My partner and I both have hobbies that can get expensive. His is cycling, which is by far the more healthy of the two. Mine is (obviously) sewing. Once you reach a certain threshold, each can be about as expensive as you’re willing to make them—and dedicated hobbyists of either are often willing to go quite expensive to get the best gear. The two hobbies actually have a lot of financial similarities—especially when it comes to the cost of machines. So here it is: the cyclists guide to sewing machines, or, how to understand why that $5,000 sewing machine is just important to your sewist’s hobby as your $5,000 bike is to yours.
The discount store machine
Once upon a time—not so long ago, in fact—Schwinn was a household name. It was a name that screamed quality. The American Dream in bike form. Schwinn made great bikes. Now they’re reduced to being sold in Walmart and other discount stores, a mere ghost of what they once were. Schwinn road bikes can generally be purchased in the $150–900 range. They get you from point A to point B, but they’re made with cheap components and clunky, heavy geometry.
Similar to Schwinn, Singer was the household name for sewing machines for over a century. Issac Singer, the company’s namesake, created the first commercially successful machine in the early 1850s. His company’s products continued to be known for quality and staying at the forefront of technological advances. At least, until the later part of the 20th century came along. Now, Singer is fast becoming the Schwinn of sewing machines. Their cheap models can be found at discount stores across the country for under $200. Their nicer machines fall in the $200–1000 range, but even those aren’t the high-quality all-metal-gear technologically-advanced machines Singer was once known for. This isn’t to say they are worthless machines—I currently own a Singer and they still have the majority of the market share—but the dedicated hobbyist with a Singer is just biding her time until she can afford the next step up. Other brands in this category include Kenmore and Brother.
The entry-level machine
For the rider who is really interested in putting miles down on the pavement, the cheapest place to start is with one of the $600–$1,500 entry-level bikes available from brands like Trek and Specialized. That will get you a somewhat light aluminum frame, maybe a carbon fiber fork, and an okay group set. It won’t be the best bike out there on the road, but it’s an improvement over the discount store bike. It’ll shift pretty smoothly and handle the road better. If you buy it from the right store, you’ll be assured that it was built correctly and you’ll have access to knowledgeable salespeople and mechanics.
For the sewist who is really dedicated to putting stitches down on fabric and creating amazing products—be they quilts, clothing, home dec, or whatever else—the place to start are the $600–$1,500 entry-level computerized machines available from brands like Husqvarna Viking and Bernina. These machines have metal parts that hold up better than the plastic ones in cheaper brands. They have some simple fancy options. They sew smoothly and handle what you throw at them a little better than the discount store machines. Like an entry-level bike, these machines should be purchased from a good store with knowledgeable salespeople who can steer you toward a good repair shop. Other quality brands that offer entry level machines include Pfaff and Janome.
The competition machine
The rider that is putting down 4,000 mi a year on a bike probably isn’t rolling on a Trek 1.2 or a Specialized Allez. Someone putting down that many miles is going to go for a high-end bike. Whether they’re looking for comfort on centuries or speed in races, light-weight components and fine-tuned geometry are important. You can spend anywhere from $3,000 to $20,000 on a high end bike. The same brands that make entry level machines also have models like the Madone and the Tarmac—bikes that have won the Tour de France. Bikes that run in the thousands for just the frame alone. This category also includes foreign brands like Pinarello, Cervelo, and many others.
For the dedicated sewist who wants to expand her craft, entry-level machines don’t cut it. They just don’t have all the options. That’s where the $2,000+ machines come in. They have the high-quality metal parts found in the entry level machines, but have better stitching, more options, and advanced computerized interfaces. Some of them automatically adapt to the type of fabric being used, removing the need to change the tuning on the machine to handle it. Just think—how cool would it be for your cassette to automatically adjust to the proper gear ratios for hills vs a long flat ride? The more expensive machines generally have embroidery options as well, with ways to interface with your computer to allow almost endless options for creativity. Cyclists want to go faster and longer. Sewists want to create more intricate, embellished projects.
The rain/training machine
Once you reach the level of owning a $5,000 racing bike, it is quite painful to take it out on the wet, dirty, oily roads. Thinking of damaging your super-light race wheels on a stray pothole brings tears to your eyes, and replacing the race-level tires every 1,500 mi gets costly. So, most cyclists at that level keep a rain/training bike. It might be the entry-level bike you started out with or your last frame with cheap componentry, 32-spoke wheels and touring tires, but whatever it is, it’s what you bring out when the elements are going to beat it up.
The sewist often has her own rain machine. A older machine, often with fewer options, sits packed away until she needs to work on something that might hurt her precious competition machine. For instance, when she needs to sew fleece, which has fuzz that gets everywhere and gums up the mechanics if you don’t clean the machine after. Or when sewing heavy materials that put a lot of stress on the machine. Or to teach someone how to sew on—after all, sewing machines don’t need to to be adjusted to fit the user. It’s the machine that gets ridden hard with the thought that if something happens, at least it wasn’t the expensive machine.
The time trial/specialty machine
Truly dedicated cyclists aren’t content with their single bike (or two bikes, including the rain bike). They start wanting things like a time trial/tri bike, with its special geometry that’s all about aerodynamics for short, high-energy sprints. They might have a bike built up solely for riding in hills, or one geared for flats. These machines are built for specific purposes. They may be less-used than the main machine, but they are just as important to the overall experience of cycling. Sure, you can go out to a time trial on a normal road bike with aero bars, but an aero bike and the appropriate gear will help you shave minutes off your time.
Sewing has its own specialty machines. There are sergers or overlock machines, which use multiple threads and needles to make quick, finished seams and sew knits with ease. This is often the second machine added to a sewist’s lineup. There are stand-alone embroidery machines rather than the sewing/quilting/embroidery systems described above. There are heavy-duty machines that have limited options and are made to sew denim, leather, and other heavy fabrics or are for extremely heavy use, such as in a professional tailor’s shop. Very serious sewists and professionals will have multiple machines configured for different tasks, such as one set up strictly for quilting, another for a certain type of sartorial sewing and a third for some other sartorial task. Large quilting machines are also available that can be programmed in different ways to automatically quilt the backing, batting and quilt top together.
While a bike is the main component to cycling, that’s not all you need. A helmet, bike shorts and jersey, gloves and shoes are all additional gear needed for cycling. As with bikes, each bit of gear comes in many different brands, styles and levels of quality, not to mention price. Sewing is no different. Your $100 Giro helmet with all its vents is better than the $30 Bell one. Likewise, the $80 Gingher shears (scissors, for the layman) are better than the $30 Fiskar ones for your sewist. Sewing has its own gear, called notions. Things like pins, needles, thread, drafting tools—they all allow a sewist to be good at her craft. Where cyclists have to replace brakes, chains, tires, tubes and cassettes after riding a certain number of miles, sewists need to buy fabric for their different projects.
A true hobbyist will learn to work with whatever machine is available. Like the racer who won a 75km road race on a hardtail mountain bike, skill can make you successful with the tools you have, but the higher-end tools make the job easier, more enjoyable, and allow you to push harder toward the limits you think exist. You can sew by hand—you don’t need a machine at all—but to continue pushing yourself to create new and better things, sometimes you have to spend a little more money. For now, Carl’s out there on his Madone 5.9, and I have my Singer (and a Trek 1.2), but that’s only because once you’ve had the discount model, you want to jump straight to the high-end, and the $6,000 machine I lust after is a commitment I can’t yet afford, to be sure.
Of course, there is one difference in cost between cycling and sewing: electricity isn’t exactly cheap, but the asphalt is free. C’est la vie.