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Electroluminescent (EL) wire is a great way to add electronic patterns to your clothing. EL wire is a flexible wire that has a phosphorescent glow when current is applied to it. I like using it because I find it easier to work with than designing with LEDs. EL wire is one continuous strand that can easily be bent into different shapes and applied to clothing. I used it to create glowing patterns controlled by motion for some of the designs in my Fairytale Fashion Collection. This tutorial will show you the basics of how to sew EL wire to a garment and how to program the wire to turn on and off and to create an animated pattern.

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Photograph by Doug Eng

To turn on, EL wire needs roughly 90-120 volts of alternating current from an EL wire driver. For the designs in my Fairytale Fashion Collection, I created my own custom driver that turned the wire on and off to create a glowing, animated pattern. You can easily create your own pattern using the EL Sequencer from SparkFun.

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Choosing Materials
EL wire comes in different lengths and thicknesses. It needs different amounts of power depending on length and thickness. An EL wire driver provides the power for the wire to turn on. When choosing your wire and driver, make sure that the driver supports the length and thickness you’re using. For example, if you have a 10 ft. piece and a 30 ft. piece of wire connected to the EL sequencer, make sure that your driver can support 30 ft. of EL wire.

Materials

[A] EL Wire with JST 2-Pin Connectors (up to 8 pieces) Soldering the wire to the connectors can be tedious, so I usually buy my wire presoldered to the connector. If you solder your own, there is a good tutorial on SparkFun under “Working with EL wire”.
[B] Right-angle break away (cut to 6 pins) You can also use straight headers, but the upright pins may snag your clothes.
[C] ¾” Piece of solid core wire
[D] 9 volt battery
[E] Battery connector You can order this one from SparkFun if you don’t want to solder.
[F] JST 2-Pin Connector
[G] Solder
[H] Sewing thread Match color to garment or unlit EL wire. I used red for demonstration only.
[I] FTDI Cable 3.3V
[J] EL Sequencer
[K] EL wire driver plus needed batteries
Garment Use a heaver fabric like denim, canvas, or suiting. The EL wire is a bit stiff, so it is better to use a stiff fabric to support the EL wire. Choose a garment that does not require a lot of washing, like a jacket.
Tape (optional)
Heat shrink tubing or electrical tape

Tools

Computer with Arduino software
Scissors
Soldering iron
Wire strippers
Wire cutters
Hand sewing needle

Sewing EL wire
I find that this technique works best on a heavier woven fabric. You could also use it on a lighter woven fabric, like a button-down shirt, but the EL wire will not hang as nicely and the shirt may bulge in places because of the stiff wire. This technique will not work well on stretchy fabrics. It is generally inadvisable to sew non-stretch appliqués to stretch fabrics because the appliqué will prevent the clothing from stretching.

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Step 1: Figure out your EL wire design. Lay out your garment and position the EL wire on it. You can temporarily secure your design on the garment with tape. Make sure that the EL wire connectors are located by a pocket where you can put your EL sequencer, driver, and battery. Leave about 4″ of extra EL wire that can fit in the pocket to plug into the EL sequencer.

Step 2: Thread your needle and knot your thread.

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Step 3: Start sewing by bringing your needle from the inside to the outside of the garment right under the EL wire by the pocket.

Step 4: Wrap the thread over the EL wire and stitch back down to the inside of the garment.

Step 5: Stitch up to the outside of the garment half an inch from your last stitch right under the EL wire.

Step 6: Repeat 4 and 5 until you reach the end of your EL wire strand.

Step 7: Repeat step 4 so that you are sewing on the inside of the garment, then knot and cut your thread.

Preparing the circuit
Eventually, you will be connecting the EL wire to the EL sequencer. The EL sequencer will be powered by a 9 volt battery. And you will also connect the EL wire driver to the EL sequencer. You will later program the EL sequencer which will make the driver turn the EL wire on and off in your desired pattern. Right now, you’re preparing all of the parts so they will fit together easily later.

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Step 8: Solder the 9 volt battery connector to the EL sequencer. Or if you order the battery connector from SparkFun, you can just plug the battery connector in to the EL sequencer. Do not connect the battery yet.

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Step 9: Cut the connector off of the EL driver. Slide a piece of heat shrink tubing onto the wire for later. Solder the JST 2-pin connector to the EL driver and use the heat gun to cover the connection in heat shrink. Do not connect this to the board yet.

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Step 10: Strip the ends of the ¾” piece of wire. Solder the wire to the two left traces of the EL driver connectors.

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Step 11: Solder the breakaway header pins to the EL sequencer.


Programming the EL sequencer

The EL Sequencer has the same microcontroller as the Arduino. I like to program the EL sequencer with the Arduino software, but you can also program it with a standard AVR ISP programmer.

Step 12: Install and open the Arduino software using the very easy-to- follow instructions from Arduino.cc.

Step 13: Make sure that the EL driver is not connected to the sequencer board. Connect the EL Sequencer to your computer by connecting the FTDI cable to the header pins that you just soldered on the sequencer. Make sure the green wire is connected to the pin labeled GRN and the black wire is connected to the pin labeled BLK.

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Step 14: Switch the power supply of the EL Sequencer to USB.

Step 15: Check to see if your EL sequencer has an ATmega328 or an ATmega168 chip.

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Step 16: Configure the Arduino software. From the menu select to Tools →Board → Lilypad Arduino w/ATmega328 or ATmega168. Then select Tools→ Serial Port → and choose your serial port.

Step 17: Connect the EL wire to the EL Sequencer starting with connection A.

Step 18: Copy code below (you may also download this file):

EL wire sequencer

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Step 19: EL wire pieces A-H correspond to elSegments 0-7 in the program. For example, EL wire piece A is elSegment 0 in the program. You can control how long each wire piece is turned on by changing the delay time for the elSegment in the program. The delay is in milliseconds. “delay (1000)” will turn on the EL wire piece for 1 second.

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Step 20: Delete the extra sections of code for unused elSegments. For example, I only plugged EL wire into connectors A and B of the EL Sequencer. So I will delete the code for elSegments 2-7. Save your file.

Step 21: Upload the program and unplug the EL Sequencer from your computer.

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Step 22: Connect the battery. Switch the EL sequencer power to “BAT” (battery).

Step 23: Connect the EL driver and turn it on.

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Step 24: Your garment should be turned on and working.

Washing tips: I do not recommended that you wash the garment because moisture could corrode the metal parts. If you must wash your garment, unplug the EL Sequencer from the garment. Then gently hand wash the garment and allow it to air dry. Try to use distilled water to prevent corrosive chemicals that could be in tap water from damaging the metal parts.

dianaeng

Fashion + Technology
Diana was a contestant on Project Runway season 2, graduated from RISD, and currently lives in New York City.


Related

Comments

  1. John Sarik says:

    Those are some impressive pieces! Have you considered using EL panels instead of EL wire? You can even design and print your own panels. http://sites.google.com/site/elen4193/labs/el

    1. Diana Eng says:

      Thanks, John. This is a great link. I’ve seen some very flexible panels but they don’t seem that breathable.

  2. MadRat says:

    Ham radio electronics AND fashion design? Is there nothing this woman can’t do?

  3. thecraftivistshakedown.wordpress.com says:

    YES! This is just what I need for my Tron costume.

    No joke.

  4. red mermaid says:

    Diana I admired your work on Project Runway-so happy to see your work on Make-you are fabulous-best of luck to you in the future!!!

  5. stevefromyellowstone says:

    I’ve been following Diana’s work for a while now and I think it’s simply fantastic. Not only is her innovation amazing, but she’s acessible, and does things like this to show everyone else how. She’s awesome. I’ve seen everything she’s done, and just found this. I feel like it’s something I should share with other fans. Enjoy Folks! And thank you Diana! http://workbookproject.com/radar/2010/08/18/fairytale-fashion-radar-s3-ep-31-vid/

  6. digsafe says:

    Love this tutorial! Got me inspired to build. Just ordered all the fixins. One question; the driver… does that do the same thing as an inverter? Cool neon was out of stock of the one you used, and all SparkFun had were inverters. But they looked as if they were serving the same purpose.
    Thanks for putting this tutorial together!!

  7. Thanks! That grounding jumper between pwr and output saved my sanity!

  8. This is a really great tutorial! I followed all the steps but the wires just don’t turn on. Is there any difference if the chip is an ATmega168 instead of ATmega328? The code is definitely uploaded correctly because I can turn the small status LED on the board on and off, but the wires just don’t react…

  9. Kyle Riffle says:

    Will this work with a sound activated or strobing inverter?

  10. Kyle Riffle says:

    Will this work with a sound activated or strobing inverter?

  11. dr_light says:

    FWIW

    the jumper between HVGND and GND caused HV to come down my FTDI cable. I made the jump between HVGND and VCC and it seems to have solved the issue.  not sure if theyre related. Its worth noting that if you use the HVGND to VCC bridge, driving the pin LOW turns the triac on.

    READ THIS:

    http://dorkbotpdx.org/blog/paul/sparkfun_el_sequencer_trouble

    this dude has the new revision board, but the science is valid for the older board too. Easy way to tell is the orientation of the USB/BATT Switch is parallel to the JST connectors on the older boards. Newer boards, it is at a right angle. 

    also – for those with the first edition Sparkfun board (atmel 168 32MLF) the pinout  on the bildr site is wrong and will not work. I havent tried the escudo library, but i suppose some constants will need to be changed for us ‘first adopters’…

    A-F = 14-19 (ADC 0 thru 5 (port C0-C5))
    G= 8 (port B0)
    H= 9 (port B1)

    the analog in on the board goes to ADC6 (which would basically be Analog pin 7) - 

    this version of the uc has 2 extra dedicated ADC (19 + 22 on the Atmel pin spec) which map (similar to the arduinoMINI from SF) to A6/A7

  12. clint says:

    hi im interested n your product,please nte how to buy nd price.thanks

  13. Nicky says:

    Hi, I am writing this kinda late, but I am doing a school project and before buying stuff I would like to know how this would work out.
    Basically the project is an 8 minute dance, like wrecking crew. Can this program be made to vary for 8 minutes and shifting from section to section? Also, can I add an override switch to start the program manually after the system has been switched on?

    Thanks very much!!
    Nicky

  14. Tyler frank says:

    I am making suits for my dance crew and we are wondering if we can program the el wire to go on and off at certain times as well as blinking and fading in and out.