At long last, the leading quilt design software, Electric Quilt, has shed its humble origins as a DOS-based program and come into its own as a full-fledged Windows 95/98 powerhouse. In its successive DOS versions, through EQ3, the company improved its clunky appearance and its DOS-based limitations (such as its need for two mouse drivers and its inability to work with certain printers), but were never able to completely overcome the fact that it was, well, DOS.
But this new program, rebuilt from the ground up for the latest operating systems, is like a new Infiniti rolling off the assembly line to replace that somewhat tired Honda you’ve been driving all these years. And the improvements are not just under the hood.
My installation went without a hitch from the CD-ROM. The program installs as a completely new piece of software, not as an upgrade, and your EQ3 installation, if you have one, will remain intact. The only awkwardness here is that in order to incorporate the blocks and other objects from other EQ products, such as Blockbase or their foundation piecing program Sew Precise!, you need to install EQ4 twice. It’s on the second pass that the program pulls in the other information.
At the end of the installation a new icon perched demurely on my desktop, and when I clicked it, the new program filled the screen without that annoying static noise and with the largest workspace I’ve ever seen in any sort of drawing program. As those of you who have worked with quilt design and photo editing programs know, one of the most irritating habits these programs have is planting their toolboxes, like fat pushy cats, right in the middle of the quilt! Aware of this problem, the designers of EQ4 have shoved the 25 or so block and quilt editing tools off to the left and right margins of the screen, tucked out of the way but conveniently available. There are also five tabs at the bottom of the screen titled Layout, Borders, and Layers 1, 2, and 3. These allow you to separate out certain quilt elements for attention without the distraction of a lot of colors and fabrics. My only quibble here is that these tabs look like they’ve been half cut off, I suppose in the interest of more quilt display space.
If you have used earlier versions of EQ, you’ll find many of the old terms, such as EasyDraw and Sketchbook, still here as friendly presences. You’ll also find some new concepts, such as the Worktable (which is merely the screen real estate you work in) and PatchDraw, a patch-based drawing module similar to that pioneered by EQ’s closest rival, Quilt-Pro. When you choose the New Block option from the Block menu, you’re given the choice of using EasyDraw (straight line-based), PatchDraw (bezier curves and shape based), and Overlaid, which allows a pieced layer with an applique overlay. (We’ve come a long way from virtual 9-patches, baby!)
PatchDraw is impressive, and a lot of fun. If you’ve ever tried to draw applique with one of these programs, you know it’s a tedious exercise, trying to get the right shape and connect up all the nodes. PatchDraw comes equipped with special shape tools (such as hearts, ovals, diamonds, teardrops, and leaves) which make the creation and manipulation of these shapes remarkably easy. They appear magically on the screen from the time you drag your cursor across the Worktable. Your job is to size and position them, and then to apply fabrics and colors to the patches.
Besides new drawing tools, EQ4 also has a variety of new quilt layout capabilities, most notably more flexibility in border styles and sizing. You can do horizontal, on point, variable point, baby blocks, variable blocks, and country set settings, as you could in EQ3.
Another great improvement is in the display of what EQ calls the “Sketchbook,” the collection of quilt blocks, layouts, fabrics and colors which form an EQ project file. When invoked, the Sketchbook appears on your screen as a spiral notebook with tabs for each of these elements, and you can easily switch among them. The Sketchbook appears on top of the quilt or block layout you’re working on, and has a preview capability which makes it easy to find the project you’re looking for by sight instead of by name only.
The block library is, as it has always been with EQ, very impressive. They can be displayed 4, 9, or 16 at a time, in color or black and white, and are well-organized by type. There are also selections of quilting stencils, applique blocks, alphabets (including a Hebrew alphabet!), and lots of foundation piecing blocks. Unfortunately the program appears to be without a quilt library such as those found in earlier versions, and which gave us such wonderful notions of what could be done with a little practice.
The other major improvement in EQ4 is its ability to import fabrics, something the competition has been able to do for a while. If you’ve created new colorways or made scans of fabrics, EQ4 supplies the means to add them to the fabric libraries for use in your quilts.
So what about backward compatibility? Can you import EQ3 or EQ2 projects into the new version? Yes and no. EQ2 is not compatible at all, and EQ3 projects can be brought in, but they can play tricks with colors and other aspects of a project. The move to Windows has not been without its trade-offs, but by and large you should be able to make the transition without losing too much of your earlier work.
EQ4 comes with two books. Neither one is a blocky, comprehensive manual (nobody seemed to ever read those; I wonder why). Instead we have a 50-page Getting Started manual, in which EQ the Mouse teaches the basics through several step-by-step lessons. And we have the familiar EQ Design Cookbook, which teaches more advanced techniques in an informal style. Online help is also very comprehensive and clearly written.
The Electric Quilt Company has always shown itself to be non-defensive and willing to listen to its customers. The results of their having open ears shows very clearly in this new iteration of their program, which incorporates hundreds of suggested improvements from EQ users.
In an interview with Planet Patchwork back in 1997, Judy Heim (the author of The Quilter’s Computer Companion) said that she was waiting for the truly capable and comprehensive quilt design program, built for the Pentium and Windows 95, that would provide capabilities that begin to match the imagination of quilters.