So, you want to know which sewing machine brand is the best? This is a question I am often asked, and one which can spark fierce debate amongst sewing machine enthusiasts. It is a very subjective question, and so when it comes to deciding which brand is best, in reality you have to consider that each is good at different things, and that certain brands will be better for different types of sewers.
Most of the major brands do differentiate themselves from others in certain ways (be it by their build quality, innovation, research and development, or their unique style, for example). In this article I take a look at the reputations of the different major household sewing machine brands.
The reputation of a brand is closely tied to its history, and so I cover a little bit of the history behind some of these brands as well. And I also will take a look at the different links which exist between the different brands themselves (you may be surprised by how many of them are owned by the same companies!).
Hopefully by the end of it, you should have a better idea of which sewing machine brand is the best for you. This is a rather long article, so feel free to jump around using the table of contents below!
I have covered the following brands: Bernina, Singer, Husqvarna Viking, Pfaff, Brother Janome, and Elna. Juki machines tend to be aimed at the industrial market rather than the household market, and so I have not included them here. I have also tried to focus on the brands which are most popular on the UK market, and so haven’t included Babylock for example.
The Big Brands
From my own experiences using sewing machines from different brands, but also based on the many discussions I have had with other sewing machine enthusiasts, I have built up over the years a sense of what each of the big sewing machine brands has to offer – a feel for what they are good at, and areas where they are slacking. Some brands also have unique features which you can’t find on other machines, which it is good to know about when shopping around.
Many of the big sewing machine brands have rich histories stretching back over a century. This history also plays a large role in defining the brand’s identity.
I’ll start with Bernina.
One of the four big sewing machine companies who have roots dating back to the 19th century, Bernina was founded in 1893 in Switzerland. The brand name Bernina takes its name from the Piz Bernina, a mountain in the Alps.
These days Bernina definitely has a reputation for high quality machines. In fact I would say it is the most respected brand in terms of quality. The company is one of few to still manufacture products in its country of origin. It has a factory in Switzerland, and since 1990 one in Thailand as well. The top range machines are manufactured in Switzerland, and unsurprisingly the entry level to mid-range machines are manufactured in Thailand.
The downside of Bernina sewing machines is that they tend to be a fair bit pricier than other brands. You get what you pay for, as they say!
Bernina has been an innovative company for much of its history. In 1963 it patented the first knee activated presser foot lifter. That innovative streak has carried through to the present day to some extent. The Bernina Stitch Regulator (BSR) is an example of this. BSR adjusts the machine’s stitching speed when doing free hand embroidery based on how fast you are moving the fabric, which gives you very consistent stitches. This feature is not available with any other brand, and is a good selling point for Bernina.
Surprisingly though, Bernina released their first embroidery only machine quite recently, in 2016, so BSR aside they might be a little behind the curve with embroidery machines compared to some other brands.
Singer is the only one of the big brands which started in the United States. It was a key player in the early development of the sewing machine in the 1850s. Singer is now owned by SVP Worldwide, which also owns the Husqvarna Viking and the Pfaff brands. SVP stands for Singer-Viking-Pfaff.
Older singer machines have a reputation for excellent build and quality. In fact vintage machines are still very much sought after these days. Singer had a factory in Clydebank, near Glasgow between 1882 and 1980. It was for a time the largest sewing machine factory in the world. Unfortunately it closed in 1980 due to financial difficulties. There is still a train station there called Singer though, which used to serve the factory!
The quality of Singer machines is not what it used to be. Singer has a reputation that newer machines tend to be of lower quality, and it hasn’t been able to shake it. Some people think the quality started to go downhill as early as the late 70s. I wonder if it started with the company’s financial difficulties in the 80s and 90s. Other people I have spoken to seem to think this may have begun when Singer factories moved over to China.
I believe most Singer machines are manufactured in China these days, in some cases subcontracted to third party manufacturers.
I should probably point out here that this quality issue does not necessarily apply to all models. With most brands different models have different quality issues, and the same applies to Singer. I am a fan of the heavy duty Singer models (great for thin and medium weight leathers), and you will find many very happy owners of other Singer models out there. And practically all of the big brands are cutting costs and have already moved manufacturing to low cost countries.
These days Singer has quite a few low cost models aimed at beginners, with slightly less focus on the top-of-the-range machines.
Known more commonly as Viking in the USA and as Husqvarna elsewhere, Husqvarna started manufacturing sewing machines in 1872. The Husqvarna company was originally a manufacturer of Swedish armaments, and branches of the original company are still associated with heavy machinery, like motorbikes and chainsaws!
This knowledge may have carried over into the sewing machine business, as their machines do tend to be highly rated for quality and build. I have also heard that their machines tend to be slightly quieter, although haven’t noticed this myself.
Since 2006 Husqvarna Viking brand, along with Pfaff and Singer, has been owned by the company SVP Worldwide.
Pfaff was founded in Germany in 1862, and like Singer and Husqvarna Viking, is now owned by SVP Worldwide.
Like Bernina, Pffaff has some unique innovations. The most sought after is the IDT Integrated Dual Feed Technology system. IDT is basically a walking foot integrated into your machine. Unlike a walking presser foot, the IDT system has the advantage that it can be used with other types of presser feet, and so can be used when you are sewing on a zip, for example.
As a result of this IDT technology, Pfaff is a brand often favoured by quilters, who deal with many layers of thick materials. Many people think that the IDT system is the main reason to learn towards Pfaff over other brands. However I have read that Pfaff’s patent for IDT has expired, and so other companies have launched similar technologies. An example is Janome’s AcuFeed system.
Pfaff sewing machines have a bit of a reputation for being complex, and are unlikely to be the best fit for beginners.
Brother these days is an enormous Japanese electronics company, but it started as a sewing machine company back in 1908. It has had a presence in the UK since 1968, when it bought the Jones sewing machine factory in Manchester. I believe this is still a Brother site to this day.
Most of the company’s sewing machines are manufactured in China, Taiwan and Vietnam these days though, sometimes by third party manufacturers.
Although Brother offers some very high end machine, the company has put in my opinion particular effort into conquering the entry-level consumers. Many different low cost models are available for purchase online, like the Brother LS14 and they tend to have more features than you would expect for similarly priced machines from other brands. As I discussed on this page about Brother machines, many different Brother models are very similar, and just have slight design changes.
I have the impression that Brother tend to use more plastic parts in their machines, which makes them more portable, but probably slightly less robust and durable.
Janome (pronounced Ja-NO-me with the emphasis on the NO) started as the Pine sewing machine factory in 1921, and was rebranded as Janome in 1954. The word Janome means snake’s eye in Japanese. The company was given this name based on its innovative design for a new round bobbin. These days Janome manufactures sewing machines in Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand. It even makes machines for other brands! Bear in mind that John Lewis sewing machines are made by Janome, and are generally of good quality (see the John Lewis JL110 and John Lewis Mini machines).
Janome has an excellent reputation, and is highly rated for quality. Their machines tend to be cheaper than Bernina’s as well, so they can be a good option for those after top quality but with a more limited budget.
Although a little late to the party, Janome also offers its AcuFeed technology system. It is similar to Pfaff’s IDT system, and which I believe was only launched after the Pfaff patent expired.
Elna was founded in Switzerland in 1934. It went through financial difficulties in the 1990’s, much like Singer did. In 2006 the company was bought by Janome.
Much like Janome, Elna machines tend to be of good quality.
Just in case you didn’t manage to read all of that, here are some cliff notes!
- Bernina and Janome are generally rated very highly for quality, Bernina in particular! They do tend to be more expensive though.
- Singer and Brother seem to target the entry-level sewer more these days. Some say that the quality of Singer machines has dropped in recent years.
- These are all generalisations of course! Each brand offers good and bad models. As such it makes sense to check out the reviews for different machines before buying!