Can't-Live-Without-It Sewing Machine Features

Picking a Sewing Machine
Choosing a sewing machine is kind of a big deal. You are going to be spending a lot of time with this purchase and you want something that suits your needs. 

Picking a Sewing Machine - Kitchen Table Quilting
For me personally, I think it is important to purchase a machine that you will never outgrow. There are tons of fancy features out there and you don't need most of them, but there are some things that will help your machine grow with you. 

I have compiled a list of features to help guide you. This was assisted by an Instagram post I made a few days ago where lots of quilters shared their favorite machine features. I hope you find this list helpful and if you have any favorite features to add, please leave a comment!

Useful Sewing Machine Features 

Reliability

Sewing is so much more fun when you aren't constantly battling with your machine. Ask for recommendations from fellow quilters, your local quilt shop, anyone you can find before purchasing a machine. Some have a reputation for reliability and some have a reputation for ending up in the shop. 

There are a variety of problems that can cause issues with a sewing machine, but I think that getting a consistent tension is one of the most important and one of the hardest to judge without sewing on a machine for a while. 

Quarter Inch Foot 

This one is mostly going to apply to quilters, but having a good quarter inch foot is very important. My machine actually didn't come with a very good 1/4" foot, but I purchased one that works great (the Janome O2 foot). I personally find it useful to use a 1/4" foot that has a guide along the side to help me keep my fabric lined up

Large Throat Space

This is another super useful one for quilters, especially if you plan to quilt your own quilts. The throat space is the distance from the arm of the machine to the needle - on my machine it is 9" but some machines are even larger. I find 9" to be sufficient for up to a twin size quilt - I can squeeze a queen size quilt through but it is a tight fit.

Automatic Thread Cutter

This is not only a huge time saver when sewing, but it leaves you with fewer threads to trim later. This was probably the most frequently mentioned feature in my post - once you have used a machine with an automatic thread cutter, it would be a difficult feature to give up.

Automatic Needle Up/Down

On a sewing machine, there is a wheel on the side that can move the needle up and down, but many machines also have an automatic needle up/down button. It is very useful and one I would require if I was buying a new machine. 

Drop-In Bobbin

Machines with a drop-in bobbin are great because it is much easier to see if you are running low on bobbin thread. I also think they are a little easier to use.

Speed (and Speed Control)

I am not a fast sewer, but there are times when I put the pedal to the metal on my machine and I am grateful for the speed. If you are a newer sewer, this may not be something you would appreciate yet, but the more sewing you do, the faster you will want to go.

It is also nice to have speed control. This means that you have the ability to control the max speed on your machine - this is particularly nice if you are teaching a new quilter or if you are working on something where you need to proceed carefully.

Extension Table 

I am surprised when I see people not using their extension table - I use mine 100% of the time! It really helps to have an extended work surface when piecing and the extra space helps support your quilt while quilting. I do a ton of sewing and if I don't have my extension table attached, my shoulder gets sore. 

Alternatively, there are tables (or you can DIY a table) that have a cutout for your sewing machine to sit flush with the table.

Picking a Sewing Machine - Kitchen Table Quilting

More Useful (But Maybe Not Essential) Sewing Machine Features

Presser Foot Pressure Adjustment

I have this on my machine and I do use it. While I maybe wouldn't consider it a make-it-or-break-it feature, I love that that I can lower the pressure a little bit while quilting. Because my presser foot isn't pushing down on my quilt quite as hard, I think it helps reduce puckers while quilting.

Larger Bobbins 

Honestly, I didn't know that there were machines out there with this option but how amazing is that! There are some Bernina models that use a larger bobbin. I would love to have this feature.

Needle Threader

My machine has a needle threader, but I almost never use it! If you have trouble with your eyesight or just find needle threading a little tricky, this is a great feature and it is pretty common on modern machines. I have been assured that when I get a little bit older, I might appreciate this feature more.

Low Bobbin Warning

My machine does not have this feature, but I can see how it would be useful (especially when quilting). 

Knee Lift

Several people mentioned this feature. My machine has a knee lift, but I have never used it! I am going to look into giving it a try.

Lighting

Having good lighting when sewing is very important. If your machine doesn't have a great light, you can supplement with task lighting (that is what I do with this lamp) or you can add an LED strip light to your machine (like this one), but it is never quite as good as having a bright work surface at your machine.

Integrated Dual Feed System

My machine has this (it's called Acufeed) and I love it, but I wouldn't consider it totally crucial. The way that it works is that you can buy feet for your machine that actually clip into the dual feed system and work as a walking foot - that way your fabric is fed more evenly through the machine and doesn't shift. 

You can buy different types of feet that clip in (I have a regular walking foot, a 1/4" foot, and a stitch-in-the-ditch foot - there are lots of options!). I actually don't use the 1/4" Acufeed foot for piecing because it is quite loud and I feel like I get a more accurate 1/4" seam with my O2 foot. The 1/4" foot is wonderful for attaching binding to my quilt.

Start/Stop Button 

I don't really use this feature on my machine, but it is great if you stand while you sew.

Auto Pivot

Honestly, I had to look this one up because I wasn't familiar with it but several people mentioned it so I wanted to make sure it was included. With this feature, your needle stays down and your presser foot lifts when you stop sewing so that you can pivot your project. This would be great for applique, changing directions while quilting, sewing curves, etc.

Laser

My machine doesn't have this, but it is something I am considering adding to my machine. It is a laser that you can use as a guide when piecing (something like half square triangles) and quilting. There are a few machines that have one built in, but you can also buy them (like this one here). If anyone has added one to their machine, I would be very interested to hear about your experience!


You are probably now wondering WHICH machines have these features - that list is coming soon! I am working on a list of recommended machines at different price points and will have that ready for you soon!

27 comments

  1. I have a knee lift. I don't use it a ton, but it's really great when I am sewing something that won't stay in place and I need two hands to hold it. I can use the knee lift to lower the presser foot and keep my hands on my project. It's usually for something bulky or stiff, like a bag.
    I'm really curious about the sewing laser. Thanks for sharing your list!

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    1. I am going to give it a try - the tricky thing is that I sit in a counter height barstool when I sew and I keep my presser foot on a stool, so I don't know if it will be comfortable to use the knee left. I am going to try it though. Thanks for your thoughts!

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  2. What a great topic! I have the same machine as you and I love it!!! I encourage you to try the knee lift feature. It took me a little while to get use to it but now I can’t sew without it. You could say it takes the place of the “Auto Pivot” feature. πŸ˜ƒ

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    1. It is really just the best machine - I plan on using mine until it dies. I am going to try the knee lift - I am intrigued!

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  3. This is a helpful, thorough list. Although I have a Bernina, which I LOVE, I am thinking about a straight stitch mechanical machine in addition. I am interested in a simple, reliable, workhorse machine that can withstand a little abuse (layers of waxed canvas, leather, etc. and not just quilting cotton--I also love making bags) I'm anxious to see your recommendations

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    1. I will definitely address this in my list - I think that those straight stitch machines are wonderful. My machine has endured some abuse when making bags, they can be hard on your machine for sure!

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  4. Thanks for compiling this list - and I can't wait for your list of machines. Love the information you provide!

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    1. You are very welcome! It has been interesting to spend time thinking about what I love/don't love about machine and how that can be helpful to other quilters. There are so many options out there - it's overhwhelming!

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  5. I didn't really know what an auto-pivot was, but the knee lift fills in for that quite nicely. Also, I do have my machine on a table that allows it to sit flush. I've never used my extension table for that reason.

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    1. I am jealous of that - it is one thing that I really wish I had. I do appreciate my extension table though!

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  6. I went to the expense of buying the sewing machine add on laser. It does work, however if your machine vibrates-they mostly all do, especially at speed, the laser does also! If you buy one, make sure you put your machine on some kind of rubberized pad. I still haven't find one that takes out all the vibration .

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    1. Oh I hadn't considered that - it's something to think about. My machine does vibrate quite a bit.

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  7. Thanks for the great info. I tried the knee lift at a recent class and it's great. We bought a desk at Salvation Army ($25) and cut the top to fit my everyday machine so it sits flush for a wonderful, large surface. All 3 of my machines are Janome, which I highly recommend, and I'm going to order one of the strip lights for my 3160 travel machine.

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    1. I am so jealous - I wish I could drop my machine into my desk but my machine and cutting table are on the same surface and I just don't think I can make it work. I hope the strip lights help - lighting makes a huge difference!

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  8. Thanks for all of the great information. I am going to purchase a new machine and since the last time air bought one was 20 years ago, I wasn’t even aware of all of the features. I will definitely be interested to read machine recommendations. I am leaning toward Bernina since my machine has been so reliable but I know you and others are very happy with Jsnome as well. The machine expert at my quilt store has not been in my last few visits. Plus I want to wait for a sale’

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    1. Janome and Bernina seem to be the most recommended brands - I am working on this list, give me a few more days and I will have it up.

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  9. I love my auto pivot, I don't think I could do applique without it. I also use my built-in laser all the time, so useful. If I was to buy another machine I would definitely need these 2 features.

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    1. Those are both great and my machine doesn't have either - I have started using my knee lift though so that is similar to the auto pivot. I am really wanting to try a laser.

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  10. Thank you for this, Erica. I'm about to start shopping for a new machine, so this was helpful.

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  11. I have the janome mc6700p ..and I adore it. What a really life is the single hole needle plate and special foot. The combination moves everything over so you're only using the left feed dogs. My dreams have never been straighter. When sewing with a quarter inch foot the regular way, the pressure is only on the right feed dog, yet that left feed dog continues to try to move the fabric, by moving everything over, it eliminates the problem

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    1. Interesting! I have a single hole needle plate and use it often - it helps a lot.

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  12. As I mostly sew garments I would consider pressure foot adjustment an absolute must. Fabric comes in all weights, plus woven and knit. I adjust depending on what I am sewing. I would like a thread cutter but I don't have one on my Bernina. I do on my mechanical machine. My eyes are thankful for the needle threader on my machines.

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    1. I use my pressure adjustment for quilting too - it does really help.

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  13. Great subject. I went machine shopping 2 years ago. Had a hard time topping my kenmore (aka Janome) machine I had just given to my niece. It had tons of stitches, threader, drop in bobbin. Plus add to that I’m super frugal.
    I found a Juki and love itπŸ’•

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  14. thank you for this post. I am looking for a machine that will reduce shoulder strain while binding a quilt with a 1/4 " foot. Will Accufeed move the quilt layers more evenly so I am not constantly holding the quilt to avoid it from dragging? Thank you in advance!

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    1. I think it would help, but it might be more helpful to have your machine flush with your table. I don't really think there is a way to avoid this entirely - I have to be cautious of not overtaxing my shoulder.

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