I second the Janome Gem line of machines. They are wonderful and will give you years of service. They are inexpensive so you can save your money for a top of the line machine. As you advance in your quilting you will know more what you are looking for in a machine and have time to test run different brands.
You have gotten alot of good feed back. However, take a list with you of the features you are wanting, that way you will be sure to get what you want and not be overwhelmed by a sales person.
About needing a machine on the lower end of the budget...
Know that feeling really well. I got suckered into buying an entry level Babylock at a LQS because I wanted a machine I could take to a group quilting meeting. I have a nice embroidery machine but did not want to haul it over the river & the railroad and through the woods and the potholes on the highway. The BL9 is a good machine for what it is, but not for quilting. I didn't know & relied on the dealer who said it would be great for quilting. Yeah, not so much. Oh well.
I did some further research and ran across the Juki 2010Q. Have had it about a year and love it. All metal, not a lot of bells and whistles (other Juki models do have them, tho), but not suitable to take to class since it weighs nearly 38 lbs. Sews like a dream, auto thread cutter, knee lift, larger throat, quiet. I got it from icanhelpsew.com located in Meridian, MS. I also managed to get it with 6 months no interest financing. I later bought a Juki serger from an online dealer in San Marcos, CA which came with 12 months no interest financing. Being on a fixed income and with not a lot of "play" money, it was a major help to me and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
That said, for someone with limited sewing experience, assuming you have one, a local dealer is super and worth the difference between online $ and local $. I do not have such an animal. My closest Juki dealer is 125+ miles one way. If I want Husqvarna, Pfaff, Janome, Brother or Babylock from a reliable dealer, it's at least 115 miles, one way. I do have a Singer dealer about 60 miles away, but he has all the personality of a wet mop after a hard day's scrubbing. The Bernina dealer charges 20% more because the machine came from her. Bernina is out of my price range, anyway.
Even Joann or Hancock are 60 miles from me so online was the best option for me. However, if you would be going to a city when they are having a sewing expo (http://www.sewingexpo.com/) they have all kinds of machines for you to try out, some super deals on a lot of them and some have no interest financing to boot. If you're feeling lucky, they usually give away 2 sewing machines each day at the expo, too.
BTW, if you go to buy a machine and the dealer says "This is a 1/4 inch foot", make him/her put it on the machine, sew with it & PROVE it is a true quarter inch. My BL9 has 3 such feet (and two made by BL) and none of them sew the right size seam. Can't move the needle, either, so I have to wing it. Ditto for the free motion foot. Make 'em put it on & show you it will do it. Same goes for the walking foot. Try it out and sew several lines of crossing or intersecting quilting lines to make sure the pressure on the presser foot is not too high & will not give you ridges of fabric on the back where the lines cross. Learned those tips the hard way. :)
If I were you I would go into a sewing machine store and see what they have to offer in a used machine with the stiff you want then think about how much you want to spend and go with what you can afford. But don't buy something that you will have to replace because you have grown out of it. try to buy something that has more in your price range so you can grow into it. Buy something better than an entry level you will outgrow it fast if you really like quilting.
Earlier this year, I bought that same Brother (CS 6000i), for teaching my DD and DGD to sew (when they're comfortable enough on their own, I'll send the machine home with them). I've also used it and it's a wonderful machine! The only drawback is it has a "regular" sized harp/throat. This is really only a problem, if you plan to quilt large quilts. However, for the price, you really can't beat it! The accessories are relatively inexpensive, which is a huge plus!
Originally Posted by rhapsdy
Is it just me? I don't see the point in a "needle down option". Could someone please clarify why that option seems to be a necessity??
I haven't noticed manually lowering the needle to be a nuisance.
You mentioned that you "did not want to haul it over the river & the railroad and through the woods and the potholes on the highway".
Have you tried safety-belting it in, using the locking feature on the belt as you would do for a car seat?? That's what I do.
Needle down holds your stitch line in place and pops the foot up just a little so you can slip your next piece to sew closer to the needle. It is a must for aplique since you wont lose your stitching line.
I use it all the time.
It is also good for free motion quilting as it holds you stitching line instead of jumping a stitch out of line.
It is automatic so you dont have to move the needle yourself
I am a multi decade seamstress but relatively new to making quilt tops. I don't quilt them myself (they go to a LA'er).
When i started making quilt tops a year ago - I went to my local wal-mart and bought the Brother SQ9050 - couple hundred bucks - it's been an excellent machine and has a number of bells and whistles, many I've not used. I actually have now retired my other brother, a singer and an older bernina and use this one exclusively. While there are vastly differing opinions on buying 'the' brands from a LQS vs big box junk stores -- I will likely replace, when time, with another Wal-Mart machine. This machine costs about the same as the last repair on my older bernina! As much as I hate to say it - its a disposable machine... but an excellent machine for the money. Let me also add please that I live over an hour from the closest 'city' that carries the other machines. We each do what works best for us!