An Intro to Sewing Circuits Affordably

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Paper Circuits to Sewing Circuits

In our #bigmakerbook, I suggest crafting with paper circuits to learn about simple and parallel circuits before delving into sewing circuitry. Last year, my GirlsinTech campers had a great time with paper circuits, but when we began to explore sewing circuits, they ran into many roadblocks. Some had never sewn before, some couldn’t thread the needle, some had pre-conceived ideas about sewing that led to disastrous short circuits, etc. (Note: I did have great success with teaching a parallel circuit bracelet at the DPL, but I also had 3 extra helpers for that workshop!)  So I wanted to try something new this year to get students started sewing and creating circuitry knowledge, but still keep the project simple. I wanted to share that project with you, and give you a list of some of my favorite sewing electronics books that aided me in my own journey to learning about creating and debugging soft circuits.

Keeping it Simple

Last year my students learned about circuits with paper circuits and jumped right into sewing parallel circuit bracelets. Instead of sewing a parallel circuit first this year, I wanted my students to really learn and understand the concept behind sewing a circuit. (Plus, I really want students to be able to go further throughout this year with soft circuits and programming.) Lastly, I wanted their learning to be really visible AND I wanted to make it a really easy project if they had never hand sewn, but still appeal to an expert.

In talking with Josh Burker about some ideas for our workshop during the PineCrest Innovation Institute (info in upcoming post!), I’d thought about adding a sewing circuit element to a workshop. My idea was to share a simple circuit template in an embroidery hoop and let participants add their own artistic flair around the light with fabric paint, markers, embroidery floss, etc.

A few days after our conversation, I realized that this would be a great way to start my club that is focused on learning sewing AND learning about electronics. I wanted to keep it simple by just teaching them how to hand sew with conductive thread (on white fabric so they can see their stitches!) and then each tips on embroidery techniques so my students can design with thread.

I made my own example, but only created the circuit and left my embroidery half-baked. I did this because this summer when I was knee deep in LEGO tinkering, I was struck by a tweet from Ryan Jenkins of the Tinkering Studio. This tweet stressed the importance of creating a “half-baked” idea or prototype because this would “invite participation” more than a fully baked idea that might not “instigate” a learning experience. Ryan and I spoke at length about this concept when I interviewed him for Challenge-Based Learning in the School Library Makerspace.

I realized that up to this point, I had made some half- baked prototypes on the fly just trying to get my kids interested (and it worked so well!), but then I’d started fully baking some prototypes which did not always lead to student participation.

As Patrick Ferrell of Harris County Public Library added, these half-baked examples get our patrons thinking they can not only make their own, but make one even better!

Below is my simple circuit with a couple of embroidery stitch examples.  I’m hoping to turn it into a cute spidery monster head with a glowing eye.  I promoted the heck out of the club, added new students to my Remind and hoped they would show up Thursday after school! As I was gathering my supplies, I realized I needed more coin cell battery holders.

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Affordable Battery Holder

Since the cheapest coin cell battery holder to buy is two dollars a unit, I decided I wanted to try and make my own battery holder to keep costs low for my club. I found this great tutorial on sewing your own battery holder , but I didn’t have any neoprene fabric, and I was unsure about the safety of creating a battery holder with a different material.

I looked on Thingiverse and found this battery holder then uploaded it to Tinkercad for hacking. If you know much about me, you’ll know that I’m not really that into 3D design. So I messed around and added some ends for conductive fabric tape, and attempted a sewable hole. The first one I made, the battery didn’t fit. So I did some measurements and tried again. I used my new favorite tool conductive fabric tape from the Makey Makey Inventor Booster Kit to function as the battery tabs. It worked! I fabricated my first useful 3d printed thing and I was ready to manufacture! 🙂

It worked well for my students, but I realized I really did need to make a better hole for sewing each tab to the fabric. I asked for expert help from one of my favorite makers….

Thanks to Aaron Graves for helping me make this file presentable! (He helped me adjust the “thing” to the workplane, re-taught me about aligning shapes, and helped make the holes sewable!) Feel free to hack, reuse, and make your own!

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Update 1/20: I’ve since updated this battery holder so that it can be sewn as part of the project and resemble a pirate eyepatch!

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What Students Made

At our first meeting, we were a small, but mighty group! Which was a really good thing, because all of the girls were successful in sewing their first circuit!

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Plus, my half-baked prototype worked swimmingly! The girls did not even follow my pattern for sewing a simple circuit, they forged their own paths. Like any great maker project, some students created simple designs, and others who were already knowledgable with sewing, took it further. One even sewed a cat with her conductive thread! I had to teach her about insulating threads on the fly. Another student decided to try and hide most of her circuitry and is already skilled at embroidering and ready to create her own artistic monster/robot/idea.  Overall it took them about an hour to sew a simple circuit.

The girls happily displayed their projects on the project shelf and asked if we can meet every week! (I have students store projects like these at the library so I can help with debugging as needed.)

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Embroidery Stitches

Now that they’ve sewn their first circuit, I’m going to teach club members different stitches so they can add their own creative ideas to their work using this great tutorial for learning different types of stitches. The circuit is important, but I’m excited to see how this gets them creatively stitching and inspires them to design art with thread.

Great Resources for Sewing Circuit/Soft Circuit/E-Textile

If you are new to sewing circuits and are looking for more resources, here are a lot of things that guided me along the way. Read my past post about teaching a sewing circuit class at the Denton Public Library.  Plus, our Big Book of Makerspace Projects has a full chapter of sewing circuits that range from very simple to very complex!

Chibitronics Strawberry Stuffie

After many iterations……

If you haven’t noticed, I’m a bit of a Chibitronics fan. So when I saw an adorable strawberry stuffie project on their site, I knew I wanted to make my own version. These adorable chibi stickers are great for paper circuits, but I wasn’t sure how they would hold up in a sewing project. I ended up failing a lot and making about four different versions before I was able to get the really cute strawberry pictured above.

Effect Sticker

I decided I wanted to use the new tropical stickers and attempt to use an effect sticker to have some control over my pulsing LED stickers. So I busted out my Effects pack  , mapped out my circuitry and used a Lilypad battery holder to power my project. Sewing the effect stickers worked brilliantly! It worked great and withheld being punctured by my sewing needle.

However, in my first stuffie iteration I used too many chibi LEDS. Initially, I really wanted to try switching the polarity to see how the different colored LEDS would pulse in opposite rotation. (See Jie’s tutorial here.)  You can see this effect in the Instagram below. I thought it looked super cute, but when it was time to sew my stuffie together, my circuits started shorting.  I thought I’d maybe overloaded the battery attempting to use so many LEDs.

Plus, the material I used for the body of the strawberry was too stretchy and the topside of the fabric was too fluffy. Either my threads were shorting in the stretchy fabric, or the LEDs were losing connectivity because of the surface of the fabric, or I had too many LEDs for my battery. I wasn’t sure. Chibitronics are made for paper, so I suspected the fabric was the real problem. Rather than ditching the fabric my daughter chose for her strawberry, I started thinking about ways I could ensure connectivity. How could I debug and get all the elements I wanted?

Short Circuits

First off, I had to realize that blushing cheeks would be more adorable without all the other blinkiness going on above, so I cut back on my amount of LEDs. My second debugging idea was to sew conductive fabric tape on my stuffie for the copper pads of my Chibi stickers to stick to. This worked at first, but then when I attempted flipping my stuffie inside out to sew together, one of my LEDs went out again. At this point, I had one LED working well, but the other just kept shorting. For my third debugging trick, I fused interfacing to the inside of the strawberry fabric so I could see my lines of circuitry more clearly. This helped ensure that my sewn circuits didn’t cross, but it also helped sturdy up my fabric.

I sewed my circuits a third time, but still had one Chibi sticker that wouldn’t stay lit. So I added a Lily LED to the inside of my fabric to check my sewn circuits, it lit up!  I’d sewn everything correctly. The culprit in my short circuit was not my circuitry, but actually the way I was attempting to sew the stickers to the strawberry. I was busting the chibi LED the way I’d sewn it making it work only intermittently. I looked at my functioning chibi LED to determine what I’d done right. I’d sewn up from the edge of the sticker AND down into the pre-existing holes on the Chibitronics stickers. I’d looped multiple times and used a very skinny sewing needle.

Success!

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Fourth time is a charm! I re-sewed my last chibi sticker with my debugged ideas and finally…. got this little plushie just right!

Next Chibi Project?

I’m so stoked to play around with Jie’s new board for Chibitronics that can clip right to a paper circuit! Right out of the box, I modified one of our projects from the book Aaron and I wrote together. I quickly uploaded a blink sketch FROM MY PHONE! The video below is my first sketch that I’ve already changed a few times. Now, I’m excited to play around and mash some Lilypad components with paper circuits.  More tinkering to come!