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Walking into someone’s studio is a bit like walking into their mind. Surrounded by gadgets, guitars, color, and creative collage, I recently found myself in the workspace of Rob Appell: sewing machine expert, host of Man Sewing on YouTube, long-time friend, and personal source of sewing inspiration. Ogling his amazing quilts and sweet custom sewing machines, I almost forgot why I was there. You see, Rob was the focus of our latest installment of Fixers in Focus, and I was in his workshop to savvy myself to the art of sewing machine maintenance and repair. I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, Rob gave us so much information, we couldn’t pack it all into one video (or even one blog post). Fear not—I, your faithful scribe, have recorded Rob’s wisdom and will be sharing it with you.

So, what, exactly, did I learn? I’m glad you asked. But before I dive in, be sure to catch Rob’s amazing story on our YouTube channel:

Like almost everything else we’ve seen at iFixit, sewing machines aren’t really designed to last very long these days. Rob broke down the difference between the behemoths of yore and today's sleek, modern machines.

Old machines were basic (they are only capable of a few different kinds of stitches), but were made of high quality metal parts. An old machine will live a very, very long life—if it is properly cared for. New machines are made of plastic parts and so they suffer in terms of durability: they tend to last five to ten years at most, Rob says. But what they lack in durability, they make up for in features—new machines have a wider range of functions, allowing for more creative types of sewing.

New Sewing Machine Necessities:

Whether you’re going for old or new, here are Rob’s tips for buying a great sewing machine. (These first four tips are for the folks interested in buying new sewing machines. But we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of buying used later on.)

Buy high-end, but not generalized

In his shop, Rob has machines specifically for free-motion quilting, embroidery, and basic sewing—specific machines for specific jobs. A good rule of thumb: the more it does, the less it does well.

Plastic is not so fantastic

Look for a metal interior and high-quality parts. Avoid cheap, plastic machines where the case and chassis flex a lot. These machines are hard to work on and will break easily. If the case flexes, it can be near-impossible to get precision out of the machine. In general, the rule, according to Rob: “more plastic, less longevity.”

Find a machine with a front-loading bobbin

Drop-in bobbins have a greater amount of  “hook play” (or the amount the hook on the bobbin can move around). A lot of bobbins can fit in a drop-in bobbin—but they aren’t the right bobbin for the machine. While drop-in bobbins have an advantage in the event of a thread jam (drop-in bobbins simply jump out, making jams easier to deal with), they are far less precise. Rob likens it to snowboarding: you don’t want your foot to move in your boot, your boot to move in your binding, your binding to move your board; instead, you want everything to move smoothly as one entity. The same goes for a sewing machine. For the sake of precision and maintenance—a locking, front-loading bobbin is the way to go.

Bet on the Dealer

Buy from a sewing machine dealer who knows their stuff and can support you. A good dealer knows their product, knows a repair expert, and can talk about the durability of a machine. They will help you understand proper maintenance, support you in getting acquainted with your machine, and help you get the most out of it. A good dealer will also answer the questions you might forget or not even know to ask—and they will be very patient with the questions you do have.  

Used Sewing Machine Musts:

If you’re not really in the market for multiple machines, buying a workhorse isn’t bad. And used machines are a great way to get started sewing without a huge investment. But there are a few things you should look out for when buying a used machine.

Some assembly should not be required

Ensure that all parts are included! Machines may be missing key parts—such as the bobbin case and stitch plates. Finding parts for machines can be tough, especially for older machines. You’ll also want to make sure that the machine has all its screws. Many replacement screws need to be identical for the machine to really work well.

Take a test drive

Make sure the machine turns on and works. Even if you can’t test it with fabric and thread, taking the machine for a quick spin will give you a good idea of its condition. If it won’t turn on or can’t sew, pass it up. Sure, it could be an easy fix—but without a clear diagnosis, it’s hard to say what you’re getting yourself into.

No sticky hands (or feet)

Move the hand wheel and presser foot—if they are sticky, you could be looking at a dead machine. Of course, that stickiness could just be dried-up oil (an easy fix with a bit of lubrication). But it is tough to know with just a cursory test drive—even for an expert!  

Look for rust

If you see any rust, pass it up. A little rust may seem harmless, but it can be a big problem. Even if you buff off the rust, it will come back. Rust can kill a machine—not to mention your projects. Now, you’ve got the know-how—so get out there and find the machine of your dreams! And watch this space, sewing lovers. We’ll be back with more tips and tricks from Rob on how to maintain your newfound machine in another post soon.