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 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 residential machine. The main trouble is that they are slow, and you’re extremely limited on fabric options – 4 layers of velvet or vinyl aren’t going under that foot. . . and even if they do, you’d better clear the calendar, because you’ll be sewing that cushion for decades.
But if upholstery is a hobby, your home machine might be just fine.
Once things get more regular or 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 infinitely more efficient.
But before you scoop up any old machine, THINK.
In no particular order, here are a few factors to consider:
DEDICATED SPACE: 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 is a beast. 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, or you anticipate mobile work, you might want to research a portable option instead, such as a Sailrite.
MOTOR: 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.
NEW OR REFURBED: A new machine is probably easier to find if you want something immediately. Personally, if I can buy second hand, I usually do, and sewing machines are no exception. 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. Every machine has it’s own quirks and personality. I like the idea of one with some history, a loving home, perhaps a service record. 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.
Which brings me to a point about older machines: If you aren’t sure what you’re looking at, try to stay off Craig’s list and go find a trusted source. In the Minneapolis area, my favorite go-to’s are T.J. Elias in Minneapolis and the Professional Upholstery Association of Minnesota.
T.J. Elias is THE PLACE for all things industrial sewing machines – they have answers to questions you haven’t even formulated. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, let them play matchmaker. They carry new and refurbed machines along with all the service and accessories you need to go with them.
The PUAM is a great networking source, as professional groups always are – lots of experienced people who are happy to share thoughts on different machines, and who might just know where to find one that hasn’t yet hit the market.
WALKING FOOT: Not to sound biased, but YES. This is 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 then I found a page that does it way 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 dec sewing – custom pillows, slipcovers, etc. A walking foot does not tend to fare as well on lighter fabrics, alas! When it comes to 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 the wonderful world of upholstery!)
REVERSE: Like the walking foot, this is a no brainer for me. It is possible to get by without, but boy, consider carefully if you’re willing to. We constantly backstitch to lock our seams – I simply can’t imagine a workday without a reverse. We have no room for freeloaders – If a machine wants to live under my roof, it’s going to follow my rules: Thou shalt backstitch.
BOBBIN: 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. I have a strong preference for bobbins that load from the top where 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.
We have two industrial machines, both Consew 226 models (named Thelma and Louise because if you hit the gas, they’ll drive you off a cliff) In addition to a top loading bobbin, I like that they take prewound bobbins.
We use almost exclusively nylon 69 upholstery weight thread from Fabric Supply in Minneapolis – along with spools, we’re able to get prewound bobbins in a small variety of colors. 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 prewound bobbin is more consistent, so the machines tend to stay happy and so do we.
Some upholsters prefer machines like the Juki 1508 that have larger bobbins (the 226 takes a G, but the 1508 uses an M) In case nobody has told you, stopping to replace bobbins is annoying. And if you sew large projects, you go through them FAST. A larger bobbin is something worth considering in your forever machine. (Fabric supply also carries prewound bobbins in size M, woo hoo!)
TYPICAL WORKLOAD: 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 Louise is 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. She’s a good machine FOR ME.
The point is, there are no perfect machines: There are machines that are perfect for certain people. Consider carefully what you do MOST OF THE TIME because there’s no magic machine that’s ideal for everything.
If you’re an upholsterer or in a related field, drop a machine recommendation in the comments! We’d love to know what’s working for you.
This week on YouTube, we’re diving in on the nosing for our chair – if you want to see a Consew 226 in action, hop on over: Reupholster Aunt Bea: Part 3, Deck and Nosing A
If you want to come sew on Thelma or Louise, we’d love to see you in a class! Browse our schedule and register online.
The most common make/model numbers I hear from happy, experienced upholsterers are Consew 226, Consew 206 and Juki 1508. But truly: There are loads of options out there. Consew and Juki are good brands to explore, along with Chandler, Brother and Singer. Happy hunting!