Working with conductive fabric is fun and it's ideal for wearables, soft circuitry, e-textiles and other projects that take advantage of it's properties. Learning the basics will help you make design and material choices tailored to your application.
This Instructable is jam-packed with insights from using it over the years as well as favorite resources for further development. You will learn techniques, such as how to cut and attach conductive fabric and how to build the following:
I intend this to be something you bookmark, favorite or download for later as a go-to reference. Keep in mind that to stay safe from electrical shock, this information is intended to be used with low-voltage DC projects. Please comment below to add your own insights and to ask any questions!
16) Capacitive Touch
Conductive fabric offers the softness and malleability of fabric, while also having electrical properties. It's mainly used in projects where a soft, flexible and sometimes washable circuit is needed. It's also great for creating low profile switches in projects where manufactured and hard conductive materials are not appropriate.
Fabric can be cut, sewn, stretched, crumpled and manipulated in other ways that hard metals, carbon and plastics can not. Knowing how it behaves can lead to unexpected creative applications and end up solving specific design problems. Not all applications need to be wearable. For example, take a look at Adrian Freed's Tablo Fabric Drape Sensing Controller that uses the fabric's ability to stretch and have tension as a tactile musical interface.
One of my favorite projects is the Massage Me Jacket, a video game controller that gives the wearer a massage as the gamer back + front + kicks their way through Street Fighter II. Hard switches would definitely not be suitable for this design!
IM Blanky is a beautiful example of intricate cuts and hand-built soft sensors on a large scale. It has 104 soft tilt sensors and uses traditional embroidery techniques. The creator describes it's function as such: "By draping it over an object the blanket reproduces digitally and in real time that which it covers." Super cool.
Having listed some of the great things about cond. fabric, it's only fair to list some negatives.
I would say the biggest con is that conductive fabric comes uninsulated, so when building circuits, it's susceptible to noise and interference from outside sources, as well as noise generated by the circuit itself. It also gives a lot of opportunity for short circuits.
Another challenge, which is related, is that cond. fabric erodes over time. To make fabric conductive you coat or impregnate it with metal. Sometimes this metal and fiber bond isn't the strongest, so it wears down and wears off through use. Depending on what metal is used it will also oxidize since it is not properly insulated. There are ways to insulate, this is gone over in the "how to insulate" step.
A good challenge would be to design a project that highlights these negatives, thus turning them into positives to you can work with.
A Bridge Between Demographics
Conductive fabric can be an excellent way to introduce electronics to a wider group of people, such as knitters, weavers, textile artists, fashion designers and a younger age group. It has helped close the gap between fashion and engineering fields, making a new breed of fashion technologists. Designers are finding they want to learn more about programming and electronics and engineers are getting interested in how fabric behaves and best techniques for building with it.
Leah Buechley, the inventor of the LilyPad Arduino, has been a pioneer for teaching girls and women electronics and programming, teaching workshops and writing books that use materials such as conductive fabric. Check out some of her projects and I recommend reading one of her papers on electronics and education.