The world of machine embroidery makes a distinction between people who create designs from A to Z and those who only modify details (size, position, rotation, colors). There are very few cheap, high-level design software out there, and the vast majority only run on Windows. It’s hard to get information on such software and we couldn’t find any serious comparison other than this one from a manufacturer, which disappeared from their site.
A viewer/transformer/converter to import, view, adapt (a bit) and transcode a machine embroidery file. There is free software that does this, for example WILCOM TrueSizer or MyEditor
A plotter (vectorizer) for translating a raster image (*.jpg, *.png, etc.) composed of color pixels into a vector (manipulable shape). This kind of functionality is available in almost any drawing software, for example Inkscape. This tool should also make it possible to reduce colors, eliminate small areas, etc. of a raster image. Image processing software like the free GIMP can also reduce colors.
A vector graphics editor to create and/or adapt imported vector drawings. A vector object consists of either just a stroke, just a fill, or both. The editor should allow you to adjust colors, shape, rotation, position, line width, etc. It should also include smoothing and additive geometry operations. Since we can import vector drawings, we can at the limit do without them, but that makes the work more complicated.
A digitizer (digitizer) to translate a vector design into configurable embroidery objects. Here is an example: A thick line around a circle is a drawing object, a satin border around a circle is an embroidery object.
An embroidery object editor, operating on similar principles to the vector editor, but also allowing detailed configuration of stitch generation (density, type of embroidery, pattern, underlays, color, borders, etc.)
A stitch editor (for embroidery plan generated from embroidery objects or for embroidery packages imported with a machine file)
A lettering module to create lettering directly, from fonts already digitized into embroidery objects.
Good software integrates these modules seamlessly and offers additional functionality, e.g. management of yarn palettes, hoops, pull/push compensation for fabrics, photo transformation, etc. It should be able to export an embroidery plan for any machine format.
The only affordable software in this category are Stitch Era and Embird. Stitch Era is available for rental (a basic version at $36/2 months, a full version for $192/year) and can be obtained for free for education under certain conditions.
The only interesting free and open source solution at the moment (May 2018/February 2021) is the Inkstitch extension for Inkscape, for which we wrote a tutorial. Inkstitch is more difficult to learn than software intended for the general public since you have to learn a lot of features of the Inkscape drawing software. In a context of education in computer tools, this does not pose a problem, since learning technical drawing software is part of the desired ICT knowledge. Knowledge of Inkscape will also be useful for laser cutting, logo design, etc.
The best-known embroidery software editor is Wilcom, notably for its professional E4.5 product or more recently the semi-professional Hatch. Their products seem to be popular in education (also according to their site), however, we didn’t test them because a Wilcom salesman decided we weren’t worthy of being customers. Wilcom is also at the origin of several software sold by the manufacturers.
Embroidery software can be classified according to nine “modules”:
Work with raster and vector images (import, edit, and scan both types of formats)
Geometric primitives. Modifying and arranging objects (essential functions for digitizing and editing embroidery objects)
Lettering and monograms
Rows of stitches (fill, outline, compensating stitches, underlay stitches, jump stitches and break stitches) including parametrization, conversion, etc.
Traverse objects (examine sequences of objects, see objects by color, etc.)
Embroidery visualization (realistic (3D), with rows of stitches (2D), with lines (without stitches), and with stitches