I am a lifelong fiber artist. I have fond memories of sewing doll clothes and knitting tiny blankets when I was a small child. That love for the feel of cloth and yarn in my hands has never left me and has been a source of joy to me over the years. So it was with great excitement that I discovered the work of Leah Buechley. I was lucky enough to visit her space in the MIT Media Lab about six years ago. She was not there that day, but there were all the familiar tools that had beckoned to me through the years: fabric, yarn, knitting machines, looms, embroidery hoops. And something else: little circuit boards and wires that, at that time, puzzled me.
Earlier this year a colleague in the Bryan Innovation Lab at the Steward School handed me a small package and said, “See what you can do with this.” Inside the package was one of those circuit boards, the latest iteration of Leah’s circuit board, called the LilyPad Arduino, and a cone of conductive thread.
Fellow fiber artists will understand the thrill of that moment: raw fabric or yarn, waiting to be born into a form created by my imagination and skill.
I turned to Leah Buechley’s book, Sew Electric, and to several websites including the LilyPad Arduino website and the Sparkfun site. Leah’s Turn Signal Biking Jacket also gave me clear instruction on the process I needed to follow to constuct my project.
The materials I used were medium weight linen, medium fusible interfacing, sewing thread, conductive thread, and embroidery thread.
The tools used were an iron (to fuse interfacing), scissors, sewing needles, a needle threader, and a sewing machine.
The hardware needed for the project included a LilyPad Arduino, a power source (battery holder), LilyPad LED‘s, an on/off switch, and a LilyPad speaker. You will also need a FTDI board and a USB to mini USB cable (to connect the LilyPad to the FTDI board and your computer.) This enables you to upload code to the LilyPad. Once uploaded, you can detach the FTDI board and your LilyPad will run the code.
I should mention here that although I love the elegant look of all the LilyPad products, I have started ordering the components for sewable projects from Hong Kong-based companies listed on Ebay. These parts cost about a fourth of the price and shipping takes about four times as long. They are not as pretty, but I have found them to be reliable.
This was my first sewable electronics project and it took me on a journey that was both informative and humbling. Constructing the vest was easy. Adding the electronic components and making them work, not so much. I started by machine sewing embellishments that I thought would augment the electronics I attached by hand. But I soon discovered that things would not work out as I initially planned.
I sewed on the electronic parts using conductive thread and connecting them with chain stitch. I stopped after each addition to run a test to make sure everything was working. The plan was all in my head, despite the fact that every resource I had consulted had stressed the importance of sketching out your circuit traces before beginning construction.
I hit a point where the LED’s were no longer lighting and I hadn’t even gotten to the speaker. Time to ask for help. I walked over the Bryan Lab and consulted my colleague, Shane Diller. He got out a multimeter – oh, yes, that was kind of mentioned in the resources I had consulted.
He patiently explaining Ohm’s law to me and showed me how to test the conductive thread in my project to see how much current was flowing at different points. We concluded that the chain stitch was creating too much resistance to allow sufficient current to light the LED’s.
Many picked-out stitches and much simple straight stitching later, everything was back in order. Time to add the speaker. Two of the LED’s on the front of the vest were removed and the speaker was put in their place.
Some final hand stitched embroidery was added and it was time for the light and sound show. See a future blog post to learn about the coding involved in making this vest “perform.”