to use.
Computerized sewing machines
Aside from electronic sewing machines, computerized models are the most common. They’re increasingly popular, even for beginners and folks on a tight budget. That’s both because the prices are coming down rapidly and because the menu systems used to navigate them are becoming much more intuitive.
The big difference between electronic and computerized machines is the presence of an onboard computer. Having a computer means the machine can remember things like your preferred needle up/down position. It also allows you to have much more control and finesse over everything from the needle speed to the stitch length.
Computerized sewing machines have far more built-in stitches than “manual” electronic sewing machines. Some models have hundreds of stitches preprogrammed! The nicest models allow you to program your own stitch patterns, save favorites, and create presets for your signature seams.
As a result, they’re the most versatile machines you can buy. Many computerized models even incorporate some basic embroidery functions, as well as stitch patterns. You can expect a basic monogramming alphabet and numbers on most computerized models.
Plus, they’re endlessly convenient to use. You can program a computerized machine to lock off stitches for you, and do all sorts of things automatically. They’ll even sew buttonholes by sensing the size of the buttons you’re using!
We generally don’t recommend computerized machines to beginners, since they allow too many shortcuts for you to develop solid technique. They’re a perfect next step for intermediate sewists, however, and experts will love how much faster they can make workflow.
Heavy-duty sewing machines
Heavy-duty sewing machines can come in all shapes and sizes. There are heavy-duty versions of electronic sewing machines, as well as computerized and straight-stitch models.
What distinguishes a heavy-duty sewing machine is the sturdiness of its build. These models have many more metal components than the average sewing machine. They often have metal casing, as well as metal innards. That’s compared to standard models, which have plastic nearly everywhere these days.
You’d choose a heavy-duty machine if you were planning to work with lots of leather, canvas, or other tougher materials. These also tend to be the best workhorses for demanding environments like sewing classrooms, costume shops, and so forth.
There aren’t necessarily any downsides to choosing a heavy-duty model, but you’ll definitely find that the selection is somewhat limited. There aren’t all that many heavy-duty models on the market. The ones that are sold also tend to be more expensive than standard machines.
3/4 and miniature sewing machines
Most sewing machines sold today are considered to be a standard size. There aren’t any real rules as to how big a sewing machine should be, but most manufacturers tend to keep things pretty uniform in the throat width, height, and other key measurements.
However, there are a variety of smaller machines available. They’re generally marketed towards children, or as travel machines for people to take to classes and vacation homes. Most of these are classified as 3/4-sized machines. True to the name, they’re about 25% smaller than your average workstation.
As well as being smaller, they’re often lighter than full-size models, and have a more limited range of features. You don’t usually see onboard computers in the 3/4 category. They’re good for when you’re tight on space, need to travel, or just don’t need so many features.
We don’t suggest trying anything too intense on a smaller sewing machine. They’re not all that heavy-duty, and the motors are too small to work on materials like leather. You’ll also find that quilting on a smaller machine can be trying at best.
Be aware that there’s a difference between a miniature sewing machine, and a sewing machine classified as a 3/4 machine. 3/4 is a standard size, with a small range of variation, while miniature could be 3/4 or 1/2-sized.
Embroidery machines are very much their own category of sewing machine. They’re all computerized, but they work in a very different way from your average computerized machine. Embroidery models let you create gorgeous images and embroidered textures on your fabric pieces, within a set space.
Many of them work similarly to hand embroidery. You’ll stretch your fabric onto a hoop, and the machine will sew within that space. You can choose different sizes, scaling designs up and down to find the right look.
While many computerized sewing machines give you some decorative/heirloom stitch options, they can’t create the kind of patterns and images that an embroidery machine can. These are what you want for creating elaborate scrollwork on finished pieces, or for adding a decorative emblem to all your linens.
Think of it this way: a computerized machine can do a decorative stitch, but it’ll still be sewing in a line or band. You can do a decorative border, or monogram a letter, but you couldn’t stitch a beautiful rose onto all your tea towels. An embroidery machine moves around by itself to give you the exact image/pattern each time.
Embroidery machines can be pricey, but they can do pretty much anything you want them to. You can use them for your utility sewing projects, and you can expand their preprogrammed designs by using a USB stick and pulling designs from the internet.
Check out our favorite embroidery machines here!
Quilting machines are fairly similar to typical electronic or computerized sewing machines. The big difference is that they provide a larger workspace. Quilting machines are designed to give you room to connect several pieces of fabric, and even entire quilts.
There are a few different types:
Quilting machines look like a standard sewing machine/computerized model, only with a bigger throat space and needle plate. They’re essentially enlarged versions of what you’d normally see people using for utility projects.
Long-arm quilting machines are meant to allow you to work on an entire quilt at once. They’re the largest sewing machines you can buy as a consumer. These come either with a large rack to hang your quilt, or with an extension table on which you can spread your workpiece.
If you primarily sew quilts, or if that’s why you’re getting into sewing in the first place, it’s better to get a quilting-specific machine. Don’t spring for a long-arm model unless you’re passionate and dedicated, though. They cost thousands of dollars, and you can’t use them for anything other than quilts.
To see all the quilting machines we recommend, have a look at our buying guide!
Straight-stitch sewing machines
A straight-stitch sewing machine is exactly what it sounds like. It stitches in straight lines, and that’s it! You can adjust the length, but there won’t be any additional options. These are designed for simple projects like quilting, where you’ll be attaching lots of pieces together without using any zigzag or pattern stitches. They’re also ideal for heavy-duty projects like working with leather and outdoor fabrics.
Finally, sergers (also known as overlock sewing machines) are unique creatures in the sewing world. They use several different threads at once, and often have multiple needles. Sergers are your best friends for creating professional-looking and long-lasting seams. They’re particularly good when you’re working on stretchy materials.
When a serger sews a seam, the threads lock around the edge of the fabric to prevent any fraying. It’ll also cut its own thread allowances, so the results are super neat and tidy.
You should get a serger if you sew often and make lots of clothing pieces or things like blankets. They’re also lifesavers for knit and stretch fabrics, so if those are your go-to materials, it might be worth your while to have a serger on hand.
However, like straight-stitch machines, sergers are not multipurpose. They don’t do anything besides seams. So, be aware that you’ll need a good all-purpose workhorse as well as a serger!
You can find all our serger recommendations here!