For me personally, I think it is important to purchase a machine that you will never outgrow. There are tons of fancy features out there and you don't need most of them, but there are some things that will help your machine grow with you.
I have compiled a list of features to help guide you. This was assisted by an Instagram post I made a few days ago where lots of quilters shared their favorite machine features. I hope you find this list helpful and if you have any favorite features to add, please leave a comment!
Useful Sewing Machine Features
Sewing is so much more fun when you aren't constantly battling with your machine. Ask for recommendations from fellow quilters, your local quilt shop, anyone you can find before purchasing a machine. Some have a reputation for reliability and some have a reputation for ending up in the shop.
There are a variety of problems that can cause issues with a sewing machine, but I think that getting a consistent tension is one of the most important and one of the hardest to judge without sewing on a machine for a while.
Quarter Inch Foot
This one is mostly going to apply to quilters, but having a good quarter inch foot is very important. My machine actually didn't come with a very good 1/4" foot, but I purchased one that works great (the Janome O2 foot). I personally find it useful to use a 1/4" foot that has a guide along the side to help me keep my fabric lined up
Large Throat Space
This is another super useful one for quilters, especially if you plan to quilt your own quilts. The throat space is the distance from the arm of the machine to the needle - on my machine it is 9" but some machines are even larger. I find 9" to be sufficient for up to a twin size quilt - I can squeeze a queen size quilt through but it is a tight fit.
Automatic Thread Cutter
This is not only a huge time saver when sewing, but it leaves you with fewer threads to trim later. This was probably the most frequently mentioned feature in my post - once you have used a machine with an automatic thread cutter, it would be a difficult feature to give up.
Automatic Needle Up/Down
On a sewing machine, there is a wheel on the side that can move the needle up and down, but many machines also have an automatic needle up/down button. It is very useful and one I would require if I was buying a new machine.
Machines with a drop-in bobbin are great because it is much easier to see if you are running low on bobbin thread. I also think they are a little easier to use.
Speed (and Speed Control)
I am not a fast sewer, but there are times when I put the pedal to the metal on my machine and I am grateful for the speed. If you are a newer sewer, this may not be something you would appreciate yet, but the more sewing you do, the faster you will want to go.
It is also nice to have speed control. This means that you have the ability to control the max speed on your machine - this is particularly nice if you are teaching a new quilter or if you are working on something where you need to proceed carefully.
I am surprised when I see people not using their extension table - I use mine 100% of the time! It really helps to have an extended work surface when piecing and the extra space helps support your quilt while quilting. I do a ton of sewing and if I don't have my extension table attached, my shoulder gets sore.
Alternatively, there are tables (or you can DIY a table) that have a cutout for your sewing machine to sit flush with the table.
More Useful (But Maybe Not Essential) Sewing Machine Features
Presser Foot Pressure Adjustment
I have this on my machine and I do use it. While I maybe wouldn't consider it a make-it-or-break-it feature, I love that that I can lower the pressure a little bit while quilting. Because my presser foot isn't pushing down on my quilt quite as hard, I think it helps reduce puckers while quilting.
Honestly, I didn't know that there were machines out there with this option but how amazing is that! There are some Bernina models that use a larger bobbin. I would love to have this feature.
My machine has a needle threader, but I almost never use it! If you have trouble with your eyesight or just find needle threading a little tricky, this is a great feature and it is pretty common on modern machines. I have been assured that when I get a little bit older, I might appreciate this feature more.
Low Bobbin Warning
My machine does not have this feature, but I can see how it would be useful (especially when quilting).
Several people mentioned this feature. My machine has a knee lift, but I have never used it! I am going to look into giving it a try.
Having good lighting when sewing is very important. If your machine doesn't have a great light, you can supplement with task lighting (that is what I do with this lamp) or you can add an LED strip light to your machine (like this one), but it is never quite as good as having a bright work surface at your machine.
Integrated Dual Feed System
My machine has this (it's called Acufeed) and I love it, but I wouldn't consider it totally crucial. The way that it works is that you can buy feet for your machine that actually clip into the dual feed system and work as a walking foot - that way your fabric is fed more evenly through the machine and doesn't shift.
You can buy different types of feet that clip in (I have a regular walking foot, a 1/4" foot, and a stitch-in-the-ditch foot - there are lots of options!). I actually don't use the 1/4" Acufeed foot for piecing because it is quite loud and I feel like I get a more accurate 1/4" seam with my O2 foot. The 1/4" foot is wonderful for attaching binding to my quilt.
I don't really use this feature on my machine, but it is great if you stand while you sew.
Honestly, I had to look this one up because I wasn't familiar with it but several people mentioned it so I wanted to make sure it was included. With this feature, your needle stays down and your presser foot lifts when you stop sewing so that you can pivot your project. This would be great for applique, changing directions while quilting, sewing curves, etc.
My machine doesn't have this, but it is something I am considering adding to my machine. It is a laser that you can use as a guide when piecing (something like half square triangles) and quilting. There are a few machines that have one built in, but you can also buy them (like this one here). If anyone has added one to their machine, I would be very interested to hear about your experience!
You are probably now wondering WHICH machines have these features - that list is coming soon! I am working on a list of recommended machines at different price points and will have that ready for you soon!