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CR picks top models of sewing machines

February 11, 2009

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Television shows like “Project Runway” and “Trading Spaces” have introduced sewing to a generation that never took home economics. Consumer Reports recently tested 18 sewing machines and found seven standouts.

Singer, synonymous with sewing, leads in sales but not in CR’s tests. Sewing machines from Brother, Bernina and almost everyone else did better. The Singer sewing machines that CR tested were easy to use and relatively inexpensive, but sewing performance was only fair to average, a drop from tests in years past. Its $950 embroidery machine, the Singer Quantum Futura CE-250, was slow, and the software had glitches that could ruin a project.

Many electronic sewing machines have touchpad controls and recommend the best stitch, settings, presser foot and more based on the material. All the electronic models CR tested were easy to use and have a programmable memory to save stitch and letter settings. Quilters should consider the $1,350 Bernina Activa 230PE, which combined fine quilting with excellent sewing. The $900 Janome Memory Craft 6600P trades some sewing prowess for a lower price.

A ‘Runway’ model

It’s not every day that a sewing machine upstages a supermodel. But the consumer version of the Brother machine used on “Project Runway” turned heads in CR’s test labs. On this popular TV show hosted by supermodel Heidi Klum, aspiring fashion designers compete against one another.

But the competition in CR’s tests was even fiercer. Testers pitted the $400 Brother Innov-is 40 Project Runway Limited Edition, one of CR’s top performers and a CR Best Buy, against machines costing up to $2,200. The Innov-is 40 did a very good job on satin, medium-weight wool, sheer and stretchy fabrics, and buttonholes. It wasn’t as adept at sewing through layers of denim or at quilting. Its stitch selector was very easy to use, and it also has an automatic needle threader, variable speed control, an on/off button and thread cutters that minimize tangling. Now that’s a supermodel.

How to choose

All models CR tested can handle straight seams and zigzag stitches; many offer more than 100 stitches. Match the machine to the tasks that will be performed — basic repairs and alterations, frequent projects or quilting and embroidering. Beginners and intermediates should consider buying a bit more machine than they need because their skills and interest might grow.

• Take a test-drive. Independent dealers will usually let shoppers try the machine in the store. So take a project or at least a few fabrics. If tryouts aren’t allowed, ask about returns.

• Never pay full price. Save by searching for online coupons and asking about upcoming sales, trade-in allowances and interest-free financing. Don’t be shy about negotiating with dealers and asking for free sewing lessons.

• Learn about repair polices. Many dealers offer in-store service. If not, they’ll send customers to a repair center or to the manufacturer. No matter who will do the repairs, ask about turnaround time, which can vary from days to weeks. Remember that repairs made by technicians who are not factory-authorized can void the manufacturer’s warranty. And keep the machine’s box and packaging, in case it needs to be shipped for repairs.

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