Anyone who hasn't sewn a single seam since their long-past schooldays will find that machines today do almost everything but make the clothes for you. The more expensive machines - which can cost up to pounds 2,000 - have computers which choose the stitch length and width (eg, for zigzag or overcast stitching) and sewing speed for you and memorise complex embroidery designs that use scores of different stitches.
The selection of machines we've tested is more likely to suit someone who wants to do fairly basic dressmaking. The simplest machines do relatively few stitches; as they become more expensive, the machines can do a wider range of stitches and have such features as the facility to make buttonholes in one single operation.
We asked a group of students and staff from the Higher National Diploma course in fashion at the London College of Fashion to try out the machines and give their judgement on which are the easiest to use and have the best features.
The prices quoted here for all the machines except the Elna are manufacturers' recommended prices (Elna has no recommended retail price, so the usual shop price is given). In reality, most other sewing machines are sold at considerable discounts, and you may even find them at half the price quoted here.
Justin Brogan, Alan Cannon Jones, Jacqueline Staple, Graham Tuckett, Kitu Patel: all from the London College of Fashion.
The panel gave the machines ratings for how easy they were to carry and set up, how convenient they were to use, how comprehensive the instructions were, the range of features, and value for money.
**SINGER CONCERTO 4
This computerised model has a liquid crystal display window that gives users information about what they are doing, such as what stitch the machine is set at. It has 23 types of stitch, including decorative stitches for embroidery. Most of the panel did not find the machine especially convenient to use, however. "It sews beautifully, but it is complicated to use," said Kitu Patel. Alan Cannon Jones, however, disagreed. "The machine is well made with a robust casing. It had the best instruction booklet and it is easy to thread. This would easily take a range of fabrics," he said. "This is a machine for the more enthusiastic sewer or embroiderer. The reverse lever was hard to use," commented Jacqueline Staple.
**BROTHER STAR 3
This machine sews 15 types of stitch, has an automatic one-step buttonholer and a bobbin which is loaded from the top. It was fairly popular with our panel. "Easy to read stitch selector," said Jacqueline Staple. "Good shape, smooth operation, good instructions, easy to use," said Alan Cannon Jones, though he found the bobbin space "small and fiddly". Graham Tuckett was unsure how long the back-tack switch would last.
This basic machine with 11 types of stitch was one of the least popular. The panel found it less easy to set up and use, and the instructions less easy to understand than those of other machines. "Inconvenient to wind bobbin as accessories' box has to be taken off," said Graham Tuckett. "Old style, heavy to use, with basic sewing features. The instruction book is just adequate. But it's probably reliable," was Alan Cannon Jones's verdict. "An average sewing machine.I don't like the idea of having to take out the accessories' tray to change the bobbin," commented Jacqueline Staple.
The panel liked this streamlined model, which has 16 types of stitch and a top-loading rotary hook to make it easier to load the bobbin and see if it is running out. It scored well all round, except on how convenient it was to carry and set up. "A nice machine for the average home user," commented Jacqueline Staple. "Good smooth runner. Very clear instructions," said Graham Tuckett. "Very smooth to operate and easy to thread," said Alan Cannon Jones. Like the other Toyota, this has an automatic four-step buttonhole feature.
*JANOME JD 1818
The panel did not find this very convenient to use or think that the instructions were easy to follow. It was convenient to set up and carry, though. "Old-fashioned styling; this machine has basic but adequate features," said Alan Cannon Jones. "A bit clumsy on the sewing motion," commented Graham Tuckett. "Basic and easy to use," thought Jacqueline Staple, while Kitu Patel was unimpressed with the stitching. The machine does one-step buttonholes and 18 types of stitch.
pounds 445 (usual shop price)
This machine was the clear winner in our test, popular on all counts. It has a computerised panel which lets you change stitch at the touch of a button. The panel thought it had very good features, including one that lets you set the needle so that it either clears the fabric when the machine stops or stays in the fabric when turning a corner. "A very nice all-round machine," commented Jacqueline Staple. "Very good all-round features, some usually found only on industrial machines. Great design, smooth running," said Justin Brogan. Kitu Patel was particularly impressed by the indicator light that shows which stitch the machine is set at.
NEXT WEEK: DRILLS
COMPILED BY STELLA YARROW