Elias Howe Jr. built his first sewing machine in 1845 and received a patent in 1846.
Later in the century, the Industrial Revolution transformed sewing and the textile industry.
Sewing machines became a common commodity in many American homes in the early 20th century.
Since then, the public’s interest in sewing has bobbed up and down.
Here are 10 reasons sewing machines are so expensive.
Why Are Sewing Machines So Expensive? (Top 10 Reasons)
1. Fancy Features
Unlike sewing machines of yesteryear, today’s machines offer numerous features that expand their capacity.
Many have exquisite embroidery abilities, more utility and decorative stitches than anyone would probably use, and high-end models allow the user to download designs and patterns from the internet.
More than machines that simply stitch thread into cloth, expensive machines have touchscreens and can upload from USB drives.
Some have font patterns embedded in their computer chips for embroidery projects.
Many allow users to supplement the font library by downloading and installing other character sets.
Critics might complain when their significant others buy one of these sewing machines with fancy features.
These naysayers complain that these gadgets “cost as much as a car.”
While that may be an exaggeration, the best machines do cost thousands of dollars.
Passionate fans of high-end machines also make a comparison with cars.
When one drives a new car off the lot, it quickly depreciates.
When one purchases a sewing machine with fancy features, it retains much of its value.
According to some sewing mavens, if properly maintained and frequently used, these machines will basically “print money” in the way they maintain their value.
Some old-guard sewers prefer their simpler classic machines.
They will keep that Singer from the 1960s alive with a little oil here and cleaning there.
Others sold their Singer years ago.
They took the money from that old machine and a second mortgage on their home to buy a high-tech Bernina for well above $12,000.
2. Top Ones Always Costly
The best sewing machines have always come at great expense.
When Elias Howe offered a demonstration of his early sewing machine in the mid-1840s, he dazzled those in attendance as this contraption outperformed the fastest sewers by completing up to 250 stitches per minute.
At that time, he offered these hand-crafted sewing machines for sale at the steep price of $300.
That amounts to more than $8,000 in today’s money.
He soon dropped the price for his early machine to about $50, though his business never took root.
At that time, there was a very limited market for sewing machines since very few people could afford the purchase price.
Domestic sewing machines remained out of reach for most people until the 20th century.
Although simple when compared to today’s top-end machines, one must evaluate them by the standards of the time.
Compared to hand sewing with thread and needle, these time-saving machines had the potential to redefine domestic life.
A treadle machine available for sale in 1856 cost $125, which is approximately $3,500 today.
At that time, purchasing a sewing machine required one-fourth of the annual income of an average family.
By comparison, a 1951 Singer with accessories had a price of $348.
This comes to almost $3,900 in today’s dollars.
Still a lot of money at the time, this machine cost less than one-tenth of the average annual income, making this machine, which could sew forward and backward, seem like a bargain compared to its ancient ancestor.
Seventy-plus years later, a machine with the features of that 1951 Singer would seem outrageously expensive for $3,900, or one-tenth that amount.
When comparing sewing machines throughout history, what was a top-end machine then is a basic machine today, or perhaps a quaint antique!
Some people look at high-end machines today and see them with this simple equation: “More Parts = More Problems.”
Others proudly put down the extra money for all of the features available on the best model they can afford.
3. Industrial Machines Skew Prices
There are three types of machines: home, professional, and industrial.
While basic mechanical ones can be purchased for around $100, high-end machines cost thousands of dollars.
Their high price affects the overall average price of sewing machines on the market.
Prices can vary wildly in each of these categories.
When considering the purchase of a machine, the consumer should evaluate the options they plan to use, and which expensive ones are not practical for them.
Purchasing a machine with fancy features such as embroidery abilities makes sense only if used.
The best machines have durable metal parts rather than cheap plastic ones.
They have better motors that can perform a wider variety of tasks on heavier fabrics, such as leather.
These machines work much faster.
Slower machines may perform 400 stitches per minute.
Faster machines easily get up to 1,200 stitches per minute and beyond.
The higher-end sewing machines are WiFi-enabled, allowing the user to download fonts and patterns and easily connect their machine to the internet.
Newer computerized machines that do fancy embroidery cost more than standard machines.
These complex machines come at a higher price, one that may or may not make sense depending on the needs of the user.
5. Repair Costs
Sewing machines have many moving parts.
People purchasing the top machines want more functions and push their machines to the limit.
Sooner or later, these sewing machines require maintenance or repairs.
A recent uptick in sewing machines needing service happened a couple of years ago.
A lot of people took their dusty machines out of storage during the coronavirus pandemic to sew masks.
Some stores that repair sewing machines reported a surge in sewing machines needing service just as Americans had a strong interest in sewing masks.
Repair times once measured in a week soared to nearly a month.
Budgeting for machine maintenance and repair is less of a science than a patchwork pattern of uncertainty.
Similar to the crews that inspect belts, fluids, and tire air pressure during your vehicle’s oil change, technicians who perform routine maintenance usually have a checklist.
Steps usually include partial machine disassembly, lubricating parts, removing lint and dust buildup, calibrating the mechanism, checking tension, and quality checks.
Similar to the distance a vehicle drives, technicians recommend maintenance based on the frequency of use.
If one uses their machine every day, it should receive service at least once every six months.
Less frequent use requires less frequent maintenance.
The costs of these service appointments, though they may seem pricey at the time, represent an investment.
Maintenance costs now may save one from exposure to much higher repair costs down the road.
6. Economy Of Scale Challenges
One important lesson from the Industrial Revolution is that mass-produced items are generally less expensive to purchase than those made in smaller batches.
“Economy of scale” is the principle that factories can build widgets more cheaply than an individual can.
The history of sewing machines offers ample evidence of the importance of economy of scale.
Clothes sewed by hand in the early 1800s took precious time.
Industrial sewing machines allowed the clothing industry to change by the late 1800s.
The burden of sewing moved from the home to the factory.
Similarly, the mass production of home sewing machines has had an impact on their cost and availability.
Consider the fate of the Singer company from the late 1800s until 1914.
Singer factories produced an incredible number of sewing machines during this period, becoming the first major example of economy of scale, long before Henry Ford mass-produced automobiles.
Singer dominated not just in the American market, but also in Canada and many developed countries of Europe.
Before World War I, demand had spread to places in Asia, Africa, and other distant locations, where Singer’s market share sometimes reached 90%.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Singer sewing machines were a perfect example of how mass production and economy of scale could lead to market dominance.
A century later, sewing machine manufacturers no longer produce at such a frenzied pace.
Cars, cell phones, and computers are produced in great numbers.
Sewing machines, not so much.
7. Soaring Demand
The pandemic led to an incredible increase in demand for sewing machines in 2020.
As locked-down folk sewed masks, they kept their machines humming.
Demand also increased for less-expensive sewing machine models.
The number of people who took interest in sewing as a practical activity increased.
Those stuck at home or who had free time may have started by sewing a single mask.
Once they did, they probably sewed a few more masks and other items as well.
“A stitch in time saves nine,” is a phrase many people have heard.
At different difficult points in history, sewing became an example of an activity that brought sustainability efforts closer to home.
During the Great Depression and World War II, many people mended their clothes and reused scraps due to the shortage of materials available commercially.
This frugal nature defined life for many, and those who had the luxury of using a sewing machine appreciated the convenience of having access to one.
By the late 20th century, garments that were “ready to wear” became the norm.
Sewing continued to take place, but mostly in industrial facilities and large shops.
The trend of sewing at home has declined in recent decades.
Consumers usually found what they wanted with the fashion options in stores.
By one estimate, people discard ten million tons of clothing waste annually in landfills.
Approximately 95% of this waste could be recycled or repurposed, and our current practices are unsustainable.
Every so often, some global event forces humans to consider the course they take and their priorities.
The coronavirus jolted many people, bringing the practical value of sewing out of the closet.
The clarion call came in April 2020, when authorities called for the wearing of masks in public.
As some dusted off their machines, others flocked to big-box stores in search of a sewing machine.
An interest in sewing masks for family members and front-line workers gained great traction.
Stores specializing in sewing machines, sewing products, and machine repair saw an unprecedented surge.
Nearly every Singer machine was out of stock in a short time.
Throughout much of the remainder of 2020, demand for sewing machines remained strong.
Walmart usually maintains a 100-day supply of sewing machines in its inventory.
As people wanted to purchase more machines, Walmart’s supply on-hand dropped to only five days in a 24-hour window.
A big challenge in meeting this demand for sewing machines involved logistics.
As the pandemic hit different locations, shipping and overseas cargo sat on loading docks or never made the transoceanic voyage.
As a result, many machines assembled in China, Vietnam, Japan, and Taiwan sat on loading docks, stuck in this delay pattern.
The situation has improved since 2020, as humanity now understands more about the pandemic.
Although demand has calmed and stabilized, some believe future demand issues may lead to more price increases.
8. New Hobbies Cost Money
Sewing provides a feeling of accomplishment as a hobby.
Before the pandemic, interest in sewing as a hobby had declined for many years.
Three-D printing and other high-tech arts and crafts replaced older hobbies.
As people began sewing masks en masse, interest in sewing classes increased.
Lockdowns and social distancing made it difficult or impossible to hold in-person classes during the peak of the pandemic, so some sewing instructors moved to an online platform.
The cost of sewing classes varies because of many factors, but those wishing to engage in this hobby should budget some money for the instruction they receive.
Online classes with other students probably have a cheaper cost.
Classes offered through public vocational and technical institutions may also be available at reasonable prices.
Personalized, one-on-one classes usually cost more.
Expect to pay more than $20 per hour, probably much more than that.
By one estimate, the current average cost for a lesson lasting an hour is $66.
At that rate, a few hours’ worth of lessons has the same cost as a low-end machine!
9. Necessary Supplies
If a person buys cheap fabric and thread, spending a lot of money on a top-end machine makes little sense.
There is a difference between placing watercolor on a piece of paper versus using fine paint on a high-quality canvas.
Similarly, sewing supplies of better quality cost money.
There is nothing wrong with practicing with cheaper threads and cloth while strengthening one’s skills.
However, as a person gains expertise, they should transition to higher-quality sewing supplies so their products will stand the test of time.
Some may ask the question, “Is it cheaper to sew than to buy clothes?”
The answer is somewhat complicated.
Generally speaking, the short answer is, “No,” but it could become, “Yes,” in the long term depending on a variety of factors.
One of the most important factors involves the quality of supplies a person uses.
And some of the better threads, cloth, and patterns come at a cost.
Clothes purchased in stores are mass-produced, often in distant factories where low-paid workers toil for long hours.
For those who enjoy sewing, the expense of their hobby and craft is considered an investment and an opportunity to create items that give them pride.
For them, sewing is not about saving money but about creating something they cannot locate in a store.
Those who enjoy sewing must plan a budget.
Fabrics are usually sold by the bolt or by the yard.
Many factors affect the price of fabric, including the production costs, raw materials, the size, and chemicals used to create the product.
Fabrics with patterns cost more than plain ones due to the design costs and extra dye required for colors.
By focusing on sewing at home, some also try to address the larger costs of the textile industry.
Big textile factories require one-trillion kilowatt-hours to operate, or about 10% of the carbon impact across the globe.
10. Supply Chain Issues
Whether the recent interest in sewing machines continues is a matter of debate.
One thing everyone can agree on is that supply chain issues have raised prices in many areas of our life.
When mask-making became popular in 2020, many craft and fabric stores ran out of materials, looking as if they were going out of business.
Indeed, one of the main reasons for the increase in sewing and the run on fabric supplies was the lack of commercially available masks on the market.
Since that time, masks have reappeared on store shelves.
For the time being, sewing remains a popular hobby.
Some have mentioned the recent pandemic as a reason that sewing machines should remain relevant long after people discard their masks.
They claim that knowing how to sew allows people to keep the clothes for a longer time, saving money in the process.
They call for reform in the fashion industry, known for low wages, inhospitable conditions for factory workers, and incredible amounts of textile waste.
They point out that cotton requires a lot of water, and that wasting cotton supplies wastes water.
A typical cotton t-shirt requires 2,650 liters (700 gallons) of fresh water to produce!
There is an environmental cost for all of those clothes that get worn once or twice, left in a closet, and tossed into a landfill.
Even if expensive to purchase and maintain, home sewing machines allow people to extend the wearable life of their clothes, preserve freshwater resources necessary for the raw materials, and reduce greenhouse gases needed to create new clothes.
Sewing at home disrupts this process, one that is unsustainable.
What does the future hold?
By most estimates, the market for sewing and embroidery machines is expected to grow over the next few years.
One estimate claims it will grow from $5.4 billion in 2020 to $7.1 billion by 2026.
Even if some people who recently purchased sewing machines put their new toys into the closet to collect dust, the cost of these gadgets will remain expensive into the foreseeable future.