A sewing machine is quietly reappearing in American homes as frugal folks try to stretch more use out of their clothing as well as tackle craft projects rather than forking out more money for home decor. New machines cost $150 or more and may be more of an investment than you are willing to make on an item you will need to learn to use. One alternative is to find a serviceable used machine. Used sewing machines seem to be everywhere but getting one that will actually work may be a little tougher. I recently replaced my 2005 EuroPro machine with a 1965 Brother Sewing Machine and as far as these machines go, I couldn't be happier!
First of all decide what you would like to be able to do.
Making repairs or altering clothing, or making simple home items like curtains really only requires a "zig-zag" sewing machine. These have been available since around the time of Moses and are the most common used machine available. Machines built prior to 1980 =/- are usually less complicated and tougher. This is what prompted me to replace my new machine with an older one. 3 layers of denim brought my EuroPro to a permanent stand-still, but my 1965 Brother will sew right through the seam on a pair of jeans with ease. On the other hand, the Brother absolutely hates fleece and sheer materials--the thread gets all bunched up and makes a nasty mess but the EuroPro had no problem with those materials(before I tried to use it on the denim--it doesn't sew at all now.)
Making clothing or baby clothes from scratch is possible on a "zig-zag" machine but the additional "free arm" option will make it much easier to get cloth in the right position under the needle. A "free arm" machine has a narrow base under the needle to accommodate sewing around a sleeve. Machines without this feature are called "flat bed" sewing machines. In general, flat-bed machines will be tougher, but free arm machines will be more versatile.
Another type of machine that is a time saver for making clothing is a serger. There are not many of these in the used market but they can be found used at reasonable prices at a Sewing and Vacuum Store or by watching craigslist or similar "for-sale" ads. These machines are much more complicated than 2 thread machines. Either buy one through a shop or make sure it is in perfect working order before you buy it--do not be afraid to ask the seller to show that it is working.
What to look for when buying a used sewing machine:
Mileage doesn't matter much on a sewing machine but respect and care matter a lot. When you look at a used sewing machine look for signs that it has been taken care of. Surface dirt is not a big deal but any signs of rust is a deal breaker. Open the side cover and look at the needle arm--there should be no rust any where.
Turn the hand wheel on the right side. It should move smoothly. If it feels rough or clicks at all as it turns, forget that machine.
Look at what is included with the machine: there should be at least 1 box of accessories and a users manual. Individual presser feet, light bulbs, a tiny bottle of oil, 2 screw drivers, and other parts should be in the box. Owners who take care of their machines with keep this stuff with the machine and it is a good sign that the machine has been taken care of. Be wary of buying a machine that is missing the accessories--plus the spare feet to make button holes and to turn a nice hem are expensive--$5-$50 each--not having them is going to get costly when you need them.
Plug in the machine and turn it on. The light should work--if not, be cautious. I have never had a light burn out, usually the only way to damage one is by dropping the machine.
Try out the power foot pedal--if the machine responds smoothly and has met the other criteria, it is probably going to be a good machine.
To give an idea of how cheaply you can buy a servicable machine: I bought my Brother in a cabinet, with 2 boxes of original accessories and a dozen extra bobbins for $15.00.
Advice to people who may be new to sewing:
Read the book. Take your time. Oil the machine according to the guide in the book. Try a couple of little projects(potholders are a good start!)
Find your local Sewing Machine Service Center and get your machine tuned up if needed. Every fabric & crafts store will be able to tell you who fixes and maintains sewing machines in your area.
Is it worth it to use a sewing machine? Generally, yes.
Hem pants at home or pay $8.00 to have it done.
Sew diapers at home for a buck or two each or buy premade cloth diapers for up to $20 each.
Make a potholder for $0 or buy a new one for $5.
Once you get used to having a sewing machine around, you really won't know how you got by without one.
BTW, if you ever have to give a wedding gift or shower gift, a sewing machine will knock their socks off!