Sunday, October 20, 2013

Picking an Embroidery Machine - Part 1

It is that magical time just before Halloween where procrastinators like me want everything embroidered for their costume, and the early planners want to know how to embroider names on to Christmas stockings.  I get a ton of questions around this time from folks looking to get a sewing machine or an embroidery machine for the first time.  That means I get to write a blog post to answer questions!

Sewing Machines

There are tons of blogs and sites out there where you can read about all the different sewing machines and why one brand is better than another brand.  You can also find rants about one brand or another brand of sewing machine or how the users of Machine A are new to sewing and how experienced sewers use Machine B.  This annoys me actually, because out of the many, many sewing machines I have had or used, I never actually ran across a bad one.  I'll probably get some flack for this, but sewing machine functionality hasn't changed much since the first time a motor was stuck to a Singer in the very late 1800's, and an electric conversion on the hand cranked Singers became widely available in the 1920's. (some other time we can argue about vibrating bobbins vs. rotary hooks or chain stitch vs lock stich. Anyway, When you are picking out a sewing machine, below are the steps I suggest when you are trying to figure out what machine to buy. To be fair, this same process can be used for buying pretty much anything, and I use it all the time; from buying a car to buying lunch.

First and foremost, set your budget.  Keep in mind that a more expensive machine is not necessary a better one, so to get the most for your money, you don't need the most expensive machine you can afford.  If you have never done your own sewing before, you have the very first choice that can effect the whole process:  Do you want to go 'all in' or do you want to 'try it out' before investing in being able to sew your own stuff.  If you are 'trying it out' to see if you like sewing, you probably do not want to start with an expensive machine that you will not use after the first weekend.   When making your budget, make sure to include enough for thread, needles, and bobbins.  If you do not have any thread currently, I suggest that you put aside at least $100 for thread, needles, & bobbins. After a few months of use, you will also need to have some money in your budget for maintenance items such as machine oil, so save about $30 for those maintenance items.  They are not needed at the same time as the machine as the machine will usually have a decent selection when you purchase it.  Later on you will probably also want a sewing cabinet, thread storage, and lots of little things that make sewing easier, but are not strictly required.  Keep in mind that you will probably spend every penny that you set aside at some point, so setting a budget is easily the most important step.  If you are 'trying it out' I suggest a minimum budget of $180 with a machine in the $80 range, but if you are planning to do sewing for a while, I suggest a minimum of $350 with $150 spent on the machine itself, $100 for thread and such, and set aside $100 for later for the things you determine you can't do without such as a sewing cabinet.

Now that you have your budget set, you need to decide what are the most important features for the machine to have.  Some features will be 'must haves' for you, while others will be 'would be nice'.  For example, most of the higher end machines will have a button hole setting which makes button holes a snap to make.  But buttonholes can be made just fine using other stitches on the machine, it will just take longer.  If you plan on making a ton of button holes, a button setting is probably a 'Must Have'.  Spend the time now to figure out the features you need and want, and put them in a list when you go on to the next step.  This will help narrow down the machines to a manageable list.

Now that you have your feature list and you have several machines which will fit your budget, you need to decide on which of those is better for you personally.  For me, the 3rd most important thing is support from the seller. Research online and talk to other customers that have purchased from the seller if possible. See the kind of support that is given when something breaks or someone needs help.  Are they ignored and told to 'read the manual' or is the support personal or with hands on guidance? this step will usually weed out a few of the machines from the possibilities you have, or narrow down where to buy the machine.

Next up is research on the brand. I am going to get some more flack for this, but in today's world a brand doesn't mean as much as it used to.  For example, Singer used to be the only brand for sewing machines that actually mattered.  That changed about 15 years ago when Singer licened their brand and stopped actually making or designing the machines.  Their quality and support went way down to attempt to drive their profit up.  Now, a Singer is (to me anyway) at the bottom of the brand list.  Spending time researching a brand, determining who makes and designs the machines and listening to the folks that use recent machines of the brand is important.  This research probably isn't a deal breaker on a machine, but if you have several choices, this will help one or 2 machines come to the top of the list.

Embroidery Machines

Choosing an embroidery machine is very similar to choosing a sewing machine.  Set your budget, determine features, research the brand, and determine where to buy it.  However, unlike sewing machines, there are not a lot of places where you can get a real-world primer on doing embroidery and all the little finagley bits of stuff you need to do embroidery.  So I am going to focus on the features of embroidery machines and the non-machine little bits you will need to get started on embroidery. Up today is features! What features are critical on an embroidery machine?  There are probably only 3 that are deal breakers for specific machines.

The first one may sound a bit weird, which is do you want to sew on your embroidery machine?  A huge number of embroidery machines are embroidery only, you can't use them to do regular sewing.  If you already have a sewing machine, this won't matter.  But if dropped your regular sewing machine down a flight of stairs (which I did) or are looking at getting a new machine because you left the old one accidentally when you moved (which I did) then you probably want a combination machine so you can do both tasks.  You may also be space-limited where having 2 machines is a pain because you don't have somewhere to store both.

The second feature is how big the machine can embroider.  Technically, an embroidery machine can embroider infinite size if you take out the fabric, line it up, and embroider the next section.  In practical terms, getting the alignment correct is pretty much impossible once unhooping fabric.  With very few exceptions, that places an upper bound on how big you can embroider on any given machine.  Most entry level machines will have a maximum size of 100mm by 100mm (about 4" by 4").  This is enough space to go 3 letter monogramming, and it is also the most popular size you will find when looking for embroidery designs.  What I can tell you is that whatever machine you get, you will want a bigger hoop size the instant you embroider your first thing.  You will want to go bigger and bigger, and will be sad if you can't go to 5" or 6" or 10".  It doesn't matter what size you get, you will want a bigger one.  Having said that though, at least 90% of what I personally embroider is under 100mm.  Here is where I will make my first recommendation: get the biggest embroidery field you can afford, even if you think you will never use it.  Trust me, you will use it.  My biggest machine right now can do 12" by 18", and I still want a bigger one.

The last feature that is critical is if the embroidery machine supports loading custom designs via USB or something similar.  Lots of entry level machines will not support adding custom designs downloaded or bought elsewhere.  Some machines also require that you use a brand-specific loading device such as an embroidery card or something similar.  This adds additional cost for you, and more profit for the company making the machine.  If you plan on doing more than monogramming, you require a machine that can load custom designs.  If you plan on doing lots of custom designs, then you want a USB loading process for ease of use and low cost.

Those are the 3 things that will filter out the largest number of machines from a machine list.  Next up are features that are not required, but will make life a lot easier.

Automatic Thread Cutter - this will automatically cut the thread at the end of sewing a color instead of hand cutting it.  When sewing a design with 10 colors, cutting it by hand will get very annoying very quickly.  I highly recommend getting a machine with automatic thread cutting.

Bobbin Winder - An embroidery machine with a bobbin winder isn't as important as you may think at first glance.  First, the color of the bobbin thread doesn't matter as it can not be seen.  In general, it can only be found in 2 colors: black and white. An embroidery machine also eats up bobbin thread like there is no tomorrow, so you will be winding bobbins a ton compared to a regular sewing machine.  You will use so many bobbins that you will probably buy them prewound.  Prewound bobbins cost about $30 for 144 (a gross) with each bobbin having around 120 yards of thread for a total of about 17 thousand yards of thread per gross.  17 thousand yards of thread costs about $15 if bought in king spools. Then, add the time cost of winding it on bobbins (about a minute per bobbin) which for a gross would be more than 2 hours. Buying prewound bobbins for $30, or winding your own for around $15 plus 2 hours of your time; up to you.   For me, the choice was easy, I went prewound after winding about 30 bobbins, even back when I was buying them from a sewing store for about a dollar a bobbin.  Buying a gross lowered the cost to about 20 cents each. in all likelihood, you will not use a bobbin winder on an embroidery machine.

Multi-hoop capability - Some machines have optional hoops you can buy that will let you do larger than the maximum size that the machine can do normally.  For example, a 100mm by 100mm max machine may have a multi-point hoop available that will go to 100mm by 180mm.  The hoop has multiple points on it so you break an embroidery design up into pieces and sew it individually without removing the hoop from the fabric.  This fixes the 'impossible to align' problem I spoke of earlier.  The biggest gotcha here is that not just any design can be split, the design has to be built that way.

Stitch speed - Here's another option that doesn't matter much.  I have had a plethora of embroidery machines and different stitch speeds.  from 300 to 1100 stitches per minute.  The max speed doesn't matter much, because most machines can only hit their maximum speed on super small stitches.  For example, my SE400 has a stitch speed of 350 stitches per minute and my PE770 will do 650 stitches per minute. If I make Rainbow Dash, the total time on the SE400 is 59 minutes and only PE770 it is 54 minutes.  There is very little difference in the total time spent embroidering.

Compatibility on upgrade - If you are getting an entry level machine, there is the possibility that you will want to upgrade later.  Check if the accessories that your machine uses can also be used on the next few steps up of machine if you decide to upgrade.  The biggest expenses that won't move to a new machine easily is probably embroidery hoops, so if you upgrade you want to reuse those on the upgraded machine if possible. this is another thing to bring up with where you decide to get your machine; see if they have a trade-in policy.

I have only gone over a small fraction of embroidery machine capabilities, but this should help you get started.  Way more to come!