Best Practices For Digitizing Embroidery File Types, Formats and Software

Advice, tips, and tricks for apparel decorators learning to digitize embroidery designs

By Jesse Elliott, Contributing Writer

The screen shot above is from Wilcom, an embroidery software program. This program creates an .emb file, a file that is completely editable. As you can see, the colors have been selected and the shapes are simple. The image also contains important information such as pull compensation, and the underlay is easy to edit.

March 13, 2018

For apparel decorators, there are two kinds of file types: outline (or parent) files and expanded (or machine) files. Outline files are specific to a software, and expanded files are more generic and can be read by embroidery machines.


Consider the following example: Adobe Photoshop makes .psd files — which have layers and attributes that can be editable — but not everyone owns Photoshop. The file can be turned into a jpg, which looks the same and can be read by everyone, but doesn’t contain the layers and masks that make it so much easier to edit. The same happens with embroidery files.

Machine files contain no real editing information. In fact, most digitizers will refuse to even try to edit them. The information is jumbled and, even attempting to edit shapes, underlay or trims can prove difficult. Pull compensation adjustment will be gone. Underlay will no longer be part of the original segment. In fact, segments will be chopped into many more parts than before.

If you only have an embroidery machine but no editing programs, you should use the proper machine file along with a run sheet that contains the color information for each color stop. The most common machine file format is .dst. This works for virtually any embroidery machine. If you are new to embroidery and don’t have a lot of knowledge regarding file types, you generally cannot go wrong with .dst.

Sizing on a machine is limited to 10 percent because the stitch count will not change. You can try to enlarge a design by 50 percent, but your stitches will be 50 percent larger and the spacing (density) between lines also will be 50 percent larger. Conversely, reducing by 50 percent will result in twice as many stitches, which could lead to warping, excessive push and, quite possibly, holes in the fabric.

Software files like .emb and .pxf cannot be opened by an embroidery machine directly. They should be opened by the software that created them. Along with the ability to easily edit the file, these programs also can save the files to the proper extension for your machine.

Software programs vary in their complexity and ease of use. There are not only different brands of software, but they also vary in complexity — from simple (text only) to those containing multiple bells and whistles. However, all software has pull compensation, tie-ins and tie-offs, thread-color selection and underlay choice.

Even if you don’t build your own designs from scratch, it is helpful to have a design-editing program. This way, you can do simple size changes, control the pull compensation and even edit the color stops easily without the help of a contracted digitizer.

The ideal program for your shop depends on you. Small, home-based businesses may be best served with a simple program. The bigger or more complex your shop is or becomes, the more likely it is that you will spend big money on a more common software programs. How much you intend to use it will help determine which program is best. Go to a trade show to see the options that are available. Ask whether training is included, as the learning curve is pretty high on embroidery programs. Don’t think you can learn it by watching YouTube videos. It helps to have personalized, one-on-one training from start to finish on a design. It will pay off in the end.

Jesse Elliott is digitizing production manager for Ignition Drawing. This article was updated October 30, 2023.