Reader Question: Sewing Machines for Lingerie

what to look for in sewing machine features for lingerie making | Cloth Habit

Hi Amy, I’m interested in sewing lingerie. Do you recommend a sewing machine or are their special features I should look for?

Over the past year or so I’ve received many questions about how to choose a sewing machine for lingerie or bra making. Some of you feel your old machine is just not up to the job, and some of you are brand new to sewing and possibly picking out a machine for the first time.

I’ll share some features that I appreciate in lingerie sewing but I think it’s important to start here: you don’t need a specialized machine to make lingerie (or bras).

On my particular machine I have sewn leather, wool, fur, silk and delicate lace. Unless you want to start your own lingerie business and plan on doing production sewing (making 100 or so of the same thing in the same fabric over and over), a good domestic sewing machine is all you need!

So what’s good? Well, that depends on your experience and budget.

If you are brand new to sewing and inexperienced with sewing machines, I recommend visiting a local sewing machine dealer. Nowadays a lot of us just want to press buy and get it right on our doorstep! But hear me out: Where you buy your machine is often more important than what brand you buy. A good machine dealer can help walk you through machines, may offer free classes on the one you choose, give you a better price than you’ll get online (true for all three machines I have bought), and more importantly technical support when things go wrong. And trust me, occasionally things do go wrong.

If you have experience with a machine you probably have a good handle on a few things you like or don’t like about your current machine. If this is your situation, test-driving a few machines with your favorite fabrics is going to be your best guide.

For lingerie and bras in particular, here are a few features I would look for:

1. Adjustable foot pressure

If I were to pick one feature I couldn’t live without, this would be it. I have turned away many a beautiful vintage machine because I couldn’t adjust the foot pressure.

Adjustable foot pressure is a great thing to have for any kind of sewing with knits and lightweight silks. I find it invaluable for sewing stretch lace and other light lingerie knits. Loosening foot pressure can help the foot glide over fabric rather than push it and cause mismatched or wavy seams.

2. Easy to fine-tune zig-zag length and width

Some vintage and really low-end sewing machines only offer a few predetermined zig-zag stitches. For underwear and bras, you’ll be using zig-zag stitches a lot! And you’ll want to change and fine-tune the settings for each project.

3. A 3-step zig-zag

This is a fairly common feature on mid-range and up machines, but many older and low-end machines don’t include it.

Triple zig-zag stitch is a very good machine feature for bra and lingerie sewing | Cloth Habit

A 3-step zig-zag (or triple zig-zag) takes 3 steps up and 3 steps down. For most lingerie and elastic, a regular zig-zag works just fine but a 3-step is extra strong, and useful for areas where you want extra durability in your zig-zag stitches.

4. A straight stitch foot

A straight stitch foot is useful for sewing 1/4″ or 6mm seams. Similar feet go by different names. Look for a foot that has a 1/4″ or 6mm distance between the needle and the edge of the toe. This might be a straight stitch foot, 1/4 foot, or a patchwork foot (this is what I use for my Juki). Whatever it is called, this will be slightly narrower than the “all-purpose foot” that comes with your machine.

The great thing about feet like this is that you can use the foot as a seam guide wherever you are sewing 1/4″ or 6mm seams, which are typical on bras. I also use them to achieve neat topstitching rows.

Examples of straight stitch feet for 1/4" seams | Cloth Habit
On the left is my Juki’s patchwork foot and on the right is a generic industrial straight stitch foot that can screw on most industrial and vintage machines.

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And that’s it! Just four features I’d consider essential in lingerie or bra sewing.

Of course those aren’t the only things I’d personally look for if I was shopping for a machine right now. For example, I prefer to have a knee lift so that when I am sewing tight curves I can keep my hands on the fabric while occasionally lifting the foot. And good machine light is super important to me! But these features are things I have learned to appreciate with experience.

In case you are curious about the machines I use, I have several but I use a Juki Exceed for all of my lingerie sewing. It has served me happily for about five years. I occasionally use a vintage Bernina 830 that I pull out for regular sewing when I’ve had to service my Juki. It is a fantastic vintage machine that will last forever, but it’s a great example of one that has no presser foot adjustment or triple zig-zag. These were two of the missing features that drove me to a newer machine.

If you sew lingerie, what machine features are important to you? Any tips to offer my international readers?

Other sage sewing machine advice (not just for lingerie):

23 comments

  1. Rosamond says:

    I have recently picked up a “New Home” by Janome that I believe was manufactured in the 50’s. It was a Craigslist find for $40. I have put away my new machine in favor of this one. I might of just gotten overly lucky but for $40 it was a no-brainer on taking a chance. It is built like a tank, is silent, smooth and the stitches are perfect.
    It came in a cabinet with tons of feet and accessories. The only thing I had to search out was an owner’s manual for the oiling.
    I have been looking for a new machine in my price range without a ton of stitches. I sew clothing and bras.
    Hope this helps a little getting someone to take the plunge and make some beautiful and comfortable bras!

    • Amy says:

      Lucky you! I love when that happens. I got my Bernina from an estate for an incredible bargain and it came with 30 feet! (And those Bernina feet ain’t cheap.) It’s not my main machine but I really take care of it and know I’ll always sew with it.

  2. Ms. McCall says:

    I make all my lingerie on a combination of a Singer Featherweight and a Janome 7318, which cost me $300 for both. I wish my Janome had adjustable foot pressure, I can’t think why it doesn’t!

    On the other hand, I cannot express how much I love the way that the featherweight handles light flimsy fabric. The hole for the needle is really small, so the fabric doesn’t get sucked down, and the feed dogs are much closer to the needle hole, so I find that it’s easier to handle seams with narrow seam allowances. Don’t over look the oldies, they can be goodies!

    • Amy says:

      Another good consideration especially for lightweight fabrics! Fabric not getting sucked into the needle plate is important. Does the Featherweight have a good zig-zag or adjustable foot pressure? (And how does it zig-zag?) I think these features might be important to those who want to make bras.

      • Ms. McCall says:

        I have a zig-zag attachment for the featherweight, but it’s clunky and I wouldn’t recommend it. I do zig-zagging on the Janome exclusively. The featherweight does have adjustable foot pressure, the Janome doesn’t. Maybe one day I’ll have a machine that does it all.

  3. Thanks for the useful tips! I finally went to the dealership and asked about this exact machine a couple of months ago, but they wanted a lot more for it than it’s listed for everywhere else, so I left empty handed. That and I just had a hard time “bonding” with it in the short period that I was there, maybe I should try again sometime after I’ve worked up the nerve. Did you know instantly that this was the perfect machine? Or did you have to use for a few weeks to know for sure?

    • Amy says:

      That’s such a good question. If you’re unsure I’d try a couple other machines within your budget so you can get a feeling for how they compare.

      I think that how people feel about their sewing machines has a lot to do with experience and other subtle associations that are hard to name! Sometimes just how a machine looks has a personal association, and it’s okay to acknowledge that.

      I have sewn on Berninas and other really great vintage machines that sewists really love, but I think the Juki is a great all-arounder for the price. I actually did fall in love with it right away but at the time I was so excited to get a new sewing machine it’s hard to tell if my love was romantic or rational. It’s just been a consistently good machine!

  4. Karyn says:

    Amy: I am of the pfaff persuasion. I have four-five in my home. I have the most recent high end and an older 7570 (the first one I purchased). Unfortunately, as much as I love these machines, neither of them does well sewing bras…a lot of skipped stitches,especially on the hooks in back. So disappointing. If you have any suggestions of things I could try. ..please make them.

    • Amy says:

      Hi Karyn, I have never tried a Pfaff but have heard nothing but great things!

      And I know how frustrating skipped stitches are. They can happen for a few reasons. They may be due to old needles, or sometimes incorrect threading. Usually if I experience them, I take the bobbin and spool off, and rethread just to make sure the thread is guided properly through all the tension areas. When sewing on the hook and eyes, it just may that the multiple layers aren’t feeding smoothly along with the feed dogs. Do you have a teflon foot? Sometimes these can help. But if none of those help (rethreading, changing needle and using a good ballpoint or stretch needle for bras) then I’d consider taking it in for repair. It shouldn’t be skipping if you’ve tried all those things.

  5. Ursula says:

    I sew everything on a vintage Bernina 1030, including leather, lightweight fabrics and bras. I couldn’t wish for a better machine, except maybe for more wiggle room for quilting. But my quilting is few and far between anyway.
    Regarding bras, I strongly recommend an edge-stitching foot. It makes stitching on the wire casings a breeze.

  6. Katie Emma says:

    Thank you for this! I’m shopping for a new machine next weekend and am trying to make my list of “needs” and “wants.” I’ve started sewing lingerie so this is very helpful!

  7. Zanda says:

    Hey! I have the same Juki as you have 🙂 It took me time to get used to this machine, because it is different than my previous. I have also PFAFF Select4.0, it is also one amazing machine, still good working after 6 years, with IDT system. Now I sew with both of them.
    Now I am about to make lingerie for my self. Thank you for your blog and excellent information.

  8. Rebecca says:

    Great article – I’ve been stung before buying a cheap machine whilst I was away from home and not realising the zig zag stitch could only be set to a couple of widths… good to have a checklist for next time 😉

  9. Kayla Green says:

    I agree with your post and it is a good read for newbies in sewing. I never thought of making my own lingerie although there are occasions that I needed a good machine for really light fabrics like lace.

  10. Jess says:

    I’m surprised your vintage Bernina doesn’t have adjustable foot pressure! Actually, I was surprised to find through chatting in sewing groups that so many machines lack this feature, as I use it allll the time. I have two vintage machines, a basic yet tough zigzag Singer 237 (circa 1969) and a fancier Kenmore 148.15700 with more decorative stitches.

    I thought I would use the Kenmore’s 3-step zigzag for bra sewing, but honestly, I just found it to stretch the elastic out prematurely. The Singer complains a lot more about stretch fabrics and plush elastics, because they really weren’t available to the home sewist when it was designed. But it has many more stitch length options, easier presser foot pressure adjustment, and sews the non-stretch sheer cup lining I love very well, so I still use it for bras.

    I have my eye on a straight stitch only machine to complete the vintage herd, preferably a Singer 15-91. I want the narrow needle plate and feed dogs for delicate lingerie fabrics, the gear drive for smooth stopping and starting, and the extra piercing power for sewing corsets.

    • Amy says:

      I wish the Bernina 830 had the adjustable pressure—I’d sew on it a lot more!

      I also have a Juki TL 2010, which is my version of the 15-91. I totally fell in love with this at the dealer. It is a straight stitch only machine. I sew everything that’s not lingerie on the TL and it would be genius for corsets. I don’t know if it’s as fast as the 15-91 but it’s around 2500 spm and drives a bit like an industrial (and I’ve collected a ton of industrial feet for it).

  11. Nevena says:

    Dear Amy,

    I can’t thank you enough for sharing your knowledge with the world. If it wasn’t for websites like this, not just those about sewing, many of us would be forced to choose between a badly chosen career and plunging into the unknown.

    For me sewing is a hobby that ended up consuming all of my time and money and I regret nothing lol I got a topstitching machine, a serger, an industrial leather machine and now it’s time to pick one for everything else – like the one for lingerie.

    I’d love to get your Juki but there aren’t any distributors where I live.
    But I found two great ones with everything you listed as must-have. The only question is – does software have a huge influence on your ease of work? These models are basically the same, but one (Elna 520) has a ‘computer’, does automatic locking when you end the stitch and has a horizontal bobbin.
    I don’t know if you’ve tried one with adjustable foot pressure without all the bells and whistles of software, to give advice on if I really need it or not…

    Anyway, thank you again 🙂

    • Amy says:

      Hi Nevena!

      There are so many great domestic machines that can serve you well for lingerie or any other sewing you love to do. I just happen to have a Juki but I certainly don’t think that has to be your only option. 🙂 Software does not have any influence on my ease of work but to answer that question I should probably clarify the difference between software and electronic hardware.

      Most good new domestic sewing machines have electronic operation. They have electronic “hardware”. There are a few rare all-mechanical machines on the market, but since the 1980s most machines have some form of electronic hardware, just like cars! The Juki F600–the one I use–has electronic hardware but not “software”. It has an electronic display but you can also get electronic machines without a display. Again, electronic control is typical of most good domestic machines—it controls foot height, backward sewing, stitch length, stitch type and extra functions like automatic thread-cutting.

      If a machine comes with software (in addition to hardware), this software often needs to be updated just like software on a computer. Software options are usually for those who do embroidery or quilt design. If you quilt or do embroidery you might like software options in order to program embroidery or other stitch patterns. I do garment sewing, 99.9% which involves just two feet and two stitch types—straight and zig-zag. So I personally do not need or use sewing machine software.

      Long story short, the Juki I use isn’t a huge “bells and whistles” machine, at least compared to other domestic machines. Since you are coming from a background of using industrial machines, it must seem like a lot of domestic machines are full of bells and whistles. Domestic machines are trying to do a lot at once, while an industrial machine is created to do just one job (zig-zag, or topstitch, for example) and do that one job extremely well and fast. They are certainly fun to sew on but unless you want to start a business pumping out 100 bras a day a simple domestic machine will serve you very well. I definitely recommend visiting a dealer and trying out different models with fabrics you like to sew, instead of buying blind. When I shopped, I took in online opinions but at the end of the day I ignored them all in favor of what I really liked and needed when trying out machines.

      So sorry for the long (and belated) comment but I have a feeling this may help others, too. I get a lot of questions about my Juki and lingerie sewing and I hope it clears things up for others!

      Amy

      oh and p.s. I have thread-cutting option on my two Jukis but I don’t always use them. It’s nice to have but I have a habit of just cutting thread the old-school way and it’s one of those features I can live without.

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