Shopping for a sewing machine can be a very time-consuming task. There are so many available, each claiming to be better than the last. And everybody has different advice. Some people love top-of-the-range machines that do everything you can think of, while some love their family heirloom sewing machines with little more than a straight stitch but lots of strength and dependability, and of course that is all you strictly need.
You can still get very reliable machines that do everything you need them to do (unless you are doing a course, in which case you may require something slightly more advanced) and at a very reasonable price.
My biggest tip for you, if you can't get to try the machine before you purchase it, is to get one from a well-known brand name. The two leading ones at the moment (so I've been told) are Janome (pronounced Ja-NO-me) and Bernina.
Brother offer a wide range of machines, starting with "disposable" budget machines, right up to combinations sewing-embroidery machines. Janome ones tend to be a little too large for someone of my petite size, but are said to be very good (though, frankly their decorative stitches look a little off on their brochures). Apparently, they even make machines for other companies. Bernina have been greatly loved for decades. My Great Aunt Dulcie used to sell them when she co-owned a sewing shop on Barr Street in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. She said they were the best.
Other good names are Pfaff (pronounced "faff") and Elna (who are now owned by Janome and often have nifty storage areas on the machines for the accessories). Toyota are okay. My Toyota 21-DES is still going now, but it's very basic.
Singer company was bought years ago and has gone downhill somewhat (even in the old days like the '80s I think they were iffy because the unions were being awkward). That said, Mum's sewing machine was a Singer and was a good one. It would probably still be working, if the person to whom we lent it hadn't left it full of fluff in a damp loft to rust. Perhaps Singer has got over their bad patch; they seem to be generally good again, from what I have read and heard.
Here are some things to consider when shopping for a simple sewing machine...
How big and heavy is it?
If you intend to move it about a bit, make sure it is a reasonable size and weight for you. Some websites will tell you approximately how much a sewing machine weighs. Unless you are quite strong, you would be better off keeping it under 6.5kg (which is like 6 and a half 1kg bags of sugar if you want an idea of the weight). And unless you have a lot of room, a 'portable' or 'compact' sewing machine will be best. This can mean about 40cm wide when you are sitting in front of it. Not what I would have called portable, but that is what the industry seems to call it.
My Bernina 380 is very heavy for me, and I can't lift it without using both hands. By comparison, I could carry the Toyota 21-DES and the Brother XR6600 in one hand (not at the same time though!).
What do you want it for?
Will you want to do anything decorative with it, or is it just for practical jobs? If you want to make large quilts, make sure you have a nice amount of space to the right of the needle as well. If you want to hem sleeves and trouser/pant legs, be sure it has a free-arm. This means that you can remove part of the sewing machine around the needle to make a smaller sewing area. Most do, and the bit you take off (called the flat bed) is usually also the accessory compartment.
If you want pretty embroidery stitches, you don't need a lot. You will probably never use 200-300 stitches anyway (who could?). You may like to have a scallop stitch for decorating edges. You can then cut very carefully around the scallop if it is a zig-zag scallop, but not if it is a straight-stitch scallop (the stitches might fall out). If it is a straight-stitch scallop you can sew a hand blanket stitch around them and then cut around that.
Make sure you can adjust the stitch width and length
Some machines, like my Toyota 21-DES, have fully automatic stitches. That means I can't change the stitch width or length, and the different size straight stitches and zig-zag stitches count as different stitches! I lost marks on my first course because I couldn't make the zig-zag stitch shorter for neatening denim. It's a great machine if you only want to do practical jobs for personal use, but not for the Regent Academy course. The higher machines in the range have adjustable stitch size and more stitches.
Can you move the needle?
If you can, you have a lot more freedom when it comes to making tucks and pin tuck, and doing topstitching and edgestitching with feet that have guides (like overcasting feet and blindhem feet). Some machines, like my Toyota, only have two needle positions -- left and centre. Some have three -- left, centre, and right.
Some, like the Brother XR6600 have fully adjustable needle positions, but I didn't know that when I chose it because the first stitch on the machine, the straight stitch, starts in the left position and the second stitch, also a straight stitch, is in the centre position. Naturally, I thought they were the only two needle positions. But as it turns out, on some machines, the straight stitch with fully adjustable needle position is shown as being to the left, where the needle is to begin with. This is so that the fabric has more support around the needle and makes more reliable stitches. The permanently centred straight stitch is so you can safely sew zips without hitting the accompanying zipper foot. Be sure to check for needle positions when choosing your machine. You can sometimes find PDF instruction books on the websites that sell the machine to look at for free. You can Google it to find it.
My Bernina 380, which I got when the Brother XR6600 broke, has 9 needle positions and all the stitches can be moved. This doesn't make any difference to the finished stitch if it's wide already because there is no room for it to move. The stitches can also be flipped horizontally, which can come in handy when I want to achieve a certain effect.
Most people nowadays want an automatic buttonhole. They come in two main types: four-step and one-step. 4-step buttonholes can be difficult if you don't know how to sew them well. The trick is to stabilise the fabric, top and bottom, so that it feeds through forwards and backwards at the same speed and has the same number of stitches on each side. It is important to mark where you buttonholes begin and end and to pay attention when sewing them to make sure they are all the same length, and the same distance from the edge of the garment.
My Bernina 380 has four one-step buttonholes: a standard buttonhole, a stretch buttonhole, a keyhole buttonhole, and a bound buttonhole. You can get by with just the standard buttonhole (a bartack at each end), but I like to have options. : )
Four-step buttonholes require you to measure the button and manually control the size of the buttonhole, which can lead to uneven buttonholes. One-step buttonholes have a special foot (the longer one in the photo; the shorter one is for a 4-step buttonhole) with a section in the back that measures flat buttons and keeps the buttonholes uniform and perfectly sized for the button. At any rate, I prefer one-step buttonholes to four-step ones -- they're easier. : )
By the way, if you already have a machine that doesn't have a buttonhole, you can make one using a short (approx. 0.3mm) zigzag stitch thus: Sew a bar tack (on the spot) that is as wide as the buttonhole; Narrow the zigzag to less than half the bar tack's width and sew up one side of the buttonhole; when you get to the end make another bar tack as before; turn the fabric around so you can sew in the other direction; narrow the zigzag again and stitch down the other side; secure your stitch.
Make sure it can take all kinds of fabric
This goes back to the earlier tip to get a machine from a well-known brand name, especially if the brand specialises in sewing machines. The marketing information will likely say if it can handle different kinds of fabrics.
Note: if you want to sew leathers, faux leathers, vinyls or other 'sticky' fabrics, you would do well to get a non-stick Teflon foot or a roller foot, or put fine tissue paper on top of the fabric where you are stitching. If you are having difficulty with fine fabrics getting stuck in the feed dogs, put fine tissue paper underneath the fabric.
The dinky little machines you get for under £40 are no good for anyone over ten years of age. Plus you often can't change the foot so you can't insert zips or make buttonholes with them, and they are usually just straight stitch.
Does it sew stretch fabric?
You will probably want to sew jersey (the fabric T-shirts are made of) at some point, so make sure you can. The stretch stitch looks like a straight stitch but with three parallel rows on the picture (not when sewn). That is because it sews the stitch three times. It makes a stitch, goes back over it, and then stitches forward again. This makes it stronger. An ordinary straight stitch would break when the seam is stretched. The triple straight stitch can also be used to topstitch with regular thread on woven or knit fabric.
You may also find another kind of stretch stitch on your machine. It will look like a very narrow zigzag or continuous bolt of lightning (that is why it is sometimes called a lightning stitch). I prefer the triple straight stitch so far because it seems to be better and not make the fabric go all wavy before you press it. I think the triple stitch also looks better when you press the seam open.
If you don't have a stretch stitch, you can make one by either sewing the seam three times, or using a very narrow zigzag stitch.
Almost all machines will come with at least three feet: the standard foot, the buttonhole foot, and the zipper foot. I have only ever noticed one machine that dosen't come with a zipper foot since they became common place (the Janome Platinum 760 -- a compact quilting machine). It does come with a few extra feet though.
Some machines come with a selection of feet. Frister + Rossman and SMD machines, not being two of the really major brands, come with quite a selection. (I haven't seen many other feet available separately for those machines which explains it.) Elna usually give you quite a few, and the Brother XR6600 came with seven. Basic machines may only come with three: the zigzag foot, the zipper foot, and the buttonhole foot. My Bernina 380 came with, I think, 7 feet plus a walking foot and the buttonhole foot #3 which I asked them to include because it's very versatile and can be used as an invisible zip foot. : )
Extra feet that are often included are the Blind-hem foot, button-sewing foot, satin stitch/monogramming foot and overcasting foot. There are many other feet available seperately. Some favourites are the Invisible zipper foot, hemmers, cording and beading feet, edgestitching foot, darning foot, free motion foot, roller foot, teflon foot, gathering foot, ruffler, twin-needle pintucking feet, walking foot and many more! These feet are not essential but are there to make sewing easier and to help you get better results.
Really top-of-the-range sewing machines often come with a large variety of feet, including the more expensive ones.
Mechanical Vs. Computerised
Many people seem to be afraid of computerised sewing machines, but unless you get a super-duper top-of-the-range one with a colour screen and everything, they're actually really easy to use. I don't even know how to text and I can use my computerised sewing machine, so don't worry about their being complicated.
Others think that mechanical sewing machines are sturdier and more reliable than computerised ones, but computerised sewing machines are actually better at going through thick fabrics and seams than are mechanical ones. Their motors are better at driving the needle though and keeping everything going. They also have 'error systems' to let you know if you have done something wrong. They also have far more stitches than mechanical sewing machines.
Yes, I know they're generally more expensive than mechanical sewing machines, but if you are going to do creative sewing and not just repairs, get the best you can afford, or else you'll grow out of it and end up buying a more advanced sewing machine anyway.
When buying for a child...
Don't waste your money on a child's sewing machine, even if it is for a child. They only do a chain stitch which is rubbish and according to the reviews on Amazon, they often don't work. You may end up with tears and broken hearts, and possibly put the child off sewing for years to come (or life)! Just make sure you are there when they sew and consider getting a finger guard, just in case. If you guide them in using a sewing machine, and make sure they know the dangers/safety practices (like stay away from the needle) they will likely be fine, but I can get squeamish and imagine rather painful things (I often cover my eyes when The Simpsons are on) so I added the safety advice. : )
About Sewing Machine Fear
When I started to use a sewing machine, I was rather cautious. It was as if I had a subconsious fear that the needle would dance all over the machine and my fingers. Then I noticed that the fabric was feeding through -- I didn't need to push or pull it. All I had to do was make sure the fabric went in the right direction (left or right). Poof! There went any fear of sewing machines. And I've never once sewn through my fingers or anything I shouldn't. The only time I have ever bled when sewing is when I pricked myself with a pin or hand needle! (And when I was six and cut my finger with dressmaking scissors at school. I was trying to make some spectacles for my teddy for the teddy-bears' picnic. I was brave but don't remember much after leaving the classroom. I think I fainted.)
Here is another tip for shopping: make a list of everything you need the machine to do, everything you want it to do, and the things you would like it to do but that aren't important. Then look for a machine in your budget that matches as closely as possible.
Take notice of when the salesperson or website says 'stitch function'. They don't mean it has that many stitches. Say you have a straight stitch. It's just one stitch, but it has more than one stitch function. You can sew seams with it and you can gather with it. They are two stitch functions. Check how many stitches it has. It will be fewer than the stitch functions.
I picked the Brother XR6600 computerised sewing machine because it does everything I need it to do and it was the right price. UPDATE: It turns out that the Brother XR6600 is a "disposable" sewing machine and so has become unsafe after less than two years' time. Granted I have serviced it myself before, but I think I found that washer and put it back in. Since then I have bought a Bernina 380 with which I am pleased and which I intend to keep for many, many years with no need to buy a more advanced sewing machine.
Best wishes with your shopping!