I understand the basic concept of how a sewing machine works. I also know there are many varieties of sewing machines e.g. they are capable of doing their own sets of stitches and what not, supporting different materials.

If I was going to pick up a modern unit second hand what should I be paying attention for i.e. Any particular things I need to be looking for or testing?

Narrowing down my criteria I would say, I am looking for a machine which would help me do basic stitches and hems on clothing and other thin materials.


5 Answers 5


Basic requirements

For a basic sewing machine that does hems and maybe some simple garment sewing... I'd look for:

  • Basic stitches - running stitch, zig zag, blind hem stitch
  • Adjustable tension - to accommodate lighter fabrics
  • Adjustable stitch length
  • Reverse (almost all modern machines have it, it's just handy)


If you want to sew buttons you also may want to know how the button holing works. Technically you can make a button hole with what I just described, but many machines have slick ways to make the process easier or to make the button holes come out nicer. If you think button holes will be a frequent task, make sure you like and understand how this feature works on this model.

Bobbin winding - every machine will have a way to wind the bobbin, but how easy/hard it is can be a real point of satisfaction for the user. Make sure you like and understand how this process works.

Needle threading - most modern machines have a light near the needle to make this easier. But also - how do you thread the machine - it's always more than sticking the thread in the eye of the needle. If learning to thread the machine makes you want to cry, this is not the machine for you.

Bobbin winding and needle threading are steps you'll do almost every time you sew (sometimes more than that!) so if you hate the steps or find them really hard, it's worth it to keep looking.

Similarly - every machine will have a presser foot and a way of lifting/dropping the needle - there's no right or wrong, but it's a comfort issue... like going on a test drive of a car.

Quality checks when buying

  1. Be sure you can sew with the machine. Unless you really like a good mystery, get a test drive of the machine. Not only does it clarify the choices, but it lets you make sure the machine works.

  2. Know and check that you've got all the feet and any other parts - check online what the model was sold with. Be sure the parts are there: presser feet, button holing add-ons, the foot pedal controller and all wires, darning plate and any add-ons, spool pins or other add-ons for holding various types of thread and bobbins. Personally, I wouldn't sweat a missing instruction book, but I'd verify I could get a copy online if I were a more novice seamstress.

  3. Look at the shape of the machine - it should have a regular and even hum and the needle should go up and down easily without breaking, or slipping gears. The needle should be able to catch thread in the bobbin easily, and not slam into the darning plate. Changing settings should produce an obvious change in the outcome when sewing.

  • 3
    All this info is great, but additionally I would try and find a sewing machine that is relatively simple to maintain and adjust. Before you buy, do some internet research to see if there are service manuals and/or instructional videos on servicing that particular model of sewing machine. My current sewing machine is a breeze to service, and it has saved me a ton of time, frustration, and money.
    – Monza
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 15:50

I am looking for a machine which would help me do basic stitches and hems on clothing and other thin materials.

Stay away from too much stitch variety. When looking for the basics in a machine, too many stitches mean more complicated electronics, which means more things can go wrong with the machine. The absolute basics of a machine:

  1. straight stitch
  2. zig zag stitch

These two stitches will do a majority of the work especially when starting out.

Any particular things I need to be looking for or testing?

Test the zig zag at the widest setting to see that the needle is always picking up the bobbin thread.

Tension should be adjustable, functioning and no parts are rusty.

Bring fabric samples with you to test the machine, as well as the proper needle size and point for the fabrics. Tension issues always start with the proper needle.

Is it clean? Look for build up of lint in the bobbin area - there should be none. Also ask if the machine was routinely oiled. When was the last time the owner brought it to the shop for a tune up?

What are the parts made from: metal or plastic and are they replaceable? This will help you negotiate price, metal parts would be more valuable as they are more durable. Name brand recognition can help you find out if the parts are replaceable and whether there is a local machine repair shop.

Can the flywheel move smoothly by hand and foot pedal? Are you comfortable with the speed? Can you control the needle action using the pedal at both at top speed and slowest speed?


It all depends on personal preference. E.G what are you actually looking to do? Are you wanting to embroid or quilt etc...

There is an interesting beginners guide on all the parts of a sewing machine here

That website also has guides on which sewing machine you need so its worth a look. But for a basic sewing machine if you do not have any specific requirements I would look for what the top commentor above has said which is:

Basic stitches - running stitch, zig zag, blind hem stitch Adjustable tension - to accommodate lighter fabrics Adjustable stitch length Reverse (almost all modern machines have it, it's just handy)

Hope this helped!


I'm a little more nostalgic, I would prefer a machine that will never wear out, and can always be repaired. I'm a person that prefers treadle machines. There are attachments to the machine that will do everything but a reverse. Newer-Old Singers I believe can do the reverse. The most popular is the "Feather Weight" model 22, and the slightly larger model 99. These machines were sold by the millions after WW2. When they did come out with the multi stitch machines in the 60's, they did not want to leave the older machines behind.

There is a blind hem attachment. There is a Button Hole Attachment. There are different "keys" for different sized button holes. My spouse had never seen a better buttonhole! I have over 40 keys. The zig zag attachment has a total of 20 different stitches. Plus you can adjust stitch length. There are 2 sets of Red Cams, 1 set of White, 1 set of Yellow, 1 set of Blue. Each set has 4 stitch cams in it.

I know there are other attachments, but these are easily available, usually, on eBay. I saw all 5 sets within a couple months, & haven't seen a blue or white in a couple years. All in the wind.

  • I tried to be specific and stated modern unit second hand. However I do like traditional tools and will likely ask another question for treadle as I am interested. They are usually expensive though. This answer does not go into detail of assessing a machine. It reads more as a personal affirmation with a list of machine accessories. Some information about how to test the machine and what to look for would be better.
    – Matt
    Commented Sep 11, 2016 at 2:56
  • 1
    I've used treadles most of my life. 2nd hand stores, thrift stores, antique stores, not so much, too heavy & too much space. I got both of mine at a Mennonite Thrift Store in Iowa City, IA. House sales/auctions, don't pay over $200, the top wheel should turn easily, everything the needle should go up/down. NO RUST ... walk away, it has sat in a moist basement too long! Collectorsweekly.com has quite a list, most pointing back to eBay. singeroriginalvintageproducts.com , sewing-machines.blogspot.com The Wiki for "Antique Sewing machines" My last, singersewinginfo.co.uk. good luck, JLH Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 22:02

Personally I'd buy an older Janome or Lemair. I have had both, and they are tough and reliable. I have made curtains for two houses etc. I’m sure other brands can be recommended. Speak with a sewing machine repair shop to guide your final choice.

I think you’ll need:

  • A strong enough inbuilt light

  • Be able to remove part of the machine, which then, because that section becomes narrower, allows you to say, sew a hem on trousers

  • An inbuilt thread cutter

  • A reverse function ( I’m sure y’all have that)

  • A bobbin rethreading design that is simple to use

  • Easy to thread

  • A foot pedal with a power cord long enough to not be annoying if you're sitting next to a high bench

  • Nice to have a lid that pops open and stores the range of feet

  • A bobbin loading system that is simple and fuss free. I’ve noticed they differ slightly, ie one was slightly more fiddly than the other

What you are sewing is also really important. With the right needle and a tough machine you can sew leather without dropping a single stitch (eg I made an ebook reader case out of an old pair of leather pants).

I think your biggest learning curve will be getting the thread tension right. Watch a video on that before you start.

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