Let's talk general machines for a minute
There a a ton of brands out there in the sewing world. Janome, Bernina, Singer, Husqvarna, White, Viking, Babylock, and the list could go on. Sewing machines are a lot like cars. There are a lot of different manufacturers out there, and different options give you different price points. In the sewing world some brands (like White, Singer, etc) are considered more like Fords. They get you where you need to go, but they don't have a lot of bells and whistles. Others, like Bernina, are considered the BMW's. They get you to your destination, with heated leather seats, navigation, sound system, etc. Others are like the Toyota's or Honda's. They get you were your going, and will get you there even after 200,000 miles. You need to pick the features you want on a machine, just like when you picked your vehicle. All of that is personal opinion. And to clarify, I'm not knocking any cars or machines.
That being said, there are several features that I feel are ESSENTIAL to make you better at sewing. Features that time after time seem to make a big difference. Some of these features are offered on the machines down at Target or Walmart. Some are not. You don't have to buy at $12,000 machine to get these features. You may have to pay more than $100, but really not that much more. So lets get started!
SPEED CONTROLThe most common complaint I hear from people is about that tricky little foot pedal. You barely push down and your machine takes off like a bat outta hell. There is an option on machines called speed control. Its usually a little sliding button that can be adjusted manually from very very very slow to super sonic speed (well, maybe not that fast). Its a beautiful thing when you are trying to sew around a tricky corner or topstitch very evenly on a seam to be able to go slooooooooow and make sure every stitch counts. Likewise, if you are doing a long drape panel and wanna tear through that seam in a minute or two, crank it up! I like to tell people its a lot like learning to drive. When you are teaching your 16 year old to drive, you don't shove them in a car, set cruise on 70 mph and tell them to go to town. You start out slow on country roads. You practice getting the feel of the foot pedal, to see how touchy it is. You ease into it. Sewing should be the same. For people who have never sewn before a needle going up and down super fast right next to their fingers can cause a lot of anxiety. Slowing it down makes it less nerve wracking. I've been sewing for a long time (over 2 decades peeps) and I don't have a single machine that doesn't offer this feature. It is my favorite. I use it ALL the time.
NEEDLE UP/DOWNAnother feature I enjoy is the needle up/down button. it is usually a button on the machine near the speed control slider. If your needle is down and you press the button it raises, and vice versa. Usually there is another function on the machine where you can choose if the machine always leaves the needle down (or up) when you stop the foot pedal. I prefer to leave mine down. It stabilizes the material, holds your place, and makes turning corners easy. I love being able to push the button when I am done, pop up the needle and slide out my fabric. My Janome Magnolia and 9500 both have this feature, as does my Singer. My Bernina 730 only has the option of setting the needle to stop up or down. If I want to raise it or lower it there is no button. It is located at the bottom of the foot pedal instead. This drives me batty. My hands naturally gravitate to where I think it should be on the machine.
DECORATIVE STITCHESI'm gonna be honest and tell you, unless you are sewing heirloom garments, 9 times out of 10 you are not going to need to have over 20 stitches. They are nice to have, but in all honesty they are rarely used. The basics stitches will suit you just fine 99% of the time. The straight stitch will be used the majority of the time. You can sew seams and topstitch with it. The zig zag stitch is a little bit fancy looking, but can be adjusted so you can make satin stitches (the decorative edge around appliqués). This takes a bit of practice, but isn't that hard to do. The stitches that have the dashes/spaces in them (usually a straight and zig zag) are fabulous for sewing on knit fabric. That little skipped dash/space allows for the knits to stretch like they are intended too. A button hole-- If you are brave enough to put on buttons, the simple button hole is great. For some reasons button holes freak people out, but really they are very easy to do. The blind hem is also another tricky stitch people fear, but is also pretty easy. Its handy for not leaving stitches visible. Perfect for drapery or hemming dress pants. All of the stitches can be taught by watching videos on you tube.
CLASSESIf you buy your machine at Joann's, Walmart or Target, you won't get classes with it. If you buy your machine at a dealer, chances are your gonna get at least one. Machines from a dealer tend to be a little more money than from the big box stores. However, if you can't figure out why your machine isn't doing what you want, you can usually stop in and if its something simple they will probably help you out quickly. If your new to sewing and they offer classes, even better! Its a great way to get acquainted with your machine and feel comfortable after a demonstration of its capabilities. There is something to be said about establishing a relationship with a dealer. Sometimes you need them to be your friend. Like the time I had a special order quilt and my son cut my foot cord pedal. They didn't have any in stock, it would be a week. The quilt was a last minute order with rush delivery. I knew the manager enough to ask in a nice voice if he would loan me a foot pedal from one of the floor models. He happily obliged. He is still one of my favorite managers ever. That said, I don't have a local Bernina dealer. This has worked towards my disadvantage many times. For the most part I have been able to fix my problems or learn new things by watching youtube or googling the issue. If you are a hands on person who can take instruction in that manner then having a local dealer may not be a deal breaker for you.
So there's my own personal opinion. I've been sewing since before I could drive and am now in my glorious (late) 30's. I have 5 machines and love them all. This seems to be a question I get a lot when people find out that I am a seamstress. These are even things I wish I would have told someone before they bought the machine they complain to me about. Take it for what its worth, it's just an opinion. Buying a machine is a lot like a car (AGAIN!). You might enjoy the Camry or you might prefer the Accord. Get out and test drive them!
So what is your favorite function? Do you have an opinion on sewing machines? I would love to hear what you think!