Tag Archive | sewing

Costume with LED’s

After I returned home from the workshop in TN, I was approached by a theater director to infuse some lights into a costume.  This wasn’t just any costume, it was a costume for a drag show called “Star Whores”.  What could be more fun than a sci-fi musical extravaganza with cross dressing?  I soon was matched up with the actor, Kevin, who had created a nicely draped, and somewhat flashy winged garment.    My idea was to add LED lightboards rows into the wings.

LED Pattern I originally imagined three rows of lights, but once I had the costume in hand, it was obvious that would have to be changed.  The last strip of fabric on the wings was barely attached, which meant there would be no safe way to have two rows of conductive stitching without the threads touching and shorting.  It could be done, but it would take some alteration using seam binding or additional fabric.  Not wanting to vary the costume design, I decided on having two rows of LED’s on each wing.  The main question then became, “what color LED’s?”.  After some discussion with the director and the actor, it was decided that pink and blue would be a fun combination — especially since the show played with gender.  I set to work using the stickers from SparkFun’s Lilypad line to represent the layout of the various parts.  At first I thought these stickers were for beginners, but as I have gotten more involved with design, I’m finding them to be extremely helpful for seeing the layout and path of the threads.

Costume DetailOnce I had the parts in their best places, I marked the locations with pins to make it easier to work.  I started by stitching the Lilypad Simple Snap board on the back center of the wings.  I had decided the theater company could borrow my Lilypad controller for the performance, so really they only had to deal with the expense of the snap base, LED’s and thread.  Once the base was in place, then I started working on the rows of LED’s on the wings.  The glittery fabric and rhinestone looking trim set off a small alarm in my head.  They looked metallic, so it was important that I get my multimeter out.  There was just a hint of conductivity in the trim, so I kept the stitching as far from those areas as possible.  In general, using conductive thread on stretch fabric is not the best situation.  The thread has no stretch, so you have to be careful to use the technique only on areas that won’t be stretched.  Luckily the wings on this costume were one of those areas!

I only had three days to get everything complete, so there were definitely some late nights involved.  I would use the multimeter as I finished each LED to make sure that I had continuity.  Once I was done a row, I would then attach the microcontroller and run a test to be sure all lights were lit.  One of the main problems with doing any LED project is calculating the power for the LED’s.  I even checked with an engineer friend on this matter, and there really is no good way to calculate this figure since there are so many variables — different colors of LED’s, different distances of thread etc.  In the end, you just have to test your circuit ahead of time and then place it on the outfit.  In my case, it was hard to even guess the thread lengths, so I just had to stitch and keep testing.  Luckily the lights were holding up well to the built in LiPo battery.

As with all projects there was some last minute drama.  I had wanted to include a switch on the top of the left wing, so the actor could initiate the lighting effect.  For some reason, the switch would not work, or when it would work, it would only trigger one or two of the rows.  I called my engineer friend, Brooks.  She was actually at an airport and happened to have Lilypad Arduino equipment with her since she was going to be teaching a class soon.  We had the funniest phone call together — me talking her through my circuit and her trying to mimic the LED’s on her microcontroller.  In the end, we finally reached the conclusion that there was too much resistance with the length of thread leading to the switch.  The actor had very limited movement with the costume, and there was no way to get the switch closer.  So, the switch had to be left out.  Wings LitThe final thing left to do was the code for the LED’s — it’s really the moment you wait for.  After testing various patterns, I decided the lights should really be more like the birdlike character it represented.   I had the top rows and bottom rows turn on and off much like breathing.   It’s one thing when you know you like something, but the real test is seeing audience reaction.

I remember being nervous the night of the show.  As a past actress, I know the jitters you get and the excitement that spreads through your fellow cast members.  At the hour of the show, the venue was packed.  The director had the audience stoked with some pre-show sci-fi music.  People were singing and they were expecting outrageous.  The moment the actor came out was really divine.  He stepped right into the main spot, and the LED’s were twinkling like magic.  People were actually smiling and pointing.  Some of them were trying to peer around as if trying to figure out how the lights work.  I think people expected to see wires and plugs like Christmas lights.  However, that is the beauty of wearable electronics.  When done properly, they work with the outfit and blend.  Even the microcontroller on the back of this outfit blended amongst the glitter, sparkles and forgiving sci-fi theme.  And when all was over, I let the actor know that he could borrow the controller, just in case he felt like bringing his character back to life for an evening.  No one wants magic to stop.  Either do I.  I wonder what will be next?


NASA Space Apps Challenge

The Skirt Begins

The Skirt Begins

It has been a while since I posted.  There have been updates to Arduino, changes in the CapSense library and finally, some major issues with my old laptop.  I basically reached a standstill.  In the meantime, I heard about the NASA Space Apps Challenge and wanted to give it a try.  This two day event allows makers to come up with apps, programs or other tech objects to help NASA.  There was a specific challenge called “We Love Data” that got me excited, because it explored new ways to visualize data.  I found the information about the International Space Station pretty interesting — it’s basically orbiting earth a few times a day, and most people are unaware of it.  How could I visualize that?  Almost instantly I got the idea of a skirt that would show the orbit of the space station around the earth —  an Orbit Skirt!  I knew I could use Lilypad Arduino and LED’s to show the path.  Then the programming could allow the LED’s to blink in such a way that they would show how far along the space station was in its orbit.  Doing all of this in two days was going to be rough, so I posted on NASA’s website for a team member.  I got lucky, because a wonderful woman named J. Brooks Zurn with an engineering background answered the call.  While I spent time creating the skirt, she would work on the programming.

I started  by taking one of NASA’s photos of the earth and making it into an iron on graphic.  Then I used the handy Lilypad stickers to layout the locations of all the electronics so I could create chalk lines for the stitching.  Stitching 17 LED’s into a skirt without crossing conductive thread paths was challenging, and keeping the Arduino and battery pack hidden in the skirt’s pocket lining was even trickier.  By the time things were finished, I could barely get the programming cable into the skirt to meet the Arduino.  There’s certainly something to be said for accessibility.  In any case, the sewing was completed just as Brooks was emailing her latest version of the code.

Space App Judges

Surrounded by the Judges

We finished with 15 min. to spare — just in time to present.  My whole goal was to complete the hackathon, so I had no strategy in place for the presentation.  Meanwhile, other groups were swiftly putting together graphics and power point presentations.  Finally I was forced to wing it.  I told the story of the underdog (me) with barely a hackathon under my belt, and how I had managed to take on all of these new skills and a team member to complete this skirt.  It must have worked, because Brooks and I got third place and we both received huge boxes of K’Nex toys.  Here’s a video of the finished skirt — can’t wait to come up with the men’s tie version.