Material Innovations: The New Breed of Sewing Machines

Best Buys in Computerized • Noncomputerized • Quilting • Embroidery

Laser technology, drawing tablets and an extra-large chassis might sound like innovations in surgery, computers or automobiles, but these features now are incorporated into sewing machines. What’s better yet, more models than ever before have eye-saving features, such as LED lighting and bigger color touch screens.

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After recently purchasing sewing machines for a class, American Sewing Guild Executive Director Margo Martin says she was blown away by the number of convenience features that have worked their way into entry-level machines.

If you haven’t looked at sewing machines in the past 3 years, you’ll notice that LED lighting, multineedle positioning—the capability to move the needle to the left or right of center—and automatic thread-cutters now are commonplace on models that cost as little as $200. Three years ago, you’d have paid at least $1,000 to get a sewing machine that had all three features. Further, a pattern of high-tech capabilities that take the guesswork out of the creation and placement of embroidery design has emerged on premium sewing machines.

If you’re looking for the most advanced quilting model, you should be prepared for some sticker shock, however. Three years ago, the top quilting sewing machine was about $4,000. Now at least one-quarter of the quilting models—eight—cost at least that much, and the top models in that category ring in at about $7,800.

Those top sewing machines come with on-board electronic manuals and tutorials, the fastest speeds in the industry—up to 1,100 stitches per minute (spm)—and the longest (6 millimeter) and widest (9 mm) stitches that are available. (Typically, stitch lengths and widths top out at 5 mm and 7 mm, respectively, and at a maximum speed of 800 spm.) One model even has an alarm clock and an energy-saving mode, which allows you to put the sewing machine in sleep mode, which is particularly helpful if you’re in the middle of your sewing project and you step away.

VISUAL WORLD. Advances in technology don’t stop there. Color LCD touch screens, which were a rare feature 3 years ago, now come standard on at least five manufacturers’ computerized sewing, embroidering and quilting machines. These screens, which replace small, monochromatic screens, control the sewing machine’s stitch and design-editing functions. One big plus that we found when we took these models for a spin: It’s easier to see and design embroidery—if you can see your way to paying at least $5,000 for a touch-screen model.

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Brother, which introduced an on-board camera on its Quattro in 2008, topped that in September 2011 by adding a built-in scanner on its Quattro 2. The scanner allows you to scan the fabric that’s inside of the embroidery hoop and then display the scanned image on the LCD screen. You drag the image of your design on the screen to the exact spot where you want the sewing machine to stitch, resize or rotate it as desired, then start to stitch at the touch of a button. This spares you from having to use grid guides to position your embroidery designs. Instead of having to trace your design in the hoop to see how large that it will be, what you see on the screen is precisely the size and how it will appear on your project.

This patented technology is standard on the Quattro 2 (if you own the previous-generation Quattro, you can get this via a software upgrade) and the Ellisimo Gold model by Baby Lock, which is a brand that Brother manufactures. You’ll pay about $10,000 for either of those models, and because Brother released a lineup of sewing machines in August 2012 that don’t include the camera, we believe that the scanner/camera combination will remain a high-end feature for the foreseeable future.

Another innovation that Brother added in August 2012 to the Quattro 2 and the Ellisimo Gold is a 10-inch electronic tablet screen onto which you can draw, write or trace an image. The sewing machine then transforms your drawing into an embroidery design, which spares you the time and effort of creating and digitizing designs in external software and then importing them into your sewing machine.

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