I suggest first that they try to borrow a machine from someone else to see if it is even something they really want to learn. (Too many people think it will be easier than it is, and that it somehow isn't something you have to actively practice in order to produce nice work.) If they have already tried sewing and are fairly certain it is an avenue they want to pursue, I recommend they get a decent machine with a handful of stitches and with a drop-in bobbin.
Now, I know quite a few people who recommend only vintage, all-metal parts, machines. I, however, don't. Unless the person asking for information already has such a beast, I rarely suggest it (thought I do advocate trying one out if they have access to one). Yes, I know, that machine has been functioning for 50 (or 80) years and will likely run for another 50 (or 80) because they were just made that well, but honestly, I have never really enjoyed sewing on them.
I personally have two of vintage machines, one is a Necchi and the other (if I recall correctly) is a Singer. They belonged to my granny and mam-maw. They are beautiful and entertaining to use, but I do not actually enjoy sewing with them (though I know many people love that type and would consider using nothing else).
I find them slow to use, even slower to change stitches (especially for machines that use cams) and very trying when it comes to bobbins and bobbin casings. Yes, that sounds silly from someone who has been sewing more than half her life, but fiddling with a bobbin case can very much eliminate any joy I have in a project.
I've owned an industrial, a past-its-prime White (nicknamed Lloth because it had a tendency to hack up spider-babies of thread) and a couple of other very low-end machines that did not last long. In 1995, I got my first nice machine. It was a Babylock and had a range of stitches and a drop-in bobbin. It really changed how I felt about sewing (which was good, given that I paid $500 for it). That machine served me very well, even with the considerable amount of sewing I do, until the Great Pennsic Rush of 2005. That year I was building complete Pennsic wardrobes for 4 people from scratch. The vast amount of sewing was too much for the poor Babylock and one week before war, my machine choked and just could not go on.
Being the awesome individual that he is, my BF came home from work the very next night with a shiny new Kenmore from Sears. This model was comparable to the machine that just died and cost only half of what the one a decade before had run. This one, too, served me well and I was able finish all of the Pennsic projects on time. To this day, I recommend this and similar Kenmore machines to people wanting to learn to sew (the last time I checked they range from $170-250, with drop-in bobbins and nice button hole features). At least three people I know purchased them and had rave reviews after using them.
What I do not recommend is any Wal-Mart $79 special machine. I have never seen last more than a few months in the hands of someone doing alot of sewing. I have even seen one fresh from the box that barely stitched at all. I think it would be wise to save just a little more cash ($200, though sometimes you can even get nice machines for $150) and get a decent machine from the start if you are set on purchasing one new. (If you are lucky, you will have at least one friend in your social circle who can scout out amazing bargains and who also knows how to sew. If you are on a super tight budget, get that person to help you find a great deal on Craigs List, Goodwill, flea markets, etc.!)
All of that being said, I still did not actually enjoy sewing until I got, in 2006, an embroidery/sewing machine. My Husqvarna/Viking Designer SE is nothing short of amazing. If you are an avid sewer, and have a use for machine embroidery, I cannot recommend this type of machine enough. The entire line of machines is fabulous. My mother got the Topaz 30 (the SE's little sister) a couple of years ago for Christmas and that one is also fantastic. I test drove one before giving my dad my review, and it is an excellent machine, with the most of the same amazing sewing capabilities that I have on mine and very nice embroidery functions as well. They no longer make the SE as the Rose and Diamond have come to the forefront of the Husqvarna line, but if you are in the market for a machine like this you can check them out here: http://www.husqvarnaviking.com/us/19554.htm
I hope that no one thinks I am suggesting that that one needs a pricey machine like these. BUT, I do think that if one sews excessively, but is not happy with the hand-me-down or starter machine one already owns, that perhaps a visit to a dealer is in order.
If you do go to scout out a new sewing machine, I suggest you test driving several models and several brands. This will allow you to see what functions exist on machines today, and then you can figure out what might most benefit you. Different people will have different priorities when it comes to machines and all of those things should be factored into a decision about what to buy. Another personal example I have is that I once had an industrial because I thought I "needed" one. I used it for one project and puttered with it perhaps twice beyond that. I did not actually like sewing with it at all, and found that most anything I needed to do, I could do with another machine that was just easier (and less intimidating) to use.
Want more for less? Test drive machines at your local dealer and then look for refurbished units or check with the local sewing and quilt stores (small shops rather than stores like Joanns) to see if they have a board or newsletter where other customers can place ads when they are selling used machines. It also might not hurt to keep an eye on Craig's List as well.
My advice for those looking to upgrade:
- If you are looking for a new machine, make a list of the things you regularly sew. Also make a list of the things you think you want to try to sew in the future (note which items you are sure about and which you might just want to dabble in).
- What weights of fabric do you typically use? Do you use silk chiffon for veils and the next day multiple layers of canvas and quilting for gambesons or do you mostly stick with middle weight fabrics and only occasionally range out to either end of the spectrum?
- How much sewing do you regularly do? Someone considering starting a business would likely have different needs than someone who sews for a few events a year.
- Do you need specialty presser feet (you need to know if they make the right feet for the machine you are looking at)?
- Do you really need 423 stitches or are they just something that would be nice to have?
Answering the above will help you and the staff at your local shops determing which machine will best fill your needs. When it comes time to go shopping, grab your list and do the following:
- Check out more than one brand. It's like buying a car, only more fun!
- Call your local shops and ask if someone has time to sit with you and show you the bells and whistles on a variety of models. They are often quite willing to do so. I have not had much pressure from the local women trying to upsell, but if you feel like you are dealing with a used car dealer, leave. There are other places to shop.
- Look at reviews of the machines online. This site has great reviews for sewing machines, embroidery machines and sergers: http://sewing.patternreview.com/SewingMachine/
- After previewing a variety of models, decide what you can afford and if you prefer to purchase new or save some money with a refurbished or used machine.
- If you are really torn about a particular machine and its higher-end/higher-priced counterpart, but are not quite sure you will use it enough to warrant the expense, talk to the dealer about their trade-in programs. Yes, just like cars, many top machines have trade-in values and you can apply that to a newer/faster/shinier machine later. (And also like cars, you are likely to get more money selling it yourself than you are with a dealer trade-in, but you do not have to track down a buyer yourself and that can save you time.)
And lest I be judged and condemned as a bad Scadian, I will note that there is always the option to hand-sew. In fact, I think that anyone interested in garb or research should learn at least the basic hand stitches and consider using them for any visible seams (top-stitching and hems) for your nicest garb, if nothing else.
I personally, would hand-sew more of my garb than I do now if my work-schedule and arthritis would let me... As it is, I choose to hand-sew certain projects and do my Pennsic bulk-sewing on the machine. I will have more to post about hand-sewing very soon.