STEM & Quilting with Kids: Illuminate

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E-Textiles in the 21st Century

As long as human beings have been wearing clothes and living in communities, there has been a desire to design and embellish our outerwear and our homes in ways that distinguish us from the status quo. There was a time when it was the finest fabrics like silk and brocade that made the wearer stand out from the crowd. Gemstones, sequins, silver, and gold trim added a little glamour and flash to interiors, textiles, and fashion. Today it’s lights, sound, and rhythm that add a new dimension to the world that surrounds us, and e-textiles are at the forefront of making that happen.

Electronic textiles or e-textiles have the electrical components woven or sewn into the fabric. There are components that play back recorded information and there are components that light up. They all have one thing in common—they have a battery as a power source. The technical advances available for e-textiles have led to MP3 boards for sound, Arduino for light patterns, microcontrollers, and so much more.

E-Textiles have been around for some time now. One company creating a product using electronic technology that comes to mind is the Build-A-Bear Workshop. People can record a message on a sound chip and put it inside of a stuffed bear that will play back the message when you squeeze its paw. In Hollywood movies like Tron, actors wear costumes with lights, and movie sets have furniture and artwork that glows or sparkles with light. Even though popular culture has always loved anything bright and shiny, the 21st century has brought a whole new level of Illumination—LED Lights. We see them in our homes, on Christmas trees and even on vacuum cleaners—LED lights are everywhere. In this article, I would like to “enlighten” the readers about simple electric circuits and share a way that LED Lights can be embedded in our wearable art, crafts, and quilts.

Before we get down to basics, I would like to share some of the e-textile artwork that I have created.

This is a circular weaving with three embedded LED Lights.

My electrified lanyard lights up the room.

All eyes are on my beautiful “glowing” shoulder bag.

Spotlight on Creating Electrical Circuits

These are different kinds of LED Lights. Shown above are a clear 10mm light, a red 5mm light, and a green 3mm LED light. On the bottom is an LED sequin especially designed to be sewed onto fabric. These LED lights do not get hot, they are easy to install, and they add drama to any quilt or wearable. LED Lights are inexpensive, you can get over a hundred for less than five dollars.

This is how they work:

LED Lights are composed of a bulb and two leads. Each lead carries an electrical current. The longest lead carries a positive charge, and the shortest lead carries a negative charge. When they are embedded and connected to the battery with conductive materials, they make a complete electrical circuit. If the battery pack has a switch, when you flip the switch to the on position, your LED light will begin to glow.

In addition to LED lights, there are a few more things needed to make the LED lights come on. You will need:

  • A LilyPad coin cell battery holder
  • Conductive thread
  • A 3-volt battery

You can see that it is called a “LilyPad” because it is shaped like one. It has holes on the sides that allow you to sew it down and attach the positive and negative ends of the conductive thread that are attached to the positive and negative leads of the LED light. Conductive thread is made of polyester and metal fibers that “conduct” electricity to power the LED lights.

You will also need hand sewing needles with large eyes to accommodate the conductive thread. Here are some tips to thread the needle:

  • Try to cut the thread at an angle
  • Twist it to get the fibers wound around each other
  • As a last resort moisten it between your lips, then twist

Distributors of E-Textile Supplies:

Now that we have seen examples of e-textiles and reviewed the supplies that are needed to create a simple circuit on fabric, let’s explore e-textiles by embedding an LED light into a mini-quilt. 

Dazzling Button-Collaged Mini Quilt

Making the 10" x 10" mini quilt

Materials:

  • 10" x 10" Piece of cotton fabric
  • 10 ½" x 10 ½" piece of cotton batting
  • 11 ½" x 11 ½" piece of cotton fabric for the backing
  • Quilting thread
  • Hand-sewing needle size 11
  • Scissors
  • Ruler
  • Safety Pins
  • Tailor’s chalk or marking pen

To begin the quilting process, I pin-baste all the layers together. I leave the batting a bit larger than the top until I finish basting with safety pins.

I begin the sewing process by threading my needle. Since I am starting from the edge, I tie a little slip knot at the end of my length of thread to anchor it for sewing.

I usually start by sewing a basting stitch around all the edges of my quilt.

I trim my excess batting, then I began to mark my quilting lines by measuring a 45-degree angle with a quilt ruler.

Using tailor’s chalk, I mark 2 sewing lines, 1½" apart.

I start sewing on the drawn lines. I draw the rest of the lines and sew until I reach the other side.

Now that I have sewn diagonally from one side to the other, I will turn my quilt, mark it, and sew again from side-to-side diagonally.

I have finished quilting, now it’s time for the binding.

Create a binding by folding ½" of the backing toward the front of the quilt.

Fold the backing again over the edge of the quilt.

Fold and pin on both sides.

Fold and pin on the top and bottom.

Sew a running stitch all around the edge of the binding.

Now, I have finished making my mini quilt and I am ready to make my button collage.

Making the Button Collage

I decided to do a radial design on my mini quilt. A radial design starts from the center and radiates out to the edges. Here, I have marked my quilt to develop my design.

I start laying out my design with the biggest button in the center of the mini quilt.

I organize my buttons by color and size and continue laying out my button collage.

Once I develop my design, I take a picture of it so that I can remember the button placement. Then, take off the buttons and begin sewing them on.

Here’s my completed mini quilt with yo-yo embellishments. Now I can begin the process of embedding my LED light in my quilt.

To embed the LED light, I widen the holes with a tapestry needle.

Then, I push the LED leads into the holes that the needle made and bring them through to the back of the quilt. I put a black dot near the positive lead so that I don’t forget which one it is, and bend both the leads into loops. The positive lead must be sewn to the positive side of the battery holder, otherwise, the circuit will not work.

I sew the LilyPad coin cell battery holder onto the back of the quilt with a few stitches of cotton thread.

To make the battery connection, I sew eight back stitches of conductive thread onto each LED lead loop, then sew the thread using big stitches through the layers of fabric toward the battery holder. The positive lead loop thread is sewn to the positive side of the battery holder and the negative lead loop thread is sewn to the negative side of the battery holder. I make sure to sew the conductive threads so that they do not cross. If the positive and negative threads cross, the LEDs won’t light up.

I am now ready to try out my LED. I insert the 3-volt battery into the LilyPad coin cell battery holder with the positive side up.

I flip the switch on the battery holder to the “on” position—the light comes on and my quilt glows from the shining LED light.

Feel empowered to embed LEDs into your quilts and crafts. Let a little electricity flow through your quilts and “LIGHT” up the world with your creativity!