Software Review: QuiltSOFT for Windows

The very first dedicated quilt design software I ever owned was Quilter’s Design Studio for Windows, now known as QuiltSOFT. That was 1994, and the version of the program was 1.0. At $100 it was a big expense at that time, but there were only two primary choices on the market, Electric Quilt version 1.0 and QDS. Since EQ was a DOS program which, in that version, wouldn’t even support a mouse, I opted for the only Windows-based choice available.

What I got was a mixed bag. The program supported a mouse and used an interface that was fairly close to the standard Windows template. It had a block-drawing module, a library of blocks, and a quilt layout mode and you could do some fairly impressive things with it. I designed one of my early quilts on it, based on a stylized dragonfly block which I drew with QDS.

The problems with it seemed to be internal. It was written not in a standard programming language, like C or Pascal, but instead in a program known as Windows Toolbook. When you installed the program you installed Toolbook, and the program had its architectural underpinnings in a “go-between” interpreter. The problem with this is that it was enormously resource-intensive. It seemed like every time you turned around you were getting a message that you were “low on Windows resources” or worse, a flat lock-up that forced you to restart Windows. And of course you usually lost your work.

Some operations, like yardage calculation and even quilt layout, were severely curtailed by these limitations. In addition the block drawing module was designed such that if you made a mistake in drawing a line you could only correct it by starting over again from the beginning. Not the beginning of the line, but the beginning of the block!

I recount these painful experiences because these have colored my perception of QDS and those of many other early users of the program, and it is a significant hurdle to overcome in considering a much more recent version, 3.0. I still see slams of QDS with some regularity in the newsgroup and on the online services, and have more than once recommended against its purchase to those contemplating quilt programs.

So is the new version any better?

The answer is both yes, and no.

Over the last few years and two upgrade iterations, the program has improved in almost all respects. It has a very nice interface, for one thing, one of the best-planned of the quilt design programs. Like these other programs, it has two basic screens, one for quilt design (the default when you open the program) and a block design screen which you can bring up through a dropdown menu or by using the key combination CTRL-B.

Each of these has a highly configurable snap-to-grid feature, and the necessary tools for doing the job are conveniently available at the bottom and/or side of the screen. On the quilt design screen a color palette and a large selection of fill patterns are available in a moveable bar to color and pattern quilt blocks to simulate the appearance of fabric. Fabric libraries per se do not exist in Quilter’s Design Studio, but the combination of colors and patterns available is not a bad substitute if you do not insist on duplicating a fabric exactly and will settle for an approximation. There is also an option to create custom color palettes with the familiar red-green-blue slider bars.

A quilt layout can be accomplished a couple of ways, either by duplicating your original blocks and laying them out one or two at a time, or through an “array” feature which allows you to automate layout through the selection of one of several block arrangements available from a graphic menu. There are one-block arrays which arrange a single block in different configurations, and two-block arrays which alternate two selected blocks in a choice of four positionings.

At first, because of the block selected to illustrate the available arrays, it is difficult to tell what you’re looking at in the graphical array menu, but after a little study the various arrangements are decipherable. The main limitation of the array feature is that it will only allow you to lay out six blocks in either direction, at least in the default block size of 6 inches. One of the pleasures of this program is picking a couple of blocks, choosing a two-block array, and then watching the program lay them out, one at a time, on the screen.

On the other hand, when I tried to add sashes and/or borders to a quilt I began to run into problems that reminded me of the “old” QDS. The first limitation I encountered was a refusal of the program to allow me to insert horizontal sashes. I kept getting a message that there was “not enough room” for that action, on a quilt that was 6 by 6 blocks of 6 inches each. I never could figure out if that meant not enough memory or not enough room on the screen, but there is no way that I could find that you can zoom in or out on a quilt to view it at different “distances” or design on a larger canvas, as there is in Quilt-Pro.

For the sake of argument I reduced the number of blocks from 36 to 16, and this time it allowed me to insert both horizontal and vertical sashes. It was at this point that I ran into QDS’s very difficult non-automated sashing process. What the program does is open up the requisite amount of space (which is adjustable) between the blocks and then you must insert little bitty pieces of sashing individually on the quilt. Compare this tedious operation with Quilt-Pro or EQ2, both of which will automatically insert complete sashing on command. It could easily take a half-hour to accomplish something other programs do in seconds.

Putting borders on a QDS quilt was easier, but on one quilt on which I had placed a triple border, when I gave the “center quilt” command (to move it to the middle of the screen) the blocks all moved, but the borders broke into several pieces, some moving with the blocks and some staying behind.

Overall, despite some nice features, QDS is far behind the other major quilt design programs in its quilt layout capability.

On the block design screen you are provided tools to make both regular and irregular polygons, a set of drawing guides based on different types of blocks (4-patch, 9-patch, etc.) and the ability to copy, flip, mirror, and otherwise manipulate the pieces you create to make up your block. The basic drawing mode is a line mode (rather than patches as in Quilt-Pro), but once you have closed a shape, in order to preserve and manipulate it you must click on a “make piece” button, which fixes any closed lines into a patch. The block design screen offers hexagonal and 8-pointed star layout options, and will allow you to create circles and quarter-circle (pie) shapes, but it doesn’t offer any tools for making curved lines, so it’s not suitable for applique design. In lacking this capability it also lags behind the other major ($100 range) programs.

It is relatively easy to navigate around in the program and move back and forth from block design to quilt layout modes. However it is important to note that until you have saved a design you are working on in the block module as a block, you will lose your work if you decide to take a peek back at the quilt layout screen.

QDS’s display of its quilt block library (about 175 blocks) is one of the best in all the programs, providing a whole screenful of 15 blocks at a time, organized by block type, from which to choose. You can also add your own block designs to the library, and create new libraries. On the negative side, there are many blocks in the library which are marked with an asterisk. These blocks, the documentation says, can be used in a design, but the program will not be able to measure yardage of a quilt made with them.

Another measure of QDS’s limitations, and its distance behind the leading programs, is in the process through which you print templates. The program does have a block template (and a foundation piece) module, but it requires a lot of manual steps to get the job done. Once you have loaded the block and asked the program to produce templates it selects the unique patches from the block you’ve chosen. They are displayed on the screen as little tiny pieces, and you must choose each one individually, tell the program to print it (and manually add seam allowance by clicking a button). The program gives you a screen preview of the printout, which contains the name of the block, the piece size, and the quantity required to make the block. However these labels are outside the piece and if you wish them to print inside the piece you must drag them there before telling the program to proceed to an actual print. And don’t change your mind, because once the labels are moved they cannot be moved back again! You must do this for each piece you want a template for; compare this to Quilt-Pro, which, once you have selected a block, automatically prints out the needed pieces, with seam allowances, and also provides a map of the block to show where all the pieces go. All on a single page.

Another thing people like to do with their virtual quilt blocks is export them into other applications, such as word processors, to use as clipart. Quilter’s Design Studio, because of the way it is programmed, does not save quilt blocks and quilts as separate files, so exporting requires some extra steps (something we should have gotten used to by now). You must pick “Export” from a menu, highlight what you wish to copy, and the program copies it the Windows clipboard, from whence you must retrieve it in your other application.

Another consequence of this method of saving blocks and quilts is that you must periodically “pack” and back-up the program, and the program, as it internalizes all these projects, grows in size. There is no way to cleanly separate projects from the program itself, so if you want to delete a bunch of old quilt/block files, or move them to alternate storage, the only way to do it would be to back up your entire QDS program somewhere, and install it anew.

I could go on, but I think this is enough examples of the program’s awkwardness to show just how far behind the state- of-the-art Quilter’s Design Studio is. What the folks at QuiltSoft need to do is take their nicely designed interface and reprogram it into one of the mainstream programming languages. Through three versions they haven’t shown any inclination to do this, however, and a fourth rumored to be in the wings doesn’t seem likely to correct the program’s very basic flaws.


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