On a sewing machine, the area under the needle holds the parts that are known as the shuttle, bobbin and feed dog. With a free arm machine, the same area extends out to let you manipulate fabric easier under and around the needle. Portable sewing machines can be found with free arms.
These are the machines that aren’t set into a cabinet. However, not all portable sewing machines have a free arm. A lot of people like a free arm machine better for working with pieces that are curved like cuffs, collars and other smaller items.
When sewing long, straight pieces of fabric, there is no advantage to the free arm. A majority of machines with free arms are equipped as well with a plate which snaps on and off as well to give you an area for straight stitching fabric pieces which are flat. Many people prefer the option of a free arm for when they need to work on a pants or sleeve bottom. It makes it much easier to sew these pieces, allowing you room to fit smaller things onto the machine to sew them, instead of using large pieces of material and patching them together. Whether you are attaching tubular shaped pieces onto a garment or doing the finishing touches, an option of a free arm on your sewing machine can really come in handy.
A free arm machine, like all portables, lets you store it easily if you do not have a dedicated sewing room. All you need to do is snap the cover on top and stash it in a convenient closet or corner. Do not ever, however, store the machine with a cover, even if its fabric, or you will risk grit and dust accumulating in sensitive parts of the machine or damage from objects falling on it.
If you have a cabinet that the sewing machine is set in, you will have to adapt your techniques of sewing for awkward, small pieces. Some call this technique sewing in a teacup, and it requires you to fit a cuff or sleeve around the shank of the machine. Then the bulk of the fabric will be above the needle encasing the shank.
What sewing machine you choose will be a matter of budget, preference and how much storage space you have. Cabinet machines can be more expensive depending upon the kind of wood they are made of, etc., however they can also be a more attractive piece of furniture. Free arm machines can be easily stored, especially if you do not need a machine with a lot of extra features, and can be more friendly on your bank account.
Whether you prefer a cabinet, free arm or standard portable sewing machine, there will be instances where the fabric you are using won’t behave with your machine in quite the way you want it to, and you’ll have to be creative to finish your stitching job. This is part of the challenge and fun of sewing – being smarter than your sewing machine.