WHAT DIGITIZING SOFTWARE SHOULD YOU USE?

How to choose the software of your dreams.

I’m not sure why people keep asking me this. Yes, I’m a digitizer but I’m not out there comparing every digitizing program. And it turns out a lot of those asking already have software.

Basically, if you have any reputable digitizing software, you can do most any basic type of thing you might need. By basic I mean typical types of stitches like fills, satins, runs, motif stitches, etc. 

You can do appliqué, lace, filled designs, logos, redwork, etc. Possibly not with just one or two clicks but when you get down to it, a stitch is just a needle penetration and theoretically you could make a very sophisticated design with just a manual single stitch tool. It would take a long time but it’s totally possible.

Today’s embroiderer generally wants something more than that and they want it to be easy, quick, and painless. Remote controls and automation have spoiled us for doing any actual real work.

Before we get to that…

WHY DO YOU WANT TO DIGITIZE?

If you just got your embroidery machine, you aren’t ready for digitizing. I don’t care if you are a graphics designer and you’re expert in the full Adobe line. While graphic skills are certainly helpful they don’t translate to making machine embroidery designs.

The best training for learning to digitize is watching lots and lots of designs sew. All kinds of designs and start analyzing them. Really watch them from the first to the last stitch.

You won’t know beans about about why some work and others do at first. Indeed, good embroidery is not just a good design—you need proper embrodery techniques and you’ll need time to perfect those too.

But over time you’ll see a pattern. You’ll start to notice that some designs work better than others. Maybe only on some fabrics and not so great on others. You’ll notice that some designs from some sources consistently work better than others.

Get rid of poor performers; they don’t get better with time, in fact it’s just the opposite. As you become more attuned to good embroidery, you’ll be more particular about your stitch outs.

Another thing you should know before you jump in to digitizing is that it takes dedication to learn the software. You’ll be testing a design multiple times before it’s ready for prime time.

DIGITIZING IS NOT FOR EVERYONE!

Some people (like me) find digitizing stimulating, relaxing, and fulfilling. Others only get frustrated. Well, yes, it can be frustrating getting up and running if you don’t have the right attitude about it.

Learning anything is “downtime” if you’re looking at it as a business and it’s taking time away from income producing tasks. However, if you’re looking at it as play time or self-enrichment time, it’s an entirely different point of view.

If you’ve given it a fair shot and you don’t love it, do something else!

A digital file is not an embroidery design. Only when it’s stitched does it really become embroidery and if you have an embroidery business you may be better off (and happier!) subbing out any custom digitizing you may need.

I can tell you that stock designs are so ridiculously cheap these days that unless you need sometime special, just buy the design.

HOW MANY DIGITIZING PROGRAMS DO YOU ALREADY HAVE?

When I used to teach Digitizing 101 during my Cactus Punch days (pre 2006), I had people who had 3 or more programs none of which they could use. They had seen some amazing demo and snapped up the software thinking they would instantly be able to make whatever they wanted.

Let me give you an insider tip on demos. I’ve presented demos on all manner of programs. not just embroidery and it’s somewhat akin to being a snake oil salesman.

I could make sophisticated programs look like a cake walk because I knew what the audience’s hot buttons were and how to make the software sing. Conversely, I could also make the same software look really hard or “bad” demonstrating it’s weaknesses or things it wasn’t really designed to do well.

Unlike popular common programs such as text editors, there’s no common file format for embroidery programs. Even programs that are “children” of high end programs don’t have the same file extensions and can’t be modified as native files in other “relatives.” This means a new embroidery program means starting all over.

FIND ONE AND STICK TO IT

Word processors and page layout programs come in a range of prices and offer different features. You need to look at your budget, what will run on your computer, and what program best matches the features you want or need.

Same thing with embroidery programs. Today, most of them will generate a file you can stitch on your machine and if not, there are conversion programs that can. So gone are the days when you could only use Viking software on your Viking. Now you can use Janome’s or anything else.

Fifteen to 20 years ago, we needed to rely more on in-store dealer educators for training on embroidery. That’s no longer the case since we have YouTube where you can find a video on just about anything you ever want to do. 

Be careful though! Some of them look like they know what they’re doing but are creating something totally unsewable.

Just last night I watched a video by a “Janome software expert” who, while demonstrating the software very well, was creating satin stitches that were less than .5 mm wide.  Good thing she couldn’t hear me screaming at her!

Within the first year of digitizing, I went through 3 programs before settling on the third, which I still use today. Each time I switched, the designs I created in the previous program(s) weren’t accessible in the newer one.

Over the years, I’ve looked at other programs and while they add very tempting features, key things that were at my core list either weren’t present or present but not “standard” according to my views and ended up as deal breakers.

Fifteen to 20 years ago, if you had a home machine, your software choices were usually limited to whatever matched that brand. That’s no longer the case. Now, in addition to the machine branded software, independent companies also have embroidery software so the choices can become mind boggling.

Whenever you buy any software for any purpose, you first need to know what you want to do with it. Want to write a book? You probably aren’t going to do it in SimpleText or NotePad. You might use Word for a novel or something like InDesign for a catalog or highly illustrated, tightly formatted book. 

WHEN TO MOVE ON

Although I did say get something and stick with it, there are times to cut your losses and just move:

  • If your software is no longer competitive with features in other programs that you’d really like to use, it might be time to switch.
  • If you have to upgrade your computer and your software is no longer compatible and an upgrade will cost as much as a new program, it might be time to switch.
  • If your software is just too frustrating and it brings out your inner evil twin, it might be time to switch.

Do not use the excuse “but I already have software that I haven’t figured it out yet” to prevent you from finding something you can use and will love.

SO HOW DO YOU PICK?

Generally, if you ask in the various software centered user groups on Facebook, you’ll hear that they love their software. Most people tend to be loyal to their investment (has to do with the economics of sunk cost to some extent). 

Spend some time lurking. Read through the posts and see what kinds of questions are being asked and what the answers are. This could be a clue as to what’s difficult with the program but more often than not, it’s a clue to how new the person is and how little time they’ve spent learning the basics.

Instead of asking what they recommend, ask some of the following:

  • what do you like best about your embroidery software?
  • what do you like least and why?
  • how do you use it?
  • what features to you use most?
  • what do you wish it did that it doesn’t?
  • what other programs have you used and why did you switch?
  • why did you pick this one?
  • how long have you been using this one?
  • how often do you use it?
  • do you sell this program? (People who sell a program have a vested reason in making it sound amazing no matter what they really think.)

Be wary of the answer, “I like it because it’s easy.” That doesn’t tell you anything. 

I think Punto is easy because it works like Adobe Illustrator but I can tell you that learning to use Illustrator in the beginning was not easy at all. Most new embroiderers would think Punto was really hard because it has few automated tools and it just doesn’t look like there are enough buttons to do anything. (I disagree…I  like the streamlined interface.)

Also, any program can be easy if all one does is one or two basic things in it. You want to find the people who are really pushing the envelope more than that and flexing the program’s muscles.

WATCH ON-LINE VIDEOS

themselves. I’ve made a couple of videos on StitchArtist because I can never remember how to do something and I can always just go rewatch the clip.

Right now, I’m making videos on Wilcom Hatch because I just downloaded the 30 day trial. I really didn’t want to like it because it requires me to use Windows but I might have to go “to the dark” side to digitize. I’m having quite a lot of fun with it and I’m extremely impressed with the features.

Pay attention to who’s making those videos. Are they professional digitizers or someone just getting started? Do they just know how to use the software or do they actually embroider and know how to make a design that will sew? You can make .5mm satin stitches but they aren’t going to sew well, if at all!

DOWNLOAD A TRIAL AND THEN WORK IT

Many programs offer a free trial. In some cases, these may be “live” programs for 30 days or so. Or they may be “stunted” in that you can try everything out but you can’t actually save or sew anything. 

Believe me, just because it looks good on the screen doesn’t mean it will sew well. The design may do some funky cha-cha-cha step in the middle of a curved fill or throw in trims where they aren’t needed, do unnecessary traveling, and other weird not-so-good things. Those can be hard to catch even when watching a virtual sewout on screen.

HOW “NEW” IS THE APP OR THE COMPANY?

For example, Embrilliance is a relatively new kid on the blog but Brian Baillie, the genius behind that software, has been developing embroidery software for a very long time for Baby Lock.

Other programs that are “new” are actually subsets of high-end commercial software companies like Wilcom, Pulse, and Compucom. Hatch is Wilcom’s newest entry for the home market but it’s “parents” are very old.

Other “new” programs really are new and may be very basic. New programs tend to have unknown bugs in them that aren’t discovered until a large mass of users are doing all their “normal” things with them that no developer ever thought to test. 

Embroidery programs are very complex and require a lot of time to develop well; they mature over time but they should be updated and maintained on a regular basis to maintain compatibility with newer OS’s if nothing else.

Unfortunately, it appears that’s the state my current digitizing program has fallen into and now it’s no longer keeping up with the competition.

BUT WHAT ONE SHOULD I GET?

All programs have some cool thing they do better, easier, and faster than any other program. Of course, all those things look really important, necessary, and something you just have to have when you see them demo’d by a good snake oil salesman. However, no program has them all. 

What you have to decide is whether that’s something you’ll really use and how often.

For example, Stitch Artist has a type of fill it calls “lace,” which will instantly place a cross-grid fill in either single pass or double pass. 

That’s really cool but if your software can create a fill that will travel on the edge and can start the stitches on the edge, you can replicate that by stacking two fills and just changing the stitch direction on the second one to oppose the first one. 

Is the latter more work? Yes. Difficult? No, not really. Will you use that a lot? Maybe. 

I personally don’t like “instant lace” that uses a background grid like that but I have used that stitch for embossed monograms for towels and it saved me quite a bit of time. 

Can I do that in Punto? No, because it won’t travel on the edge and instead travels through the fill and boogers it up. Can I do it in Hatch? Yep, it’s just requires the more “manual” method. I can also get the same look with a motif fill.

Auto applique is another cool feature but if you seldom do it, appliqué is not that hard to do without an auto stitch. And really, auto appliqué doesn’t always work well on complex multi-piece appliqués.

Auto features are cool and can be definite time savers but they also need to be editable, not just “fixed.”

I’ve seen auto appliqué many times but in most programs the tack down is a run stitch and I prefer a zigzag so that feature didn’t add value for me. If it’s a cool feature but you don’t use it or it won’t produce what you want then it’s of no value. Also, because Punto is vector based, it makes it easy for me to create a clean SVG cutter file from the artwork, not a bitmap from the stitching line. Another thing that’s important to me.

Some auto features can take longer to fix than just do from scratch the old fashioned way. But just because a program has auto something or other, doesn’t mean you have to use it. A lot of programs have “magic wand” auto digitizing and I never use that.

“Auto” does not equal perfect or possibly even acceptable 100% of the time!

What if you are primarily a quilter? Many programs today can do an instant stipple. (Punto can’t, drawing stipple stitches is a real drag!)

If you prefer echo quilting, then ArtStitch provides that as a feature. It can also export files in formats for quilting machines in addition to all the common embroidery formats.

Hatch as a stitch type it calls echo quilting but it’s not continuous and not what a quilter would call echo quilting. I need to look at it more carefully to see what can be done with it.

If you only need echo quilting for a few designs, then find a graphics program that can create that for you so that your entire design can be made in just one program.

Are high quality fonts important for you? Then Wilcom Hatch is a great choice. Their built in and optional fonts are native files and can actually be edited and they are all professionally digitized. 

Plus, Hatch can auto generate a TrueType font into stitches. Once again, auto features may still require some tweaking to optimize and not every TTF will result in stitchable text.

Yes, Embrilliance opens up keyboard fonts to any designer but do keep in mind those alphabets are stitch files, not native files and not all those fonts are well-digitized because anyone can create them. And, because they are stitch files, they don’t have editable outlines. Even built in fonts aren’t editable even if you have Stitch Artist.

As they say “there’s an app for that” but it just might not be in the app you have.

ARE YOU A MAC USER?

I am. It takes a lot for me to do Windows. 

Yes, I have Parallels on my primary computer. In fact, I have both XP and Windows 10 running in addition to my Mac OS. 

Native Mac embroidery apps are few. Look for one that has been written from the ground up for Mac, not one that’s a kludgey migration of an outdated Windows version of the software made to run on a Mac. (That’s not “true” anything!)

However, because we are Mac users, we have the option of running Windows software on our Macs. So really, if we’re willing to do that, we have even more choices open to us. And, if you’re one of those Mac users who came from a Windows background, a Windows app may even feel more familiar to you.

Embrilliance does come in both Mac and Windows versions. The serial number will work on either platform so it’s possible to have it on both. I’m not aware of another program that will do that.

In the past, parallel port and serial port dongles were a hurdle for Mac users but today’s dongles are USB and can generally work with Windows apps on a Mac. I’ve run Masterworks, Generations, Bernina, and other dongles just fine on my Mac.

A dongle-less app is a high on my must have list. Neither Wilcom Hatch nor Embrilliance require a dongle.

I guess my point here is just because you have a Mac, don’t let a cool Windows app that is a better match for you pass by because you refuse to “do Windows.” (Ummm, guilty as charged…)

WHY DO I HAVE 2 VERSIONS OF WINDOWS ON MY MAC?

XP has been on my Mac since whenever it came out. Back in the “olden days” all the home machines used Windows files and only a few had a Mac version. 

Consequently, conversion software to create all the formats ran only on Windows. We created our CD installer program on Windows. I even still have some apps that won’t work on anything newer than XP.

Windows 10 is a very recent addition and it was installed expressly to run the Wilcom Hatch software. It, too, has very cool and unique features that are very enticing. (Hatch, not Windows 10!)

Watch for new content on Hatch. I’m only 3 days into my 30 day trial and so I’m still just getting oriented.

SHOULD I GET HOME SOFTWARE OR PROFESSIONAL?

In the past, there was a definite line in the sand between home/hobby digitizing software and commercial/professional software in both features and price. These days that moat is shrinking to a blurry trickle in some cases as far as features and while the commercial prices have come down some, you could add a new top-of-the-line embroidery machine at some of the current prices.

The big guys like Wilcom and Pulse can make their software available to more users by making home variations with different feature sets. However, they need to reserve enough of the really cool stuff for their high end versions (just add another 0 onto the end of the home price and then some!) or why would digitizers spend the extra money? 

And, their home versions still need to stay competitive with other home embroidery software that are adding new features. They’re definitely being squeezed these days.

The fact that they have a bigger market with the home segment has allowed the price to come down but it’s still out of the range of many wanna-be digitizers.

Independent guys that don’t have that split are free to add as many features as are viable.

Embrilliance, for example, has “levels” that expand the features while still staying within the hobby budget. Right now there are 3 levels but who’s to say there won’t be a fourth that replicates the high end features in Wilcom and Pulse?

In any case, if you want high-end, top-of-the-line features, you’ll have to spend more money. If you’re just getting started and that’s your goal to have it all, then look for a program that has an upgrade path to “level up” as you become ready. (Both Hatch and Embrilliance have an upgrade path.)

Your machine only sews a stitch file and as long as you can create that, you’re fine. And if you sell your designs, typically you’ll only ever sell stitch files so it really makes no difference what software you use as long as you can create a quality embroidery design. 

In other words, having professional software doesn’t make you a professional.

LEARNING REQUIRES TIME & REPETITION

Learning a new program requires persistence. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to open any unfamiliar, reasonably sophisticated embroidery program for the first time and instantly create something worth stitching if you know nothing about similar software and you’ve never digitized before.

Each one has their own “language” although thankfully learning a new embroidery program is not as difficult as learning a new foreign language. However, you’ll never get proficient if you only dabble in it every now and then. You’ll only be figuring out what you’ve forgotten since the last time you launched the program. (Just like any number of other things in life.)

When I hired new digitizers at Cactus Punch, I told them it would be a year before they achieved a solid level of competence. A year! And these were talented artists whose only job was to digitize everyday five days a week.

That doesn’t mean you can’t create a good design in a much shorter period of time. With the tools available in today’s programs, it is possible to create something basic quite quickly.

It means that no matter what piece of artwork you have on your screen, you have a good idea how you will digitize it, whether that’s a realistic looking animal, a corporate logo with tiny text, a complex redwork design, a multi-piece appliqué, or free-standing lace. 

It means you know what stitch lengths, densities, and stitch types to use. You know how stitches affect fabric. You know how to use the tools in the program without having to stumble around. You know the the shortcut keys for functions you routinely use./p>

All that only comes from experience and practice. And you really need to be sewing and watching those designs until you are proficient.

While Malcolm Gladwell spoke of the “10,000 hour rule” to become “expert” in a skill, you really don’t need that long with today’s sophisticated software to create something as simple as a monogram or a basic appliqué. 

Yes, you need a lot of time to become an expert but maybe that’s not your goal. Maybe you just want to be able to create your own designs for your own projects. It’s not possible to be an expert at everything and really, it isn’t even necessary.

BUT WHAT ONE SHOULD I GET?

Umm, you already asked me that and I can’t tell you. 

I’m trying to figure that out for myself right now because the program I’ve been using since 1995 is no longer competitive feature wise. Yes, I have done all the updates on it but new features aren’t comparable to what’s being added to similar products. I paid more for the last upgrade than it would cost for me to buy Hatch.

Switching for me is more than just the sunk cost of the software. It means thousands of embroidery designs I’ll no longer be able to edit unless I still maintain Punto. It also disrupts my whole automation system. And it will mean lost productivity while I research and test other products. Then of course additional cost once I settle on that new thing and buy it.

Essentials has some great features but there are things in there that make me nuts. (Punto does too… just fewer of them and not to the same degree.)

Right now, I’m playing with Wilcom Hatch and it has many impressive features that I want as a long time professional digitizer but it’s missing at least one thing I’ve always considered a deal breaker (besides requiring Windows). It too has some of the desirable features home embroiderers want and it’s very affordable. 

Do I want to spend the extra $12K to upgrade to the version for the feature I think is a deal breaker? Ummm, no. That’s outside my budget and recall that I said budget was a factor when selecting new software. So that’s a bigger deal breaker.

Punto is strictly for digitizing whereas Hatch offers more tools for customizing and working with other designs (as does Embrilliance). I’m primarily concerned with digitizing aspects. I seldom work with “outside” designs so some features that would be important to me if I did aren’t much of a factor in choosing a new program.

I suspect Embrilliance Esentials might be better at resizing stitch files but I really don’t do a lot of that.

HOW TO GET STARTED

Talk to other digitizers. Play with various trials. Watch videos to see how the program is used.  Make up a list of what you must have, what would be nice to have, and what would be a deal breaker if it were missing. 

If you’re still a novice embroiderer, continue watching those designs sew and improve your embroidery techniques instead of rushing into digitizing. There’s time for that and in the meantime you can be researching what will be best for you.

Then just pick one. Pick one and learn it inside and out. There’ll be features you love, features that drive you crazy, and features you still long for. But, then, isn’t that just like life?

Note: I know there are tons of other programs out there and just because I didn’t mention them doesn’t mean they aren’t worth evaluating. I’m a digitizer not a software reviewer and learning new software doesn’t pay the bill!

RESOURCES

  • Embrilliance software is often available in our shop as a physical product that will be shipped (U.S. only) or as digital download from Embrilliance
    • Not sure? Download a demo version to try out any ot the apps or get the free version, previously known as Alpha Tricks Express, now known as Embrilliance Express to open access to the thousands of keyboard fonts available as BX installer files
  • Anatomy of Design is an e-book designed for embroiderers who want to understand what’s going with designs and therefore make better choices when selecting designs, fabric, stabilizers, and threads
  • Other general supplies can be found on the Resources page
  • Get a 30-trial of Wilcom Hatch Wilcom is the pro digitizer’s software of choice and Hatch is an extremely well-priced full featured program
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