Margaret Mary, Therese, and I had recently discussed the topic of what to look for in a basic sewing machine; a Ravelry group (log in required) is also exploring the topic.
Margaret Mary is the most experienced seamstress of all of us Church Ladies. Below follows her advice, which I am sharing in her (extremely busy) stead.
I've owned 2 machines; a Singer I bought in college (fairly basic, steel body, a few decorative stitches, all mechanical - no computerized features, automatic buttonhole attachment), and a Viking/Husqvarna I got about 15 years ago (more decorative stitches and auto buttonholes, computerized features, I can get tons of add-ons and bought a foot that does quilting through multiple layers).
I've sewn miles of fabric, literally, and would feel perfectly comfortable with a machine that had only the following features:
- Stitches - straight stitch (obviously), zig-zag, and running zig-zag for knits. Everything else is extra. I use my decorative stitches on little girl dresses, etc. But none of them are on the essentials list.
- Buttonholes - The most basic machines have buttonhole features that will make the stitches but not stop automatically at a certain length. This is workable, but not nearly as convenient as a machine that will automatically make ten identical 16 centimeter buttonholes on the front of your blouse. If there's a choice, go with something that does buttonholes automatically.
- Construction - It is almost impossible to find a metal sewing machine anymore. This was a big surprise to me when I was shopping, but C' est la Vie. I used to like using my magnetic seam gauge and pincushion stuck on the machine, but I'm not so old that I can't adapt.
- Computerized - again, not essential, but easy to use. When my old, mechanical one was not working quite right, my husband or I could take it apart to various degrees and make it better. That's not as possible with the new one.
- Case - get a case for storage unless you have a dedicated table for the thing or never plan to use it away from home. It's likely the case will not be included in the price of your machine.
- Find out where you can have it serviced. You'll want it to be someplace local and fairly convenient. Repairs on any model are outrageously priced, so look into a warranty of some kind, but don't overpay for one. Really, unless you get a lemon, machines need few repairs. I had to replace a presser foot on my Singer and the arm that lifts my Viking broke once. Those are the only repairs I've ever had in a lot of years, but the prices are ridiculous.