Hey Craig - I'm a self-taught sew-er (as opposed to a sewer and definitely not a tailor) who's been at it for many years. I've sewn costumes, regular clothes and outdoor clothing for the family and have dabbled in outdoor gear (parabolic cut tarps and 1 attempt at a tent) Wore out/outgrew the basic Singer that my moms gave me; I've bought 2 sergers and returned them (both were cheap and did not perform well - from my perspective) I've sewn cottons, silks, organzas/organdy, all kinds of nylons and all kinds of fleece, denims and a little leather. OK - about 8 yrs ago, I was in bad need of a machine. Saw an ad in the local paper for new/reconditioned sewing machines being sold at the local Holiday Inn. I was so hard up, I actually went to look. For $150 I bought a machine that was said to be the same that is/was used in Middle School/High School Home Ec or Teen Living classes. I have never been more pleased!!!! (and I'm picky!)
I can't find a brand name on it (I vaguely remember it as being a Necchi brand) but the printing on the machine/manual says "Dressmaker Model 6800 Heavy Duty".
Whatever you choose, make sure that it has all metal gears! The fancy stitches can be nice to have, but think twice if you only see yourself doing basic construction. If you want to do decorative stitching check out the electronic machines with interchangeable cartridges for different stitches. (this would be your 2nd machine)
Hope this helps and Good Luck!