A sewing machine is probably the most important piece of equipment you’ll purchase as an upholsterer. It’s a major investment and one that should be carefully considered – while larger shops may have a variety of machines, many upholsterers make do with just one, perhaps for the length of a career. You want to choose the machine that’s best suited to you, your preferences and your workload. You’re going to be friends for a long time.
So what do you need?
First of all, let me say that you can get a lot done on a good residential machine. And in the early stretch of your career, having a machine you’re comfortable operating is FAR more important than fancy equipment you’re not sure how to use. The main trouble is that they are slow, and you’re limited on fabric options – 4 layers of velvet or vinyl just aren’t going that that foot
But if upholstery is a hobby, or side hustle, your home machine is probably fine, even if you occasionally turn a project down. Once things get more serious, it’s probably time to level up. A proper machine is going to pay for itself in the blink of an eye by making your job exponentially more efficient. But before you scoop up any old machine, THINK.
In no particular order, here are a few factors to consider:
Can you find room for an industrial machine? A standard machine table is 48″x20″ plus space to move around it. Some upholsterers set their machines up with extended tables for maneuvering large projects. Some upholsters have their machine on wheels so it can be moved out of the way. But make no mistake: an upholstery grade sewing machine has a footprint. They are not meant to pack up between jobs. That being said, you’ll find it a treat to just sit down and sew without setting up. If you absolutely can’t swing the space and still want to level up, or you anticipate mobile work, you might want to research a portable option instead, such as a Sailrite.
You’re going to want a machine that can sew fast, even if it takes some getting used to. Speed will be your friend (someday). Most industrial machines have a simple clutch motor. They can be rather gnarly, difficult to control, especially when you’re new. If it’s just you, it might be fine – you’ll get accustomed. But if you want something that’s more user friendly, a servo motor will give you the ability to adjust the speed of your machine. We added one this spring and it’s been really nice for newer students, or anyone tackling a tricky step. As an added perk, it’s completely silent, unlike the jet-engine-ready-for-take-off of a clutch motor. Any sewing machine dealer can provide this option as a small upgrade. Many now offer it as standard – but older machines usually won’t have one.
New or Refurbished
There’s a wonderful secondary market for upholstery machines, which makes sense – every retiring upholsterer owned a machine, probably a good one, and well-loved. A good machine will last the length of several careers. Talk to any upholsterer about their machine and they can tell you what it does well, what makes it crabby, what they’ve had to wrestle with on a regular basis. That background is quite helpful, as is the knowledge that this machine has been cared for. This is where networking can really pay off – online or in person, being connected to other upholsterers often yields a “first dibs” when someone gets ready to sell.
However, If you aren’t sure what you’re looking for, an older machine from a private seller might be more of a gamble than an investment… They often need servicing when you first get them, in which case your bargain can cost more time and money than you’d initially planned on.
A trusted dealer can be well worth the “extra” expense. . In the Minneapolis area, my favorite go-t is TJ Elias .
TJ Elias is THE PLACE for all things industrial sewing machines – they have answers to questions you haven’t even thought of yet. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, let them play matchmaker – there are loads of options most of us don’t know even about.. Plus they have all the services and accessories you need to go with them.
Not in Minnesota? Search for sewing machine dealers in your area, and start asking. You might not find the vendor you need right away, but sometimes you just have to bang on whatever door you can find first. It’s also possible to buy a new machine online – look for a vendor that offers good support to make sure you can get it set up once it arrives.
This is ESSENTIAL for upholstery. It’s a minor mechanical miracle that works to pull all that fabric forward with each cycle of the foot, particularly the thicker multiple layers of fabric you’re hoping to shove through it for upholstery. I was going to try and explain it, but I found a page that does it better than I could anyway. Enjoy! Toledo Industrial Sewing Machines: Walking Foot Sewing Machines Overview.
The exception here may be if you do a lot of home decor sewing – custom pillows, slipcovers, etc. A walking foot does not fare as well on lighter fabrics, alas! When it comes to any one sewing machines, you just can’t win ’em all (but this might be a good reason to hang onto your residential machine, even if you DO dive into an upgrade)
If you’re looking at an older machine, make sure it has a reverse. If it doesn’t? Move on. Though I occasionally cross paths with an upholsterer who says you can work around it, I’d never consider a machine without this option. We constantly backstitch to lock our seams – If a machine wants to live under my roof, it’s going to follow my rules: Thou shalt backstitch.
This may be getting picky here, but again – you’re entering into a long term relationship, so let’s get picky. Many upholstery machines feature a bottom loading bobbin that has to be inserted underneath the table. I find it a little fussy, and have a strong preference for bobbins that load from the top so you see what’s going on. This is especially true because our machines are used by many people in the course of a week – including some with very little sewing experience. It’s in everyone’s best interest to keep things user friendly. But if I needed a machine for just me… A bottom losing bobbin wouldn’t be a deal breaker.
Let’s also talk about bobbin SIZE. We have two industrial machines, both Consew 226 models. They take a size G bobbin, very common, which means we can purchase pre-wound bobbins. Woo hoo!!!
Call me lazy if you like, but the hassle it saves not to constantly wind bobbins is worth every penny. In addition, I find the tension of a pre-wound 15 is more consistent, so the machines tend to stay happy and so do we.
Some upholsters prefer machines like the Juki 1508 that use a larger M bobbin. In case nobody has told you, stopping to replace bobbins is annoying. And when you sew large projects, you go through them FAST. A larger bobbin is something worth considering in your forever machine. (This size is also available if you prefer pre-wound bobbins. We purchase through Fabric Supply, Inc.)
My Consews are a solid choice for upholstery – vinyl, leather, velvet, mohair? No problem! But try to slide some polished cotton or drapery weight toile in there, and they are going to spit in your face. Even with the ability to adjust foot pressure and stitch length, she just can’t pull it through. Or she WILL pull it through, then she’ll chew it up and spit it out.
I don’t much care, because I try to stick with decidedly upholstery weight fabrics. I’m far more likely to have 4 layers of vinyl than 2 layers of cotton under the foot. The Consew 226 a good machine FOR ME.
The point is, there are no perfect machines. There are machines that are ideal for certain people, and certain work. Consider carefully what you do MOST OF THE TIME because there’s no magic machine that’s ideal for everything. And wherever you buy, don’t be afraid to ask questions.
The machines we most frequently recommend for upholstery are the Consew 226 and the Juki 1508 – but there are many, many makes and model numbers that are similar, and excellent. (Typical, Chandler, Brother, and Singer are just a few . . . ) In the end, it’s usually worth talking to a vendor – after all, they’re the experts.
If you’ve never sewn on an industrial walking foot, you might want to try one that’s all set up. That way, you know how things are SUPPOSED to work when you get your own. Weekend Warrior Workshops are a great opportunity to try ours out, with instructor support at the ready.
You can also learn more inside our Boxed Cushions: Fundamentals online course. It was designed for aspiring professionals and can be completed on a residential machine – but we talk at greater length about professional options, including video overviews of our own machines.