Note: The visible non-glowing wires in this image were added because this is the base to a robot themed costume. The process of adding el wire won't leave anything this visible on the surface!
El wire is a great an affordable way to spruce up almost any costume for very little added cost. When added to a store bought or homemade piece of clothing, it will really make you stand out. With some basic sewing (or gluing) skills, it isn't all that difficult either. You might even find that, like me, you suddenly want to add LEDs to all of your clothing...but let's take it one step at a time.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when going through this instructable, mostly learned the hard way through trial and error:
- Decide what you'd like to attach your el wire to, keeping in mind that the stiffer the material, the better. This means try to stay away from tees and move more towards jackets, thick sweatshirts, and costumes with some weight to them. It's not impossible to use a lighter material, but you'll tend to get bunching around the stitches and damaging bends to the wire over time.
- Measure, at least roughly, how much length you'll need for your design. You can order wire in a variety of sizes or choose your own length if you solder it (not usually worth the hassle unless you know exactly what you want, in my opinion). If you want to follow the trim of the costume or create some kind of shape, make sure you don't come up short!
- Lay out your design before you start stitching, making sure to account for where you want to put the battery pack and end of the wire. I'll talk more about this in later steps, but planning out the design is the best way to hide the elements you don't want to be visible.
Step 1: What You'll Need
- Article of clothing or costume (Tips: stiff material works best and will help your el wire to last longer since it won't bend as much. Just a few examples are heavy sweatshirts, jackets, bras, and vests like I use here.)
- El wire (Sold pre-soldered with a battery pack on amazon, ebay, and various specialty vendors. You can also solder it yourself if you want a bunch of different colors or an added challenge.)
- Decorations (Here I'm going with a robot theme, so I use wires and circuit boards I got from taking apart some old electronics, but this is totally optional.)
For Sewing (Recommended!):
- Needle (If you're using a very thick article of clothing you might need a tapestry needle which is just thicker, but for most projects a regular old needle will do just fine.)
- Fishing line to be used as thread(Use the lowest tension you can find. Here I use 4lb. line which was much easier to work with than higher tension line I've tried in the past. El wire is lighter than the catch of the day so it will be plenty enough reinforcement.)
For Gluing (Fast and Dirty!):
- Super glue or light epoxy
- Disclaimer: I have yet to find a glue that I'm totally satisfied with for the purposes of el wire costumes. If you don't have a lot of time and/or don't need a costume that will hold up very well, then it should do the trick. When looking at glues, make sure to check that the one you use is designed for plastics, since that's what the casing of el wire is made of. Avoid hot glue since it will adhere to the fabric, but not durably to the wire - it pops right off.
Step 2: The Costume
If you're using a complete piece of clothing or costume, ignore this step!
It's the Little Things:
Here, we're going to prep the costume like I did for this specific piece with a few extra details that I think are worth mentioning. First I took a white vest and added the metallic patches that you saw in the finished product picture, along with some wires and circuit boards because this is a robotic-themed Halloween piece.
I still have some details that I'd like to add, including additional buttons and an LED panel that I'm ordering in, but how much detail you add to the piece before el wire is totally up to you! Just keep in mind where you'd like the wire to be and try not to overlap that area with anything too thick.
I used the fishing line to stitch this just like we will for the wire, but you can of course use any kind of thread or glue that you like. I just like the durability and invisibility of the line for this project.
I pinned my metallic fabric down and used a simple running stitch by hand to attach these, but machine sewing also works great, and I would have done that if mine hadn't broken a few months ago.
I glued the wire and circuit board details down with super glue, since those won't have too much stress on them. Since I decided to do a border around the vest, I kept the wires clear from most edges I knew I'd want to light. You can also add these details afterward as long as the el wire won't be in your way.
Now, to the fun part!
Step 3: And Now We Actually Attach It
Getting to the part you probably really care about: sewing the el wire! Since this is a unique material that you might not have worked with before, here are a few facts about el wire that you should know when designing and making your costume:
- The plastic tubing is filled with thin copper wire that gives off the actual light. This wire is somewhat fragile and doesn't like to be repeatedly bent. Choosing a design without many sharp corners that avoids joints like on the arms and legs will help it to last longer. This isn't to say that the el wire won't hold up even if it takes a bit of a beating, but bending it over and over in the same spot creates weak points just like when you crease paper so that it's easier to rip.
- If you look at my costume, you'll see that it doesn't run wire across shoulders, elbows, knees, etc. That doesn't mean that yours can't, but try to be gentler with those areas when wearing it.
- After a while, you might start to see dark spots where the wire is no longer lit. This could be the wire wearing out, but very often replacing the batteries in the battery pack will solve this problem.
- Eventually, el wire does die, and that is a sad day. Stitching wire to the outside of a costume will make it easily removable if that day ever does come. If you're interested in making a costume you can easily switch the el wire out of for longevity and to change up the colors, check out my instructable on using mesh tubing for el wire costumeshere.
Now the sewing!
I find that pinning the wire to the costume can be tricky since you definitely don't want to pierce it! If you can get the pin around it, you might have an easier time keeping it in place. Very often, I find myself laying out the design and stitching it bit by bit, adjusting as I go along. Make sure to test out any bends or corners in your design to ensure that the elwire can be bent enough to create the shape. You might also consider taping the wire down in the desired shape and removing it as you go, or sketching the shape in pencil or chalk to sew over and erase once you're done.
Now's the time to decide where you want to hide the battery pack. Items with pockets offer a very easy solution! Just run the wire up to the pocket you that you can easily store and access the battery pack there. This is my favorite option and I use it whenever possible. Alternative options are leaving enough extra wire to carry the battery pack in the pocket of your pants or stitching/gluing the battery pack somewhere inside the clothing out of sight. This could work well if your clothing is lined and you don't mind opening up the lining.
If you're crazy like me and just go free form, then more power to you! This is, of course, easiest when you're following the outline of an article of clothing like I do here, since you've already got a template laid out.
For the actual sewing, I use a whip stitch. If you aren't a sewing person, don't fret! This just means the needle goes up through the material from the back, around the wire, and back down through the material just on the other side of the wire. Repeat over and over and over. I've included a close up of the stitching with labels, which should help visually.
You want to keep the wire tightly secured, but don't stitch so tight that the material bunches up. Knot the fishing line every few inches so that in case any part of the sewing does break, the whole thing won't come unraveled. Remember to do this!
Continue stitching until you've secured down all of your design.
Step 4: Admire Your Work!
Step back and take a look at the piece now that it's all done. Now's a great time to add any other decoration you might not have added before, or to call it a day.
This is a no brainer, but be sure to turn the el wire off whenever you're not using it to save the batteries and keep it from burning out. Don't fold this item up but hang it whenever possible, since it won't bend the wire as I mentioned before. If you want to wash the clothing and the wire isn't easily removable, try using spot treatment or spray fabric cleaners that allow you to protect the wire.
If any of your stitching comes undone, hopefully you remembered to knot off your sewing every few inches and it will require only a little touching up. If you found breakage around a joint or some high movement area, consider double stitching that section to prevent it from happening again (this just means sew it twice, nothing fancy).
Feel free to leave any questions or comments down below and show me what cool projects you were able to make with this information! Happy glowing.