Introduction: El Wire and Leather Necklace
I love electroluminescent wire (el wire), and I think it is a highly misunderstood material. It often gets a bad rap in the wearable tech world because it can be fussy to work with and can look messy if not placed precisely. But when used in the right ways, it creates an effect that is both elegant and mesmerizing. A lot of my costume work has involved trying to find new and interesting ways to use el wire. To create this glowing necklace design, I simply wove two colors of wire through laser cut slits in a strip of thick leather, and attached them to a battery pack at the back of the neck.
I was excited when I came up with this relatively simple leather weaving technique because I think it gives a completely new dimension to the wire, making it look almost like beads or film strip, and I can see the potential for a creating lot of interesting design variations using this method. It also eliminates tedious hand sewing and nit-picky el wire placement. Threading the wire through the leather still takes longer than I would like, but it is certainly faster, more secure, and more durable than sewing.
I also love this look because I think it takes the el wire out of the realm of costume and turns it into an elegant statement accessory that could be worn to a variety of occasions. There’s no reason that illuminated fashion should be confined to raves and costume parties, and with this necklace, it doesn’t have to be.
Step 1: What You Need
- One piece of relatively thick yet flexible leather for the strands, about 1/8" thick and at least 30" long by 6" wide. I used aniline dyed black cow hide, which means the dye penetrates all the way through the leather. I think this looks best with this design because you will see both the cut edge and the back side of the leather.
-One piece of stiffer black leather for the battery box, at least 7" by 8". I used a leather that had been stamped with a reptile pattern, which adds interest to the shape, but you could use a plain leather, or even the same leather as you use for the strands.
-El wire, at least 60” - I get all my el wire and supplies from Cool Neon in Oakland, but there are certainly other suppliers. I used about 30" of pink 3.2mm wire (called "phat" in the Cool Neon catalog), and 30" of aqua 5mm wire (called "hella phat" because Cool Neon has ridiculous product names :). I think the variation in color and diameter gives the design a dynamic quality especially with contrasting colors, but you could use just one color if you wanted.
-An el wire driver that will drive about 8-10 feet of wire - I used Cool Neon’s Peacock driver
-A wire-side el wire connector and copper tape
-1/2” and 1/4” heat shrink tubing
-A 9V battery
-Snaps - Three, 1/2” wide rivet snaps that match your leather
-A snap riveting kit
-Rivets - Eight, 1/8” rivets that match your leather
-Thread to match your leather - I used embroidery thread, but any thick thread will work
-Hand sewing needles
-A leather groover
-A leather punch
-Scissors and/or a cutting wheel
-An exacto knife
-An automatic wire stripper - stripping el wire is tricky and I seriously suggest only using this kind of wire stripper if you don’t want to get frustrated and waste a lot of wire.
-A soldering iron and solder
-A soldering helping hands
-A hot glue gun
-Access to a laser cutter (if you don’t have access to your own laser cutter you can send your file to an online laser cutting service like: https://www.ponoko.com/, or look up local laser cutter in your area). This design could probably also be cut out with a lot of patience and a sharp exacto knife and chisel.
-A computer with a vector design program like Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw.
Step 2: Designing and Drafting
I’ve attached my pattern files, which you can just cut out, but if you want to adjust the length of the necklace strands, or learn some Illustrator drafting, you can follow this step.
Cut 4 strips of paper or thin cardboard, about 20 long and 3/4” wide.
Drape these strips around the neck of a dress form or your own neck until you get the length variations you like. Remember that the total length of your strands of el wire shouldn’t be more than your driver can power.
If you are going to use a laser cutter, you will need to draft your patterns in Illustrator or Corel. otherwise you can draw them by hand.
Make the strands that will hold the 5mm wire 1” wide, with 5/8” long slits, and the strands for the 3.2mm wire 5/8” wide with 7/16” long slits. I made the slits on the larger strands 1/4” apart and the slits in the narrower strands 3/16” apart, but you could certainly vary this length to create a different effect, you could even change it along the length of the strand if you wanted.
The easiest way to create these slits in Illustrator is to make a pattern brush. To do this, draw two parallel lines with the stroke width set to .001, and the fill off. Group these two lines. Then draw a rectangle. The width of the rectangle should be twice the distance between the two lines, and the hight should be the same as the height of the lines. Align the rectangle so it is centered directly over the lines, and turn off both the fill and stroke on the rectangle. Then select the whole thing and drag it over into the brush palette. Select 'pattern brush' from the pop up menu to create your brush.
Once you've done this, add slits to your strands by drawing a line down the center of each strand and applying the pattern brush to it. Leave 3/4” free of slits at the end of each strand.
Make the ends of each strip curved and put a 1/8” diameter hole 3/8” in from the ends on both sides using the circle tool. Make sure all your line weights are .001” so they will be read as cutting lines by the laser.
To create the pattern for your battery pack you will need to measure your driver and battery and create a folded box that will hold them both, and a small separate tab piece that holds the other ends of the strands and snaps onto the battery pack to close the necklace. The pattern I’ve provided holds a Peacock driver and a 9V battery. If you are using a different driver, you can adjust my pattern to fit your components.
The one issue with this design is the size of the battery pack. I like to keep my pieces self contained, with no wires, running to pockets etc., but the combination of the el wire driver and the battery is a bit bigger and heavier than I would like. I am working on other, more streamlined solutions, and if anyone finds a good one, I would welcome suggestions.
Step 3: Cutting Your Leather
Now you can cut your pattern out, preferably with a laser cutter. It wouldn't be impossible to cut it by hand, but getting the slits to be even and clean would be very difficult and take a lot of patience. If you are going to try it by hand, I might suggest using a mallet and a very sharp chisel of the right length to cut each slit with a single stroke.
To cut with a laser cutter, first square off your leather pieces so they will fit just right in the laser. Then adjust your settings to the right strength to cut through the leather. Always do a test first to make sure your settings are right. I used a 120 watt Epilog Laser with these vector settings:
Make sure your laser is well ventilated, as cutting leather smells nasty, and depending on what it has been treated with, you are better off not breathing the fumes. The leather will also be sooty when it comes out of the laser. To clean it, I usually wipe down the top side with a wet cloth, and use the sticky side of masking tape to get the soot off the underside and edges. Using a wet towel works alright here too, but sometimes it seems to just rub the soot into the leather rather than cleaning it. It will also smell bad for a while, kind of like burnt hair, but the smell will fade eventually.
Step 4: Soldering Your El Wire
Take your two strands of el wire and strip about 1” off one end of each strand using your automatic wire stripper. You can adjust how deeply the stripper cuts by turning the little wheel on the front. I found that I usually needed to use the stripper several times on the 5mm wire to get it to strip all the way through. Your goal is to expose the phosphor covered core wire, without breaking the two tiny hair wires next to it. It might take a few tries to get this right.
Now shave the phosphor coating off the ends of the core wires with an exacto knife.
Using a pair of needle nosed pliers, twist the bare ends of the core wires together, then use your soldering iron to tin them with solder.
Wrap a piece of sticky copper tape around the plastic covered ends of the two wires. Use your fingers to twist the two tiny hair wires together, and fold them down over the copper tape.
Leaving about two inches of wire before the white connector, trim and strip the two wires of a wire-side connector so they line up with the hair wires and core wires respectively.
Slip a piece of heat shrink tubing over the black wires of the wire side connector, and then use the helping hands to hold the el wire and wire side connector in place so you can solder them together.
Once it’s soldered, use a heat gun, lighter or blowdryer to shrink the tubing over the connections.
For more tips on el wire soldering, follow this great Cool Neon tutorial: http://www.coolneon.com/tutorials-2/el-wire-soldering/the-ultimate-beginers-guide-to-soldering-cool-neon-el-wire/
Step 5: Threading the Strands
Now take your leather strips and thread your el wire through them. In my design the pink wire goes through the first (shortest) and third strand, and the aqua wire goes through the second and fourth. Start at one end of the shortest strand and weave the 3.2 mm pink wire through the slits in the leather. This takes a little while, and your hands will get a little dirty from the laser cutting soot. The best technique I found for making it go faster was to thread about 4 or 5 slits at a time and then pull the wire through. Squeezing the strand from both sides as you pull the wire helps it slide through more easily.
When you reach the end of the first strand, start looping your wire around through the third strand. Then do the same with the aqua wire on the second and fourth strands.
(The picture here of the finished strands is actually from a different version of the necklace, but you get the idea.)
Step 6: Starting the Battery Pack
On the back of your battery pack piece, use a ruler and pen to draw straight lines in all the places you will be folding the leather. Take your leather groover and score along these lines until you can easily fold the flaps down to form a box. Be careful not to cut all the way through the leather.
I made the mistake of starting to sew my box together before putting the snaps on, but it’s much easier to add the snaps first.
Take your snaps, hammer and snap riveting kit to a hard stable surface. I used a concrete floor. The snaps I used have 4 separate parts, so be sure you are pairing the right two parts together before setting them with the riveting tool and hammer. It’s wise to do a test on another piece of leather first. Set snaps into the two holes of the small tab, the corresponding holes on the box, and the tabs that close the box.
Step 7: Finishing the Battery Pack
Thread a hand sewing needle with your embroidery (or other thick) thread and tie a knot in the end.
Fold up the sides of your box and sew them together starting in the inside corners and sewing out to the edges and then back down to give it extra re-enforcement. Tie a knot at the end of each row of stitches. Sew each side until you’ve made a box.
Step 8: Attaching the Strands
Lay out your battery back and strands so you get the orientation right. You want the looped ends of the strands to attach to the small separate tab, and the soldered ends of the strands to attach to the box. Also, make sure the box is oriented so the snap tab closure will be facing down away from your head when the necklace is around your neck.
Line up the holes on the looped ends of the strands with the holes on the separate tab. Loop the two aqua strands around the pink ones. Rivet them together with the small black rivets and a hammer. Then do the same to attach the other end of the strands to tab on the box. If the ends of the strands stick out a bit from under he tabs, trim them with scissors so they look neat.
Step 9: Finishing the Wiring
Trim the loose ends of the el wire and put a drop of hot glue on the end of each one.
Consolidate all the wires by putting section of heat shrink tape over them.
Cut and re-solder the driver-side connector wire to about 3 1/2” and the battery connector wire about 2 1/2”. Cover the new connections with heat shrink.
Attach your driver to your wire and your wire to your battery, and close it all up inside your battery box.
Now you’re ready to glow!!
Step 10: Glowing
Now go light up the night! ...Or just make the day more fashionable.
One of the great things about this piece is that it looks beautiful in broad daylight as well as darkness. With the el wire turned off it becomes an interesting, but not overly flamboyant accessory that you can safely wear around muggles without revealing your secret powers of bioluminescence.
Depending on how much el wire and what kind of driver you've used, one 9V battery should last you at least 2-3 hours. When you want to turn off the lights, make sure you unplug the battery, not the driver, as these drivers can burn out when left hooked to to a battery with no wire to power.
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