1. If your machine has fonts, and designs on-board it's a good idea to work with those while you learn the basics of machine embroidery. Trying to learn how to use add-on software at the same time will just be overwhelming.
2. Learn the terminology of embroidery software -- i.e. the difference between digitizing, and editing...the difference between digitized fonts, and true type fonts, etc. And understand that there is no magic wand included with the software programs that claim to automatically digitize graphics, or photos for you -- you'll still need to understand the process to get a good design file from those automatic functions. I've included a note on design cards, downloading designs, and glossary of terms at the end of this article to help you make sense of all this.
3. You are not limited to using the software that is offered by the embroidery machine manufacturer. In other words, if you have a Brother machine, you don't have to use Brother embroidery software. As long as the software will generate a design file in the format your machine uses, you can use any software you choose. For example, Brother and Baby Lock machines accept files in the PES format, Janome machines accept files in the JEF format, Bernina machines accept the ART format, so just make sure your software can create (export) the necessary file format.
4. Consider your additional equipment needs. Most of the software on the market is for Windows based computers. Now that is not to say that if you have a MAC, you won't be able to use the software of your choice, but you may need to install additional software in order for your MAC to use a Windows based program. Additionally, if your embroidery machine does not have a USB port, you will need a card reader/writer, and a blank card to transfer designs to your machine. If your machine does have a USB port, then you want to make sure that you can transfer your designs -- some machines (most notably Singer) do not have the ability to save designs on-board, but rather require that the computer be connected to the embroidery machine as the source of the design.
5. Think about the specific functions you will need in your software. If what you want to do is import a design, and combine it with some text, then you really don't need a powerful digitizing program. What you're looking to do there is simply editing, and lettering.
6. Understand "modules." Much of the affordable software is not as reasonably priced as it would first appear because you will have to purchase a separate "module" for each function. For example: Embird starts with a Basic program that will allow you to edit, re-size, etc. If you want to be able to add text to the design (or just create text based designs), you need to purchase the Font Engine module as well. If you want to create your own designs from a graphic, or from scratch, then you need to add the Digitizing module. And, if you want to use digitized fonts instead of true type fonts, then you need to purchase Alphabets. So, everything is sold separately, and you must have the Basic program in order to use the modules. This is not a bad thing, just something that you should be aware of when making your choice.
7. You do not necessarily need one of these stand-alone software packages to transfer design files to your machine. Some machines come with transfer software included that will allow you to transfer designs with a USB cable, or memory stick, while others may require a card reader/writer to transfer designs. Here's an example of how that works:
I have a Baby Lock Ellure Plus that is equipped with a USB port, and a card slot. I also have a Brother PES card reader/writer, and a blank card. I can purchase, and download a design file in the PES format and save it on my computer. I then attach the card reader/writer to my computer through a USB port, and transfer the design to the card that I've placed in my reader/writer. Once the design is transferred to the card (a matter of seconds), I remove the card from the reader/writer, and place it in the card slot on my machine. Now I can access that design on my embroidery machine.
The card reader/writer, and the blank card cost me about $125. The software that is included with that has only one function -- to transfer the file from my computer to the card. Now unless I need to modify a design file, re-size it substantially, or combine it with another design or text, I don't need any additional software.
The point is, if you are working exclusively with purchased design files, and text, you may not need any additional software at all. Give yourself some time to decide if you need additional software, and just how much you need.
Design Cards: Most of the embroidery machine manufacturers offer groups of design files in their format on cards. You simply place the card in the card slot of your embroidery machine to access the files. Determine which file format your machine will accept before purchasing cards. For example, if you have a Brother machine, then you need a card that is in PES format. Some higher end machines will allow you to edit and combine designs, while others do not. If your machine does not allow editing or combining, and you wanted to add some text, you would just do it in 2 steps. Example: you want to place a teddy bear design, and a name on a blanket. Stitch out the teddy bear design. Leave the blanket hooped, and in the machine. Go to your machine lettering screen, create your text, position it, and stitch it out. See? No additional software needed.
Fonts vs Alphabets: With respect to design cards, fonts and alphabets are 2 different animals. When you are purchasing alphabets on a design card, you are getting design files, not fonts. In other words, when you place the card in the card slot on your machine, you will not be able to access those letters through the lettering screen of the machine. A card with 26 letters contains 26 different design files -- it's the same as purchasing a card with say 26 different flower designs. When you are purchasing alphabets as an add-on to your software, you are getting digitized fonts.
Digitized Fonts vs True Type Fonts: Most of the design software programs include a module, or function for true type fonts. This means that the software will accept, and try to process any font you have loaded on your computer. I say "try" because what the software is doing is digitizing your font on the fly, and not all fonts are suitable for embroidery. In most cases, you will need to make some adjustments to those fonts by increasing the pull compensation. That's not a difficult thing to do, I just mention it because I know how frustrating it can be when you're learning how to use the software, and you have no idea why your text is not sewing out nicely.
Digitized fonts are just that -- already digitized as opposed to the software attempting to digitize on the fly. In other words, someone has already taken the time to make all the adjustments so that they sew out properly. These are lettering fonts, not design files, so you would access them in your software through the lettering feature, and just type your text on the keyboard. If you're purchasing software with a lettering feature, check to see which fonts are included, and which are available for purchase as an add-on.
I use both true type, and digitized fonts. When I am creating custom designs for customers, I often need a specific font for their logo so I need the ability to use true type fonts. When I'm creating designs for myself, or using stock designs and text for a customer, I prefer to use digitized fonts. So unless you really must have access to specific fonts, software that provides for only digitized fonts is probably fine for your needs.
As with anything else, it's always a good idea to research, and talk to other users before purchasing embroidery software. As an independent instructor I have seen far too many people come to me with very expensive embroidery software that is beyond the scope of what they need, or will ever use. They purchased it because it's what the dealer told them they needed. One student of mine who could not grasp the software she purchased with her machine actually went back to the dealer, and traded in the machine, and the software on a more expensive machine (and software) thinking that that would solve her problem. Guess what? She still doesn't understand the software because it's so much more than what she needs that it's overwhelming for her.
Most sewing machine dealers are interested in creating long term relationships with their customers so they aren't really interested in selling you something you don't need -- they will guide you in your machine, and software purchase based on your needs. Unfortunately, there are always those few who are only interested in selling what they can right now. If you are buying your first embroidery machine, and the dealer tells you that you must spend and additional $1,200 on software, then run (don't walk) to another dealer.
You can find full information (including demo videos) about Amazing Designs software here. I think this is one of the more user friendly software packages available. If you're a new embroiderer, and want to edit designs, and add lettering to your projects, the combo package that contains Edit 'N Stitch, and Personalize 'N Stitch is a good choice. You can always add Digitize 'N Stitch if you want to create your own designs. If your local dealer doesn't carry the software, you can purchase it from AllBrands.com or click on the Amazon advertisement to purchase there.
Glossary of Embroidery Software Terms:
Auto Digitizing -- The software creates a design file from an imported graphic file. I've yet to see a software program accomplish this with anything but the most simple of graphic designs, so don't expect too much.
Design Files -- These files give the embroidery machine instructions for stitching out the digitized design.
Digitizing -- Creating a machine stitch file. These files tell the embroidery machine what to do -- where to start, how long each stitch should be, what type of stitch to use, when to change colors, etc. It's a long learning curve to digitizing, so unless you're really interested in learning to do that, you don't need digitizing software.
Downloaded Embroidery Designs -- There are many on-line sources for embroidery designs. Most offer some free designs, along with a variety of designs for purchase. Choose the machine format (PES, JEF, ART, etc.), and download the zipped file to your computer. Unzip the downloaded file, and transfer it to your embroidery machine via a card reader/writer, or USB cable, and your design transfer software.
Design Card -- These cards contain embroidery designs in machine specific file formats. The card is placed in the card slot of your embroidery machine; the designs are accessed through the embroidery machine screen. Note: alphabets contained on design cards are not fonts, but rather individual design files.
Editing -- This function allows you to make changes to the design file. These changes can be something as simple as changing the color, or moderately re-sizing the design. You can also add to a design, or remove parts of it. Some editing programs allow you to combine designs, or add text. See File Formats to understand which files can be edited.
File Formats -- Machine manufacturers create a proprietary file format for their machines. Choose design files that match your machine format. Note that DSG files are design files that have not been formatted as a machine file. A DSG file is a "raw" design that can be edited, whereas a machine file such as PES, or JEF, cannot be fully edited. Machine files generally can be imported into your software for re-sizing, or combining with other designs or text. Many software packages provide for converting a machine file to a DSG file so that you can edit. You can save the DSG file, and then export it in machine format. By saving the DSG file as well as the machine file, you have the ability to go back to the DSG file to make changes, or adjustments, and re-export (is that a word?) it in machine format.
Module -- A specific unit of software that you purchase as an "add-on" for your embroidery software. Each unit, or module performs a different function such as lettering, editing, digitizing, etc.
Re-sizing -- Most embroidery machines, and embroidery software allow for changing the size of your design. It's important to note that making significant changes to the size of a design should be done within software so that the stitch count can be adjusted. If for example, you reduced a 4" design to a 1" design without adjusting the stitch count, you would have far too many stitches for the design to sew out properly. Conversely, if you enlarged a 1" design to become a 4" design without adjusting the stitch count, the result would be that there would not be enough stitches to cover the design area.
Stitch Count -- The total number of stitches in an embroidery design.
Transferring a Design -- Moving a machine design file from your computer to your embroidery machine. Make sure you have your machine dealer show you how this is accomplished.