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Make: Projects

Electronic Embroidery

Stitch a high-tech wall hanging that doubles as a nightlight.

Electronic Embroidery

I love any activity that promotes creativity and discovery. To me, tinkering with electronics is the same as stitching a picture, and combined they can tell a story that crafters and gearheads both want to hear. This picture of a frog catching fireflies is embellished with lights that bring the bugs to life. Conductive thread is the magic ingredient, bridging the gap between rigid metal and soft floss. To make a stitched scene light up, combine traditional embroidery techniques with a few common electronics components. The possibilities are endless, and the result is an artful conversation piece.

This project has an associated CRAFT Video.

Steps

Step #1: Embroider the scene.

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  • This project starts like any other embroidery: trace the pattern onto the fabric with carbon paper, then pull the fabric taut in the hoop with the design centered.
  • Backstitch along the lines of the pattern until it’s complete.
  • For more instruction on how to embroider, see 101: Embroidery in CRAFT, Volume 06.

Step #2: Prepare the switch and LEDs for sewing.

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  • To prep the LEDs, use pliers to bend the longer (positive) lead in a square spiral, coiling it toward the lens (the part that lights up). Coil the shorter (negative) lead in a circular spiral up toward the lens. Repeat with the other LED.
  • Prepare the switch by soldering 1 wire to each switch terminal and then coiling the ends of both wires. If you don’t have a soldering iron, you can just sew straight through the switch terminal leads when it comes time to connect the switch.
  • Next, remove the stitched design from the hoop and drill a hole through both rings of the hoop wherever you’d like the switch to be.

Step #3: Sew the circuit.

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  • Thread your needle with conductive thread. Hold the LED in place with one hand. Stitch over and around the square-coiled lead many times to make a strong mechanical and electrical connection.
  • Following the wiring diagram, backstitch a line to the positive battery connector. Hold the battery holder in place with one hand, and sew its positive (+) terminal in place with the other. Stitch it as you did the LED, with many stitches through the terminal’s hole.
  • Without cutting the thread, backstitch a path to the other firefly LED, and sew its square-coiled lead as you did the first. Tie off the thread and weave it back along the stitched line, then cut it. This helps prevent short circuits from fraying ends.
  • Sew the circular, negative leads of the LEDs together. Be sure not to cross the positive trace.

Step #4: Install the switch.

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  • Center the design in the embroidery hoop, with the 2 holes aligned and the fastening hardware at the top (a little wiggling may be required).
  • Directly over the holes, poke a hole in the fabric with scissors or an awl or seam ripper. From inside the hoop, push the threaded post of the switch through the hole with a few turns of the wrist, then secure it on the outside with its nut.
  • Sew 1 lead of the switch to the negative conductive path (the path not attached to the battery), with many stitches for a good connection.
  • Cut the thread. Backstitch a line from the other switch lead to the negative (–) battery connector terminal and sew through the hole in the terminal. Cut the thread.

Step #5: Let it glow.

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  • Check your circuit against the diagram and watch out for fraying thread shorts. Set the switch to the Off position. Insert the battery in the holder, with its + side facing up. Turn the whole thing over and flip the switch. You should see the light! If you don’t, turn it off and check for good connections and shorts.
  • Trim the fabric within 1 1/2" of the edge. Use regular thread and a running stitch to gather the edge on the backside. Now hang it and enjoy!

Conclusion

This project first appeared in CRAFT Volume 09.

Becky Stern

Becky Stern (sternlab.org is a DIY guru and Director of Wearable Electronics at Adafruit. She publishes a new project video every week and hosts a live show on YouTube. Formerly Becky was Senior Video Producer for MAKE. Becky lives in Brooklyn, NY and belongs to art groups Free Art & Technology (“release early, often, and with rap music”) and Madagascar Institute (“fear is never boring”).


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