Introduction: Birthday Machine Embroidery With LEDs

About: Making and sharing are my two biggest passions! In total I've published hundreds of tutorials about everything from microcontrollers to knitting. I'm a New York City motorcyclist and unrepentant dog mom. My wo…

Here’s a birthday present I made for my friend and fellow YouTuber Estefannie. It’s an embroidery I designed with some of her favorite things, as well as some electronics to play sound and light up the birthday candles.

Last year Estefannie and I found out our birthdays are only a day apart, so naturally, we decided to do a youtube collab to celebrate and make each other gifts. I knew Estefannie moved into a house not too long ago, so I decided to make something to help decorate all that new wall space. Embroidery is a natural choice for me, but this time I used a computerized embroidery machine instead of doing it by hand.


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Step 1: Design

I designed the art in Adobe Illustrator to feature a big piece of her favorite chocolate cake, with birthday candles on top.

The plant-like embellishment around the cake is made with leaves that look like the state of Texas, where Estefannie calls home. And of course, I had to include her cats, Teddy and Luna, and some of her logo lightning bolts as well.

Step 2: Machine Embroidery

Brother sent me this embroidery machine a while back. I never made much with it until a new code library for making machine embroidery with Processing was released by the studio for creative inquiry at Carnegie Mellon called PEmbroider. See, embroidery software is notoriously proprietary, hard to use, and expensive, and the onboard default art and fonts can only take you so far.

PEmbroider makes it free and easy to create my own machine embroidery files. You can take advantage of Processing’s shape drawing capabilities, or, in my case, generate stitch paths from black and white images.

I separated my art into layers based on thread color, then exported a series of black and white GIFs into the data folder of the library example for working with images, then changed the sample to match the image file names.

Processing previews the stitch paths and generates the appropriate file for my machine, which I transfer using a USB flash drive. I based my code on the PEmbroider_png_image_multicolor example included with the PEmbroider library. You can download my Processing sketch and supporting files here.

I lined up my threads in the same order they appear in the Processing sketch. Human error is a very real possibility with a project of this many thread colors. It has 12!

This is the most complex art I’ve attempted on my embroidery machine so far. I did some experimenting with the example code to pick out the best stitch settings for each element before I tried to combine them all together.
After the machine finished, I trimmed the extra threads and the stabilizer from around the artwork.

Step 3: 3D Printed Frame

I 3D printed the frame for this piece using Geeky Faye Art's “Ultimate Picture Frame” modular design. I used silver PLA on my Creality CR10s Pro. I had a nice tight fit between the parts and found that my bench vice came in handy for joining up some of the pieces.

The embroidery then gets mounted to a sticky board made for this purpose. I wore gloves because you have to press down pretty hard and I didn’t want to get any sweat or dirt from my hands onto the clean embroidery. After wrapping the excess fabric around the back of the board, I slid it into the frame and added the last few frame pieces.

Step 4: Adding LEDs and Sound

Then it was time to add the electronics. At the bare minimum, I was planning to add candle-flicker LEDs to the birthday cake, so the front of the embroidery would have some electronic flair, and who knows, maybe it will make a good nightlight.

So I poked holes and threaded the legs of the LEDs through to the back, where I added one resistor per LED and extended the wires to a small circuit board.

I found this touch board in my stash of Arduino compatibles boards, and thought it would be a great and easy way to add sound to this project as well. It’s got an SD card for mp3s and capacitive touch sensors. The code it comes with plays the sounds on the card when you touch the contacts. It’s also got a USB port for power so I can use a nice-looking cable when it comes time to hang it up. I wanted these LEDs to always be on, so I attached them directly to power instead of one of the microcontroller pins. To play the sound, I attached an audio amplifier and a speaker. I found a few different songs to put on the SD card. To extend the touch sensor contacts to the outside of the frame, I drilled holes through it and installed a few bolts and nuts. To connect to the touch board, I twisted small wires around the bolts and then applied some heat shrink tubing to hold it in place.

Step 5: RTC

The last component I wired up is a realtime clock module. See, this is a birthday project, so I thought it would be cool if it could tell when it’s actually her birthday, and play the birthday song on that day. The clock can keep track of the date and time and even has its own little battery. One thing I learned about this one I got from Amazon is that it’s designed to recharge a rechargeable battery, so to use it with my regular CR2032, I needed to clip off this resistor here at the corner of the board.

The touch board comes with a basic touch-to-play-sound program already on board, but to utilize the RTC, I needed to update the Arduino code. I based my modifications on the touch board’s Random Touch MP3 example, to help with the special birthday functionality. Everyone but Estefannie can download my Arduino code to see what it does, but don’t spoil the surprise for her, please!

Step 6: Finishing Touches

After modifying the touch board code to include the clock module functionality, I made a few finishing touches like soldering on the speaker to slim down the bulky screw terminals, melting a channel for the power cable to pass through the frame, and stitching the components in place.

I’m really happy with how this turned out. She can start and stop playback with each of the four touch pads on the side of the frame, and it’ll play even more sounds when it’s her birthday. I packed it up and shipped it to Houston– watch her open it in her video.