Introduction: How to Add EL Wire to a Coat or Other Garment
As a lighted costume designer, I get a lot of questions from people who want to know how to make their own EL wire costumes. I don't have time to help everyone individually, so I thought I'd consolidate my advice into one instructable. Hopefully this will help you understand the steps involved in this labor-intensive process, and get you started with your own lighted clothing projects.
Rather than describe how to make a single specific design, I am trying to make these instructions fairly general so you can create your own EL wire layout for almost any type of clothing, although many of my example photos refer to lighted coats. Also, since EL wire is very fragile in situations where it is flexed repeatedly, a lot of these tips will focus on methods for improving durability and getting the longest possible life out of the garment.
UPDATE: I never intended this to be a tutorial for copying other people's work, but it seems that some clarification might be useful. It's great to be inspired, but I'd like to encourage this community to take things a step further and use these techniques to create their own original designs.
Step 1: List of Materials
piece of clothing to light up (see guidelines in that step)
needle, clear thread, scissors
EL wire (can be a single color or a mix of colors)
EL wire driver/inverter matched to the total length of glowing wire used in the design
battery holder and switch (if not included with driver)
If you are soldering:
heat-shrink tubing, heat gun
glue, pins, clamps
Step 2: Choose Garment to Light Up
Some types of clothing are better-suited for EL wire installation than others. It is usually easier to get good results when the stiffness of the wire is similar to the stiffness of the base fabric, and the garment does not stretch or flex too much in the areas where the EL wire is installed.
leather, suede, vinyl, various forms of imitation leather
denim, thick cotton/polyester blends, velvet (non-stretch), faux fur
quilted/padded jackets (like a parka)
any medium to heavyweight fabric that does not stretch
In most cases, you don't want the EL wire to be significantly stiffer than the fabric, or the wire will dominate the drape of the garment. (one exception would be a ruffled edge on a tutu, for example). Also, if you bend or fold part of the wire when you wear it or store it, it will retain some of the bend in that location when you want to straighten it out. Over time, these areas are more likely to break.
If you are working with a lined piece of clothing, open up the lining by gently snipping the stitches in an inner seam. Open it enough so that you can access all the places where you will put EL wire.
Step 3: Plan the Light Layout
Adding EL wire to clothing can be a good project for a beginner who has limited experience with electronics or sewing. However, you should be aware of the limitations of EL wire when you plan your design.
The center core of EL wire is made of solid copper, and like any solid wire it will break due to fatigue damage after repeated bending. On the human body, the elbows, knees, shoulders, and hips undergo the most movement. You can make the electronics last longer by mounting EL on areas that don't flex as much, and using stranded insulated connector wire (which can flex) to join the glowing pieces together inside the garment.
Plan the placement of EL wire with temporary markers like pieces of string, pins, or stickers, or make a sketch on a digital photo of the garment. You can follow the seams, or add axtra lines as desired. Decide which sections can be lit up with a single continuous piece of EL wire, and which will require multiple pieces.
Then, decide what path the wire will take for each section, and mark the entry and exit points. To make sharp "T" shaped junctions, you may need to run the wire inside the jacket at some locations.
Step 4: Select and Order the EL Wire and Inverter
Measure the total length of EL wire that you will need, taking into account parts that will be hidden behind the fabric, and add at least 2-3 inches at the end of each piece to allow for stripping and soldering the ends (or sealing the un-soldered ends). If you are not experienced with soldering EL wire, order extra so you can practice. You may need to cut and re-strip the ends multiple times.
There are many sources for buying EL wire online, such as coolneon.com and worldaglow.com
thin (angel hair)
normal thickness (2.3 mm diameter)
extra thick/phat (3.2mm or 5mm diameter)
I prefer normal thickness, high brightness wire for most applications. The thin wire can be bent into finer shapes, but it is more fragile (better suited for a hat or a tiara, for example). The thick wire is more durable, being protected by a thicker outer plastic core, but it cannot be bent as tightly and may not be suitable for designs with fine details or sharp bends.
There are two standard phosphor colors for EL wire: aqua blue (which is white with a clear sheath when off), and white (which is pink when off, due to the addition of a red phosphor in the mix). The other colors (pink, red, orange, yellow, lime green, dark green, dark blue, and violet) are achieved by filtering the aqua light through a tinted outer sheath. Aqua tends to be the brightest, although the brightness can be adjusted when you select your driver.
EL wire uses a high voltage and high frequency alternating current to activate the phosphor. An EL driver, also known as an inverter, is required to convert your low voltage DC power from the battery into a high voltage AC source. The length rating of the EL driver should be matched to the total length of glowing wire that you want to illuminate, regardless of whether it is wired in series or in parallel.
Some drivers will produce a steady glow in your EL wire, others have built-in options for blinking and sound reactivity.
Step 5: Cut, Strip and Solder the EL Wire Junctions
You can order the EL wire pieces pre-soldered if your design is relatively simple, and you want to skip this step.
The sketch below illustrates the method I use to solder EL wire. If you'd like more detail, you can get directions from the places that sell EL wire, or see this instructable:
For each piece of EL wire in your design, cut the proper length (with at least a few extra inches at each end), and solder the end of each piece to a connector, or to a double-conductor piece of ribbon cable that is long enough to reach the driver. The polarity does not matter - either wire can be connected to the center core or the outer wires. There are many methods for soldering EL wire, for any of these you should end up with a reinforced region with heat shrink tubing covering the junction.
I strongly recommend that you test the wire at this stage, joining the two conductors to an inverter, before it is attached to the garment. This is also a good time to join the pieces together to test the overall brightness, and decide whether you'd like to use a stronger inverter. You can achieve a higher level of brightness by overdriving the wire (e.g., attaching a short length of wire to one that is designed for a longer piece). It will burn out the phosphor on the wire faster, but that might not be important for some applications. Under normal usage, EL wire should have 3000 to 5000 hours of glowing life before the phosphor fades to 1/2 of its normal brightness.
Step 6: Attach the EL Wire
For most projects, the best approach is to hand-sew the wire to the fabric with clear monofilament thread (fishing line). Look for the basic clear kind, in one of the lower weights. I typically use the 6lb type, but 4lb and 8lb will also work reasonably well. You can also use standard thread, if you don't mind that it will block light from the EL wherever you make a stitch.
Make a hole in the fabric where you want to have an entry point. with the connector wires on the inside, pull the EL wire through the hole. When you get to the solder junction and shrink tubing, leave that part inside the garment and position it in a way that can be reinforced. For example, you may want to sew it to the inside of a seam, or add glue. It is most important that the area inside the shrink tubing is not going to bend repeatedly - this is the most fragile part of the wire.
If you are doing the type of installation where you are running one long piece along an arm or leg, or another line that is going to extend when you flex, then it is better to mount the EL wire in a way that allows the end to slide slightly in and out of the hole.
To sew the wire in place: use a needle that is appropriate for the garment fabric (leather needles have a special piercing point at the end). Thread the needle. As a rule of thumb, a good amount of thread to use is the distance between your hands when your arms are spread out. Shorter pieces will require frequent re-threading, longer pieces tend to get tangled and caught on things. I like to sew with a double strand of thread - meaning the needle is positioned at the halfway point on the piece of fishing line, and the two ends are tied together. A double knot is a good idea.
When you start sewing, run the needle between the two threads after the first stitch, to make a better anchor to the knot. This ensures the the knot will not pull through the hole in the fabric.
Sew along the length of the EL wire with a diagonal whip stitch, using whatvever spacing is needed to hold the wire in the proper shape. If the fabric is especially thick or difficult to sew through, you can use a line of topstitching as your anchor.
Tie an extra knot in the fishing line periodically (every 5-6 inches), so that if part of it breaks it will not undo the rest of the stitching.
For some materials, a strong flexible glue may be a better choice. For example, EL wire can be mounted to a plastic surface (such as a helmet) by hot glue, E6000, or 3M Super Strength Adhesive.
Another method for attaching EL wire to clothing is to make a casing or channel with sheer fabric, and slide the wire through there.
Or, if you're looking for an extremely easy short cut, or a quick temporary attachment, you could weave it back and forth through holes in the fabric, or hold it on temporarily with safety pins, zip ties, or clear tape.
When you get to the other end, make an entry hole, if needed. Leave about 2-3" excess wire at the end. Seal the end with heat-shrink tubing and/or glue, and mount it on the inside of the garment, as you did with the leading end.
Step 7: Finishing Steps
First, you will need to deal with wire management inside the garment. There should be enough slack for the non-glowing connector wires to reach back to the inverter and battery without being pulled tightly when you move. But, you also don't want so much excess wire that it will get snagged when you put it on. I recommend using a big stitch to sew these wires to the seams on the inside of the garment. If your jacket is unlined, this is especially helpful. If your jacket has a lining, it may be sufficient to make some anchor points at key locations where the wire bends, like the armpits.
After all the wires running back to the inverter and battery pocket are stabilized, reconnect them as needed. They can be hard-wired to the driver, or joined to a plug if you want it to be easy to change it later. Use heat-shrink tubing or other insulators to ensure that you do not short out the two conductors to each other.
Advice for the battery pocket:
Use an existing pocket in the garment or add one, if necessary. The pocket should be close to the size of the battery pack. If you will be dancing or moving a lot in the coat, you don't want the battery pack to bounce around too much, or fall out. Closing the pocket with a zipper or velcro can be helpful.
Clip a small part of the pocket seam, pass the wire through, and re-sew the seam closed so that the parts don't fall back into the lining. If you do not plan to change the inverter, that part can be hidden in an inaccessible part inside the lining, or sewn into a separate closed section of a pocket. Run the wire for the battery connector to that pocket. There should be enough excess wire to easily access the end and change batteries.
Many EL drivers run on 9V or 12V. A standard 9V battery is good for many applications. If you want longer battery life with a 9V system, you can also use a 6-pack of AA cells.
Step 8: Other Examples: EL Wire Logos and Shapes
In addition to lighting up the seams of a garment, EL wire can also be bent into shape to create logos and other designs, and sewn or glued to fabric. Please see the notes on each image for more information.
Step 9: Other Examples: EL Wire Suits
Here are some examples of EL wire suits, with comments included on the photos.
Step 10: Other Examples: EL Wire Hats and Helmets
Hats and helmets can provide a good sturdy non-flexing base for EL wire. Cut holes in fabric, or drill/melt holes in plastic to pass the wire in and out of the hat at desired locations.
A small inverter and battery (9V type, for example), can be hidden in a hat with extra space inside, so those are generally preferred over something tight, like a low-crown baseball cap.
The high-pitched whining noise of the EL wire system can be difficult to wear near your ears, although some people don't mind it.
Please see the photo comments for more information.