When I was researching what sewing machine to buy, I found sewing machine reviews by users to be tremendously helpful. Hearing different experiences and perspectives really helped shape my decision, so I wanted to contribute my experience to the mix to help others in the same situation.
In January 2015 I decided to buy a new sewing machine to complement my mechanical machine from the mid-80s. The old machine, a Simplicity 8220, doesn’t do an automatic buttonhole (either because the foot is broken or because of some other internal issue) and I often have tension issues with it. It’s a good machine to keep as a back-up because it’s solidly made, and one day I’d like to play around with bobbin work, which should be a good fit for its front-loading bobbin. But for day-to-day sewing it was giving me enough frustration to want to upgrade.
What I wanted in a new sewing machine
A few weeks of intense research — reading blog posts, scouring patternreview.com, reading any reviews I could get my hands on, re-reading blog posts — led me to a few conclusions:
- A list of requirements and nice-to-have features helps when shopping.
- Buying at a local independent dealer is a smart move because they’ll be there for support.
- Buying a machine made in the U.S. wasn’t in the cards.
- It doesn’t matter so much which brand I buy, as long as it feels right to me.
The things I required of my new machine were:
- reliable, long lasting, solid machine
- smooth sewing
- consistent tension
- adjustable sewing speed
- several buttonhole options (standard, rounded one side, rounded both sides, eyelet, stretch)
- sew through denim and thick layers
- removable extension table (free arm)
- several needle positions for flexibility
- something I can grow into
- stitches backwards easily and smoothly
- ability to use twin needle on knits
- even fabric feed
- drop the feed dogs
- automatic 1-step buttonhole foot
And my nice-to-have features included:
- automatic tie-off
- large sewing space right of needle
- high presser foot lift
- automatic thread cutting
- free-motion stitching
My shopping experience and a first attempt with a new sewing machine
At my first visit to a local dealer, (where I was happy to learn that all of the new machines meet my feature requirements) I moved quickly from a low- to mid-level Brother that had many positive reviews and quickly became enamored with the Pfaff Ambition line. The design of these machines was right up my alley: impeccable details with a more refined, subtle look than most of their non-Pfaff counterparts. And they come with IDT, a built-in technology that is similar to a walking foot.
After obsessing for a few days, I made another visit to a dealer and came home with the Ambition 1.0. For me, it was an odd mix of excitement and intimidation. I was so afraid of messing it up somehow, by doing the wrong thing, or using the wrong settings or something. This apprehension was heightened when I encountered several issues:
- occasional loops in the stitches that I’d never experienced before — not a tension issue that I could fix but something more sporadic and mysterious than that
- a broken needle due to a faulty blind hem foot (requiring a couple of visits to the shop)
- tension issues when using topstitching thread on corner seams
- a broken needle while making a buttonhole (which caused a strange noise in the bobbin area, requiring another visit to the shop)
- the IDT system didn’t actually keep the fabric layers even when I used it
When I bought the Ambition, I told the dealer about my nervousness regarding choosing the right machine for me, and was reassured that I had a month to exchange it for another machine if it didn’t work out. As my first month with it ended, it became clear to me that I wasn’t comfortable with it and needed to go with something else. I don’t think it was a poor machine, but rather wasn’t the right fit for me. A more experienced sewer would probably have a much different experience than me, but I was just too stressed about it and couldn’t make it behave.
Trading for a better fit
The other brand I had been seriously considering besides Pfaff was Baby Lock. People really love their Baby Locks! I read story after story of how user-friendly they are and that people find them a joy to use. The number one drawback for me was the style of them. The Pfaff was just so…beautiful. The Baby Locks look…well, not like the Pfaff. While this seems like a petty complaint, my concern was that the design out of the insides would match the design of the outside.
Then I sat down and experienced the Baby Lock Elizabeth. It really was a joy to use! All of my worries about the way it looked went out the window and I felt an instant connection with it. The longer I sat at it and tried out different features and attachments, the more it appealed to me.
In the five months since I made the switch to the Elizabeth, I haven’t had any regrets.
A machine that’s easy to start with but also provides room for growth
My first big project on the new machine was to sew my way through School of Sewing by Shea Henderson, which includes 12 accessory and decor projects. This machine did very well with almost all of these projects which were primarily comprised of quilting fabrics and a variety of interfacings. It struggled during the Pleated Purse project when there were 12 layers (4 quilting cotton layers + 8 woven interfacing layers) and I had to turn the hand wheel through some sections. I’ve been told this isn’t abnormal. The quilt project was challenging (the size was unwieldy) on this machine, but I’m not entirely surprised by this because there are other Baby Locks that specialize in quilts — this one is marketed more for garments, home decor, and accessories.
I’m also using it to sew garments with woven, knit, and denim fabrics. When sewing a denim test swatch, I had to use the hand wheel to get over a 6-layer seam. It may be that I need to pull out my old mechanical machine for heavy layers of denim, but for me that will be infrequent and the generous number of features on the Elizabeth make it worth it to me even with this inconvenience.
What I love about the Baby Lock Elizabeth
- the tension is easy to work with, and takes very little fiddling to get it balanced
- automatic thread cutter
- the variable speed has a big range — it goes from very slow to very fast
- the special long basting stitch
- it comes with a huge number of feet (13) and accessories (including an eyelet punch)
- the walking foot (this worked so much better for me than the IDT)
- the manual is thorough, and better for beginners than the Pfaff manual
- the memory key, which is super convenient and helpful when I have a few stitches I’m switching between on a project (such as 2 or 3 needle position/stitch length settings when lining up quilting rows)
- the choice of either an automatic locking stitch or back stitch on a handful of stitches
- it’s easy to find inexpensive feet for the low-shank snap-on configuration — the feet from my Simplicity fit on it, which was nice because I had an edge joining foot and invisible zipper for it that I’m able to use on the Elizabeth
What I’d improve with the Baby Lock Elizabeth
- the lighting: after experiencing the Ambition’s 3 lights, the lighting on the Elizabeth is rather weak
- the thread spool position: it would be nice to have a built-in vertical spool pin position for use with larger spools
- smoother threading path: sometimes when I’m threading the machine the thread gets caught in the path and it’s difficult to pull through smoothly, especially with a heavier weight thread
I’m very happy with the Elizabeth. It’s not a perfect machine, but it’s a good match for me overall and it’s a pleasure to sew with it.