Cosplay 101: Getting a Sewing Machine

There are many ways to do cosplay, and not all of them require you to create fabulousness from raw materials.  However, if you try cosplay and find you really enjoy it, then somewhere along the way you are probably going to want to construct pieces yourself.  At which point it would be really handy to have your own sewing machine.  Today on Nerdconomics we will discuss the uses of sewing machines, what to look for, and buying options for beginners.  

So, why do you need a sewing machine?  Sewing machines can be a great tool in a geek’s life, and not just for outfitting your alter-ego.  Some potential uses are:

  • Sewing garments for cosplay.  You probably aren’t going to find the perfect dress to complete your Shindig Kaylee costume at the local Target.
  • Nerdcrafting.  Have you ever wanted to make your own dice bag or tribble?  You could sew them by hand, but it will be much neater and faster if you have your own sewing machine.

  • Nerd home dec.  Want to spice up your room with Tardis curtains or Adventure Time throw pillows?  Creating your own home decorations can help you create the perfect geek abode.

  • Create your own nerd couture.  Have you seen the latest dresses on the runway?  Geek chic is all the rage, and you don’t have to spend a fortune to join in.  Find some geeky fabric, whip up a cute dress or button-front shirt and voilà!  You can proclaim your unique geek passions without spending a fortune on leggings and graphic tees.

  • Alter your current geek threads.  Have you ever felt the utter frustration of finding a graphic t-shirt that perfectly expresses the sentiments of your inner-geek, except that the neckband is completely, ridiculously tight?  Ladies, are you sick of all the great slogans being printed on oversized shirts for men?  With a sewing machine making basic alterations is a quick way to improve the functionality of clothes you already own.

 

So now that you are completely sold on your urgent need to acquire a sewing machine, what should you look for?  Where can you get one?  How much is this going to eat into your comic budget for the month?  As with most things, there are a range of options from basic machines for new hobbyists, up to complicated embroidery powerhouses that almost require more skills as a computer programer than as a seamstress to operate.  Types of machines you can buy include:

 

  • Vintage machines.  These metal behemoths are nearly all mechanical, and thus are much easier to repair than today’s modern computerized models.  Metal machinery makes them incredibly durable, and you often get a better stitch quality from a vintage machine than you do from a more modern machine.  However, they often have limited stitch functions, and you often have to make up for the lack of these options with sewing skill, or you may have to supplement with additional machines in order to get all of the functions you require for your projects.  It can also sometimes be difficult to find the necessary accessories and attachments for these machines, though a bit of research and digging on the internet will usually turn up what you need.  You can find vintage machines at flea markets, thrift stores, on Ebay, or in your grandma’s attic.  The prices are wildly varied - it depends very much on the make, model, and condition of the machine.  Some machines (like the vintage Singer Featherweights) are highly prized and difficult to find, while others seem to show up regularly at the local thrift shops for under $50.  Vintage machines are often made of higher quality materials than newer machines, but you do have to be cautious that you are buying a machine in proper working order, or at least one that is easily fixable.  You often don’t know what you are really getting until you take it home and plug it in, so buying this type of machine can be something of a gamble if you are inexperienced.
Vintage sewing machines come in many styles and brands.  More recent machines use electricity to power them, but the oldest versions are hand cranks and treadle machines, as shown above, which are powered by the sewers legs pumping the peddle.

Vintage sewing machines come in many styles and brands.  More recent machines use electricity to power them, but the oldest versions are hand cranks and treadle machines, as shown above, which are powered by the sewers legs pumping the peddle.

  • odern basic sewing machines.  This is probably what I would most highly recommend to a beginning cosplayer.  The initial investment is fairly reasonable (you can get a new basic machine for $70-$200), and these machines include stitch options that will be useful in dealing with the different types of fabrics you are likely to encounter in constructing items for cosplay.  They don’t have a lot of the bells and whistles of higher end sewing machines, but they will get the job done.  It is also a great way to see if you are interested in cosplay as a hobby, without too much initial investment.  You can look for used machines on Ebay or at swap meets and flea markets, but these machines don’t tend to last as well as the vintage machines, so it might be best to buy them new, at a store with an acceptable return policy.  You can find these at your local craft stores, at Walmart, or even on Amazon.

 

A basic modern machine.  You often select the stitch style with a dial or digital display.  You get many more stitch functions than with a vintage machine, and can handle most types of fabrics and sewing projects.  Pictured is the XL-3750 model from Brother.

A basic modern machine.  You often select the stitch style with a dial or digital display.  You get many more stitch functions than with a vintage machine, and can handle most types of fabrics and sewing projects.  Pictured is the XL-3750 model from Brother.

  • Modern high-end sewing machine.  These machines might be a bit much for a novice, but they have some great features that advanced sewists will enjoy, including many more stitch functions, optional embroidery upgrades, automatic thread cutters, knee lifts, and more.  They are definitely much higher on the price scale (ranging from $500-$12,000), but definitely worth the investment for those who find they have a real passion for sewing.  I would recommend buying a high-end machine from a local dealer that you feel comfortable with.  Spending this much money on a machine is a bit like buying a car - expect to perform regular tune-ups and maintenance to keep everything running smoothly.
High end machines tend to be much larger in size than the more basic models.  They have hundreds of stitch options, and often have digital controls to manage everything.  Shown is the Bernina 820 QE.

High end machines tend to be much larger in size than the more basic models.  They have hundreds of stitch options, and often have digital controls to manage everything.  Shown is the Bernina 820 QE.

  • Embroidery machines.  These machines allow you to download templates, push a button, and let the machine do all the work.  They can be great if you want to embellish garments or create unique nerd gifts.  Definitely more complicated to use than a basic machine, but you also gain a lot of functionality that is missing from the more basic models as well.  Again, this is something I would recommend to a more advanced cosplayer/crafter, but if your main objective is to do embroidery, there are a few affordable entry level models from the Brother brand.  Prices range from $400-$12,000 and up.  You can’t often find used models, except through a dealer, so expect to pay full price for this type of machine.
The SE400 is one of the more basic and affordable embroidery machines from Brother.  It does both embroidery and basic sewing, so it is a ice all-in-one purchase.

The SE400 is one of the more basic and affordable embroidery machines from Brother.  It does both embroidery and basic sewing, so it is a ice all-in-one purchase.

A dedicated embroidery machine can handle much larger and more complicated designs, but is quite expensive and only serves one purpose in the sewing arsenal.  Worth the investment for advanced costumers, but definitely not necessary for the cosplayer who is just starting out.  Shown is the Brother Entrepreneur Pro PR1000e.

A dedicated embroidery machine can handle much larger and more complicated designs, but is quite expensive and only serves one purpose in the sewing arsenal.  Worth the investment for advanced costumers, but definitely not necessary for the cosplayer who is just starting out.  Shown is the Brother Entrepreneur Pro PR1000e.

  • Serger.  A serger is a specialized sewing machine that uses four threads (instead of two like on a regular sewing machine), that cuts away extra fabric from the seams and binds them in thread (overcasting) at the same time.  It is a great machine to have if you plan on sewing a lot of superhero spandex suits, because it gives the seams plenty of stretch and recovery.  It is also great for preventing edge raveling on other types of fabric that often frey, or in giving a nice finish to an otherwise raw hem.  A serger is not a necessary machine - indeed there are many things a regular sewing machine can do that a serger can’t - but it is a helpful tool that can be a great investment, especially for garment sewing.  Prices range from $250-$2000 and up.
A serger uses four threads and blades near the needles to trim the excess fabric and cover the raw edges of the fabric.  Shown is the Brother 1034D.

A serger uses four threads and blades near the needles to trim the excess fabric and cover the raw edges of the fabric.  Shown is the Brother 1034D.

  • Cover stitch machine.  A cover stitch is another specialized machine, which is really only used in making garment hems or inserting elastic in a professional manner.  It really isn’t necessary to those people who are starting out, but again can be a great addition to your tool kit if you spend a lot of time creating garments out of stretch fabric.  Prices range from $650-$3000 and up.
A cover stitch machine is used for finishing hems on knit fabrics.  Shown is the Brother 2340CV.

A cover stitch machine is used for finishing hems on knit fabrics.  Shown is the Brother 2340CV.

 

Personally, I would recommend a modern basic sewing machine to most people starting out.  You will get the basic functions you really need in a machine (straight stitch, zig-zag stitch, buttonholes), along with a nice set of accessories for your machine.  I can be used for any of the applications discussed above, and it doesn’t require as much of an initial investment as some of the other types of machines.  If you become obsessed with cosplay or nerdcrafting, you will get a better sense of what features you want in a machine, and know what to look for in your next upgrade.  A serger would be the best additional machine for those who want to sew garments and fabrics for cosplay, whereas people who need to do some heavy duty home dec sewing might be more interested in a vintage machine.

 

As far as sewing machine brands go, there are a lot!  It is sort of like buying a car… Some models are more affordable than others, and though they may not provide you with heated leather seats, they still get you from Point A to Point B.  The most readily available brands for the lower level machines are Singer and Brother.  Though Singer used to be the go-to company for a machine, in recent years the basic Brother models have been getting more favorable reviews.  Janome also offers some nice basic machines.  Their prices are a bit higher (ie, you get fewer features at the same price point), but their machines also tend to be a bit more solid and robust, and tend to have better longevity.  Each of these brands offer a variety of models at different price points, so making a decision can sometimes be a bit difficult.  A great resource for looking at reviews of specific sewing machine models is Pattern Review.  You have to be a member of the website to get full access, but membership is free, and the website does not send a lot of superfluous advertising.  You also get full access to reviews of patterns and sewing books, as well as discussion forums and contests, so it really is a great resource for a new home sewer.

 

Hopefully this guide offers you a bit of basic knowledge as you start to gather your tools as a beginning cosplayer or nerdcrafter!  If you have any questions or additional advice feel free to leave them in the comment section below.  Until next time, this is Dr. T reminding you to get your hands nerdy.