Electric Quilt, at its emergence in 1991, was the program of choice if you wanted software to design quilts. The brain- child of Dean Neumann, computer programmer and husband of well-known quilter, teacher, and quilt scholar Penny McMorris, the DOS-based program entered the decidedly niche market for quilt design with little competition.
In the intervening six years, several other quilt design programs, including QuiltSoft, Quilt-Pro, and VQuilt, have come forward to challenge EQ. So how is Electric Quilt doing? How has this pioneering program withstood the onslaught of its competitors? Is it still the program of choice, and should it be?
The Electric Quilt Company has not stood still since 1991, and the cottage industry which began with the first program has now blossomed into a multi-faceted business with several products to offer. In the past five years the program has been through two major upgrades (to the current version 3.0). In the process the program has become more powerful, and at the same time has showed the effects of the company's attempt to create a complete world of quilting in the virtual realm, with fabrics created with the cooperation of top designers and color and fabric palettes reflecting a variety of historical periods.
The program has more quilt blocks (over 1,500), more color palettes and fabrics, by far, than any other program on the market. With the release of BlockBase in late 1995, an additional 3,500 quilt blocks, importable into EQ3, became available. Surely in the category of sheer library resources EQ cannot be matched by any other program, nor is it likely to be in the foreseeable future.
Another great strength of EQ3 is the way it organizes your design work into projects. The term "project" in the program refers not to a single block or a single quilt, but to a whole collection of blocks, quilts, and colorations that you have chosen to include in the project file. A project can contain everything up to and including the kitchen sink, including all the designs you made and rejected before you decided on the final quilt.
EQ3 has a robust set of drawing tools, appropriately simplified for the computer beginner without compromising capability. EasyDraw, the program's main draw module, is a stripped-down drawing program with an automatic "snap to grid" feature and the ability to add "grid lines" which outline the basic shape of traditional blocks such as 9-patches. Once these basics are accomplished, it is simply a matter of connecting up straight lines to create rather sophisticated blocks. By contrast, it takes a good many more steps to draw with "patches" as some quilt design programs do.
Electric Quilt's applique tools are equally sophisticated, though it takes considerably more practice to become proficient with them than it does with EasyDraw. Some have suggested that use of a koala pad or other type of input device is much easier than a mouse. In addition to the user needing to develop manual dexterity, many of the tools for manipulating curved lines are somewhat buried in the program and not easy to find without referring to the documentation.
EQ3 also has very powerful quilt layout tools which enable a variety of design types, from samplers to medallions to on-point styles. It has the capability to create multiple borders of different styles.
The quilt layout tools are also very flexible with several key combinations which allow you to flip or rotate all blocks or alternating blocks, saving many steps as you manipulate your virtual quilt to discover the many designs that lie hidden within it. In the latest version, EQ has leap-frogged the competition by offering the ability to set blocks of different sizes in a quilt. Called the "country set," this capability expands the creative possibilities of computerized quilt design dramatically. It takes a little practice to master country set techniques, but the effort is worth it. You are assisted in the layout process by another new feature called the Graphic Pad, which enables very precise control of block position, size, and angle.
Another nice feature is an instructive accompanying project which demonstrates the technique for creating watercolor designs in the program. It is also possible to create paper-piecing templates (with advice from the program about which block designs lend themselves to this technique, and which do not.) A capability to create three quilt "layers," including an overlay of a quilting design over the basic blocks, further enhances the program's ability to mimic real quilts.
The program's help facility is very context-sensitive but not very detailed. Pressing the right mouse button with the cursor on a button or other feature will bring up a one- or two-line help message at the bottom of the screen. There is, however, no general, more detailed online help.
Which brings us to the documentation, which is very well-done. Orderly, well-written, well-illustrated, user- friendly, and even humorous, it should be enough for any beginner to become proficient with the program in a short time. Spiral-bound so it can be laid flat beside your computer, it includes a step-by-step workbook of 17 lessons, a group (in the best internet tradition) of Frequently Asked Questions, and a reference section. The newest version is also supplemented by a secondary manual know as the "Block Book," which has pictures of the many blocks available in the program.
For all of its strengths, and there are many, Electric Quilt 3 does have some weaknesses. These stem primarily, though not exclusively, from its basis in DOS. To look at, the program has a humdrum DOS look. Interestingly, this lack of attractiveness has been helped somewhat by the advent of Windows 95, which imposes some of its own characteristics, such as a folder metaphor and certain controls, on the program.
Beyond that the program doesn't go out of its way much to anticipate the needs of the user. Many of the actions you can take in the program should lead automatically to the next logical screen, but instead in these instances the program just sits there dumbly, waiting for you to make the next move. And many of the program's transitions from module to module are clumsy at best. This aspect of EQ3 has changed little through its two major upgrades.
Dean Neumann, the program's creator, has been firmly committed to EQ's DOS roots, and it seems unlikely there will be a Windows 95 version anytime soon. This allegiance has implications for users beyond the merely aesthetic. The most significant is in the area of printer drivers. With the flood of new printers, especially color inkjets, coming on the market, the company is in a constant catch-up mode, and users must often call or write them for new drivers. If it were a Windows program, printer problems would be largely moot.
In addition new users of Electric Quilt often have mouse problems because the program demands that a DOS mouse driver be installed in addition to the Windows mouse driver. In spite of painstaking efforts by the company to explain this requirement in the documentation, it remains a point of difficulty for many new users.
Overall, despite its shortcomings, Electric Quilt 3 is the leading choice for computer quilt design, with the most complete array of features and libraries. Its lack of a Windows interface is regrettable, but the company has proven that they can "do Windows" in their own way and win the hearts of computer quilters everywhere.
For more information about EQ:
(c) Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 by Robert G. Holland, The Virtual Quilt Company. All rights reserved.
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