This complete guide covers everything you need to know about machine embroidery file formats. It’ll teach you which file format you need for your embroidery machine, and also dive into some essential knowledge that EVERY embroiderer should know by covering the 3 main types of embroidery files formats:

  • Expanded file formats
  • Machine file formats
  • Native file formats
Embroidery File Formats Explained

What are embroidery file formats?

Embroidery file formats are the way in which an embroidery design is saved to be stitched out on a specific brand of embroidery machine. Certain embroidery machine brands (such as Brother, or Bernina) require different embroidery design file formats (such as PES., or ART.). Simply put:

For an embroidery file format to be read or understood by an embroidery machine, it must speak the native language which an embroidery machine brand recognizes.

Make sense? If not let me try to break it down.

With computers, we’re all familiar that there are PC computers & Mac computers. As you well know, certain programs & files are created to only run on PC, while certain files are created to only run on Mac. In other words, certain programs & files are proprietary towards either a PC or Mac-based operating system. They only run on one or the other. The same thing goes with embroidery file formats. A certain embroidery file format (example: PES.) is proprietary towards a distinct embroidery machine brand (example: Brother)

How embroidery file formats have evolved

At the beginning of my career, there was only a stitch. That stitch made a running stitch, a satin stitch, and then a fill stitch. It all started with a single stitch. That was over 35 years ago and I must admit much has changed since I began my career as a manual pantograph puncher.

Since those early days, I’ve seen the embroidery industry evolve incredibly. From manually placing stitches, to paper tape readers, to 5 ¼ floppies, and finally, to the world we now live in where all our data is magically stored in an imaginary cloud. In the early days of embroidery automation, Schiffli looms ran by reading Jacquard paper tapes.  Those tapes were really the first embroidery file format and just like today, it worked within a mathematical foundation. The “automat” at the end of the loom fed the tape through its reader. Much like old paper tape music boxes, the reader consisted of pins that would release through the holes on the paper tape and give the machine commands. I would move X or Y (direction), initiate machine functions like needles in or needle out, slow speed or fast speed, boring plate in or out, and a stop/color change command. In many ways, our modern machines work in a very similar way.

Schiffli embroidery

(Schiffli Embroidery Machine – what I learned to digitize on)

jacquard paper tape vintage

(Jacquard Paper Tape)

I can remember when I had to learn how to read both Jacquard and then eight-channel tapes in the early Tajima days (the 1980s). It’s important to remember that in those early days there simply were no designs appearing on computer screens with editing capabilities. Instead, I had to learn how to edit designs while reading paper tapes. While unwinding the tape you’d learn to look for familiar patterns for running, satin, and fill stitches. Color changes and jump commands had fixed commands and by piecing all of that together you would learn to read your way through the design you digitized. If an error was found, you’d need to cut out the section of tape with the error, re-punch that section, and then splice the design back together. It was usually at that time you prayed that everything would line up properly as you wouldn’t necessarily find your error until you ran it on the machine. To be honest, in those days I never edited a design that was created by someone else. Understandably, the person who created the design was the one who could most easily correct it, as much of the process was remembering what you did in the first place. You’d almost have memory recall as you unwound the tapes; seeing the commands and patterns.

Converting Jacquard to 8 channel

(Converting Jacquard to 8 channel)

Tajima machine

(Tajima Machine)

1. Expanded file formats:

Some of the first expanded formats I used were .dst/Tajima and .exp/Melco formats. These are still in existence today and almost every embroidery machine, whether it be in the commercial or home markets will read one of these two formats. In fact, we still supply both these formats when we convert our designs for download (we have close to 30,000 embroidery designs available on our site).  The reason why is that they are what I like the call the written in stone formats. While in the conversion process they rarely, if ever, get corrupted from the original. Like the originals, they are simply x and y movements and commands. Many times when I convert from my Native file format to a Home format I notice that there may be a corrupted area. A patterned motif fill looks perfect on-screen, but then somehow changes when it embroiders on the actual machine! There are so many variables when looking for specific errors like this, that I will always suggest going to the expanded .dst or .exp file.

These expanded embroidery formats don’t mess up, what you see is what you are going to get literally. Which is the main reason why most people don’t like to use them! They are the smallest embroidery files in regard to data size. Because they only see stitches and commands, they don’t even recognize thread colors.

These files will always set to the default colors of your machine/software, so your pink pigs might default to green if it is the first default color on your machine or within your software program.

2. Machine file formats:

List of Embroidery File Formats

Sixteen years ago, when I began my crossover as an educator in the commercial industry to the home industry, I must admit I was just a little overwhelmed. After learning a dozen programs commercially, the home market had a couple dozen more to digest, most confusing was all the different file formats. Commercially when we created and sold a digitized design, we had our software’s native format and then gave the customer that (if they owned the same program) or a .dst/.exp format, and that was it! The home industry had a native format for each program and then machine formats in varying versions for all the different brands of machine. I went from providing at the most 3 formats to creating what I call the Top Eleven. This is what my list looks like now .emb, .dst, .exp, .art, .hus, .jef, .pes, .shv, .vip, .vp3, .xxx.

Here is a list which should help you figure out which embroidery file format you need for your type of embroidery machine:

(please keep in mind there are many more than listed below)

Machine Brand Embroidery File Format
Janome JEF.
Bernina ART.
Husqvarna / Viking HUS. & VP3. & VIP
Brother / Babylock / Deco PES / PEC
Singer XXX
Pfaff PCD / PCM / PCS
Tajima DST
Melco / Bravo EXP

To this day I have to use four different programs to ensure the best conversions for the files we post for download. I’m so paranoid about conversions that I don’t delegate what should seemingly be a simple task to anyone, every design conversion is still done by me personally. Yes, I might be a bit of a control freak but in my defense, but I know what to look for with regards to all the little things that can go wrong when converting designs. I want to be as sure as humanly possible that the conversions are correct when posted. It would be far too costly to run a physical sample of every design eleven times so it’s best to simply remain paranoid.

These machine-specific formats are the preferred formats used today as they do retain color information within the designs, ensuring that your pink pig always remains pink!

I remember in the early days of transitioning from the commercial to home markets I had to deal with one very unhappy customer. The reason being, she called our toll free number complaining because the design pack called Red Roses she purchased at an event was showing up on her machine and the roses were Yellow, not Red. She insisted that she did not like Yellow roses, she only liked Red roses and demanded that we make them Red or she wanted a refund. I must admit that I was just a little perplexed at her demand, not coming from the colorful world of the home market, in the commercial market we would simply choose a Red thread and the problem would seemingly be solved? I was eventually able to calm her down and convince her to change the thread color on her machine. Although she did put up a good fight, I still smile when thinking back on that conversation.

Why are there so many types of machine file formats?

Unfortunately the different embroidery machine brands available in the embroidery industry today don’t exactly play well together. Different brands want to be unique & have their own embroidery file format. Why? Because it creates brand loyalty and makes you less willing to switch machine brands in the future.

Think about it this way, if you were to spend 5 years building a database of a couple thousand PES. embroidery designs for your Brother embroidery machine, you would likely not want to get a Janome machine down the line as your old PES. designs wouldn’t run on your new Janome machine. Reason being? Janome embroidery machines use JEF. embroidery file formats, not PES. Smart isn’t it?

For this reason, in case you ever switch machine brands, we provide you with all the main embroidery file formats at once when you download any of our embroidery designs.

Why are there so many versions of machine file formats?

Embroidery File Format Versions

Much like anything technology-based, new “updates” are continuously being released to make your user experience better. Just as apps are continuously being updated to perform better on newer phones, embroidery file formats are continuously being updated to perform better with newer embroidery machines.

As a general rule of thumb, most embroidery machines will still run older versions of their machine file format. For example, a brand new Brother machine would still be able to run .PES designs saved in older versions.  So if you’re looking to give away or sell a design you created in your embroidery software, using an older file format rather than the newest one would likely be the safest best bet to ensure people with older machines can still run your design file.

3. Native file formats:

Native file formats are the formats created within whatever embroidery/digitizing software you own. Many of these formats (depending on the program) cannot be read in any embroidery machine, they are specific to and created within the software program. After creating a design in your embroidery software program as a native file format, you often must then export it to a machine file format to be read/used on your embroidery machine.

It’s important that I say this, as many times people will import a .pes file into their software and then save it as the software native format, which is not really a true native file. It has been converted and some of the original data may have been lost in translation.

To further explain, it’s like the difference between a raster and vector art file. A raster file, for example, is like a .png file and has a defined resolution, it could be a low or high dpi (dots per inch). If it’s high, the artwork will remain clean when zooming, if it’s a low dpi the image will become a blurred staircase when zooming. The higher the resolution the cleaner the image, the larger the file.

Vector art files, which are most times created in Corel or Illustrator, are made up of nodes not dots per inch. An arch might consist of only three nodes and whether you put it on a matchbook cover or a billboard the artwork will always be the same, perfect! Yes, you can convert a .png file to a vector file, the software will look at the arch and automatically define the shape. But it won’t do it using only three nodes, it might put in twenty to define the same curve.

Our embroidery software works much in the same way. We have our native file formats created within the software using the original node and properties you chose, so if you want to make changes or resize a design it will always be faster and give better results using the native format over an expanded machine format.

The native file format developed by Wilcom is called .emb, and is now available within their Hatch embroidery software for home embroiders. It is by far the most advanced native file format available. The Wilcom platform is both intuitive and intelligent, it literally puts the user in autopilot and assists in choosing the correct properties for creating production-friendly designs at the click of a button. Resizing designs, changing fabric types, and generating object-based lettering is something the home industry has never truly seen until now. Being a Wilcom user for 30 years commercially I did realize that their software was the defining difference between the home and commercial markets. The last four years as an official Hatch reseller have been exhilarating for me as I get to see people’s faces when I show them the automated features now available in Hatch which they didn’t even know existed (if you’d like to download a free 30-day trial of Hatch and see these features for yourself, click here).

I remember the first Native format I used was over 30 years ago called Melco .cnd. It was my first board based system where I didn’t have to create stitches one at a time. The board, called a Digitrac, consisted of a pad that had marks and function keys. Mark 1 was the start of an object, mark 2 was a continuation of the object and then you move point-counterpoint to define the object and create stitches. Mark 3 had to be perfectly placed with the center radius between your mark 2 to create a curve. Definitely confusing by today’s standards but I can assure you it was a miracle at the time! I still remember seeing an embroidery design appear on a computer screen for the first time. My eyes were like saucers I’m sure! The ability to move a single stitch with a trackball was more than I ever could have imagined.

Digitrac

(Digitrac)

Today we have intelligent and easy to use software available that automatically improves the running ability and stitch quality of designs.

All I can say is we sure have come along way from where my family started in 1958, and I’m so excited to see what is to come!

Can I edit finished embroidery files?

Yes, you can certainly edit/adjust finished embroidery files within almost any format. One thing to remember though is that is you want to edit or resize a file you will always have the best result when using the format native to the software you use.

Wilcom’s native .emb format used within the Hatch program will allow you to resize files and change all the properties with a design at the click of a button. You can use the “fabric assist” tool to go from Thai Silk settings to Terry Cloth and within seconds the underlay, density, pull compensation, and stitch count will adjust perfectly. It’s amazing! But if you bring a PES file into Hatch and convert it to an EMB file it will work, but it will not modify as well. I guess you could say, it got lost in translation. If you’re looking for a program to help you edit embroidery file formats, be sure to try the 30-day free trial of Hatch.

Can I convert between different types of embroidery file formats?

Yes, you can convert embroidery file formats from one to another. Although most times, the process is not perfect.

Keep in mind that with some conversions information can be lost throughout the process. Think about it like a game of broken telephone or translating between 2 different languages. If I told a translator something very specific in English, chances are it wouldn’t come out exactly the same when being “converted” into French. Here are a few notes to keep in mind when converting file formats:

  • It is often best to convert a native file format (software-specific) into a machine file format (embroidery machine-specific).
  • When converting an expanded file format into a machine file format, color information will still be missing.
  • Converting between different machine file formats (for example from .PES to .JEF) often times will damage the integrity of your design.

Visual learner?

If you’re more of a visual learner, here’s a great quick tip video I put together that should help.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel now for more great embroidery tips & tricks!

Conclusion: 3 main types of embroidery file formats

I know we went over a lot, but the main take away for this article is that there really are 3 main types of embroidery file formats:

  • Expanded File Formats: These formats are commercial embroidery machine formats such as .dst and .exp. They are the smallest files in size and mainly consist of simple x and y movements and commands for your embroidery machine to follow. They also do not retain color information.
  • Machine File Formats: These file formats are specific towards different embroidery machine brands and tell your machine the commands necissary to embroider designs. They include .jef, .art, .hus, .vp3, .vip, .pes, .pec, .xxx, .pcd, etc.
  • Native File Formats: These file formats can not be read by any embroidery machine but rather can be read and written by embroidery software. These are the best “working files” to edit a design with and are later converted into a machine or expanded file formats to run on your machine.

I hope this article has helped you to better understand the confusing world of machine embroidery file formats. Although there is a lot to grasp at once, the nice thing is that there really are only 3 main types of formats to worry about. Now as I mentioned throughout the article, regardless of what embroidery machine you own, Hatch embroidery software is a perfect all-in-one solution that’ll allow you to easily edit and convert your designs and file formats. If you haven’t already, click here to download the 30-day free trial of Hatch through us now.

Still have questions about embroidery file formats? Post your question below 🙂