Introduction: Color Changing Light Coat

About: I'm a mechanical engineer and an avid creator of things; often ridiculous, frivolous things, and sometimes just plain old practical things.

I'm not the first to do this by any means, in fact you can buy these ready made from several online retailers, on etsy, and so on. This coat gets an enormous response wherever I take it though, and I've even been the center of a 50+ person group hug that flashmobbed me in the middle of the night because I was visible from so far away. Everywhere I take it people ask where I got it or how I made it and whether I will make them one. I have to say it was an enormous amount of work, and it wasn't cheap, but it's been well worth the investment, and here's how I went about making it!

Step 1: Things You'll Need

A Coat. If you have a coat, this will shorten the process immensely for you, as the majority of the work I had to invest here was in making the coat. If you have a coat already, you can skip way ahead to the section on lights.

If you want to make your own coat, to maximize your maker cred, and to get exactly what you want, you'll need:

A Sewing machine: I used my wife's, so I don't have a lot of advice here... I think any one that works decently will work for you though.

A Pattern: I used McCall's pattern 4222 because it's simple, adaptable, and I'd read other people's accounts of making cool coats with it.

Fur: I used "husky" faux fur because I liked the peppering of black in the white. White fur transmits light the best, so you'll want to stick with light colors. The original product page for the fur I used is gone from amazon but this looks similar. I needed 4 yards.

Liner Fabric: You'll need something sturdy but comfortable for the liner. I used heavy white satin, but if I were to do it again I'd use something that breathes better. The coat is so warm that I often end up wearing no shirt under it, even on cold nights. The satin isn't very comfortable against sweaty skin. You'll also need 4 yards of this.

Buttons: The possibilities are limitless, and these are optional anyway; I used giant rhinestone buttons off ebay because, well why not?

Lights: Now, I spent a lot of time researching here. LED strips are getting better every year, so my findings may not be current anymore. I picked 5050smd based led strips because they are high powered, and each emitter does RGB. Cheaper strips using 3528 smds do only one color per emitter, so if you do a color fading effect, the light moves around and there isn't as much of it. 5050 strips come in non-waterproof, IP65 water-resistant, and IP68 submersible varieties. I used the IP68 strips because the whole strip is encased in silicone and is very rugged (and doesn't have any adhesive backing to deal with. My wife made a similar garment with the IP65 strips and it worked fine, but the sticky adhesive was kind of a pain. I used 4x 16 foot strips.

RGB LED Controller: This often comes with the light strips, along with an IR remote control, but can be bought individually. There are a couple of ways to wire this up - you could use multiple controllers - one for each strip, but I wanted the whole coat to change uniformly, so I used only one controller with a couple of amplifiers (one controller can't put out enough power to run 4 strips).

RGB Aplifier(s): As mentioned above, the little RGB controller does not have enough power to run more than a single strip, so in order to run the whole coat from one controller, I needed a couple of amplifiers. This sounds really confusing but it's not too bad. You just wire the output from your little controller box to the inputs on the amplifiers, and the outputs from the amplifiers to the LED strips. One amplifier can run 2 strips, so I needed 2 amplifiers.

Batteries: This was a major issue. I originally set out to create a lithium ion powered utility belt that would run all of my LED ridiculousness at night, but I ran out of time, and started getting skeptical about wearing 50 unprotected lithium cells around my waist, so I purchased a flat 20AH battery pack from BatterySpace.

Step 2: Learn to Sew

No really. This was the first thing I'd ever made with a sewing machine. I say this not to brag, but to let you know you don't have to be an expert, or even know how to sew. It's not that complicated. Faux fur is a pain to sew, but it also hides a lot of your mistakes, so if your seams are less than perfect, it really doesn't matter.

Step 3: Sew the Exterior of the Coat

Your pattern will have instructions, and YouTube has some great videos on tips for sewing faux fur. Just be patient, follow the instructions, and you should end up with a nice looking exterior for your coat. Some things that were very helpful to me:

Get good scissors: Really, it helps. a $29 set of fabric shears will pay for themselves.

Get a seam ripper: You're going to screw up. Fur will hide most mistakes, but sometimes you'll screw up too bad to salvage. In this case you'll want a seam ripper, and you can USUALLY re-sew and your initial screwup won't be visible.

Cut out your pattern and lay the whole thing out before cutting any fabric: There will be opportunities to minimize your waste, so don't just start cutting. Lay everything out on your fabric before you cut anything and you'll save some materials.

Use a million pins: Pins are cheap, and faux fur likes to move around as you shove it through a sewing machine. Having a pin every couple of inches will save you a lot of hassle, even though it seems like a pain at first.

Step 4: Sew Your Liner

This is actually considerably easier than sewing the exterior. With the lining fabric you need less of a seam allowance, and it goes through the machine much easier. You'll also be practiced a bit at this point so it will seem to go more smoothly. The same tips apply here as with sewing the exterior.

Step 5: Lay Out Your Lights

Somewhere I have a drawing wherein I figured out how I would run the lights to form one continuous strip, while covering the whole coat evenly in light. The best description I can give is that I started at the bottom on one side and zig-zagged up from the front edge of the coat to the center of the back. When I reached the collar, I went up the front edge of the hood, and over to the other side, where I snaked back down to the bottom in a similar fashion.

To hold the lights to the liner, I chose to sew velcro to the liner in the pattern I wanted as shown in the above photo. Note this is the side of the liner that faces the backside of the fur, not the inside that is against you when worn.

Note: If you're following my method - I recommend using the fuzzy "loop" side of your Velcro on the coat side, and the prickly "hook" side of the velcro on your light strips. This is just because if you put this much "hook" velcro into your liner it will constantly be hanging up on the backside of the faux fur and creating a headache for you.

Step 6: Attach Velcro Your Lights, and Lay Them Out

I don't have a photo of laying out the lights, but you can see how I attached the Velcro to the strip lights. What I did was:

  1. I laid 5 feet of 1" clear shrink tubing out - it's essentially a 1" wide plastic ribbon.
  2. I then laid 1" wide Velcro along it, and stitched along the edges about 1/16" in from the edge. This leaves you with a flattened tube of heat shrink, with Velcro attached to one side of it.
  3. Cut the Velcro/tubing strip into 1" sections and slip these over the end of the LED strip and distribute them along the length every 6" or so.
  4. Carefully lay out your strips on your liner, sticking the Velcro in place and adjusting as you go.

The photo above was taken (just now) after construction to give you the idea of the finished product. I considered other means of attaching the Velcro to the strips, including glue, but this allows the Velcro to slide along the strip (with some resistance) making it able to flex and move and be adjusted.

NOTE: I chose to do this step BEFORE attaching the liner to the coat, as I wanted the easy access. I also installed a zipper up the center of the back of the liner to allow later access to the lights, but it would have been difficult to install the lights through this. This of course makes it a bit interesting to sew the liner into the exterior of the coat but some care and it wasn't too bad.

Step 7: Wiring

Wire Ribbon: You can get 4 conductor wire ribbon designed exactly for wiring these strips. This cabling should come up as a suggested add-on item when you're sourcing your lights. There are also the 4 pin connectors that go with them (or 5 pin if you use RGBW strips). These connectors, to put it bluntly, really suck. Wherever I had to use one I thoroughly wrapped them in electrical tape so they wouldn't fall apart.

Amplifiers: As I touched on earlier, I needed a couple of amplifiers to run all these lights. These aren't that expensive or complicated, but I didn't like the idea of all those loose connections floating around in the coat, so I mounted it all to a board and hot glued the wires down so they wouldn't get tugged out of place.

Batteries: As mentioned in the "Things You'll Need" Section, the batteries for this are quite big and beefy and I actually carry two of them to stay lit up all night. These come with a tamiya 12v connector, which also kind of sucks, and sometimes the coat flickers as I walk. I would suggest a better connector, but there really aren't that many (inexpensive) options. A CCTV connector may work, but this would be the upper limit for how much current those can carry. A Lighter socket type plug may be better, but even then those only go to 10A, and they are kind of bulky.

Switch: I used an inline lamp switch similar to this one designed for 120v lamp cords, and I'm actually quite happy with it.

Step 8: Attach Electronics to Coat

Figuring out how to cram an amplifier board and 2 huge batteries into the coat presented a bit of an issue, but this coat is so large, that making two over-sized pockets on the outside actually looks pretty normal, and they don't seem to get in the way too badly. I had to put the batteries in one side and run the power cable over to the other side where the amplifiers were, then run the 4 conductor cable from the left pocket down to the bottom of the coat where it hooks to the start of the LED strip. If I'd been really thorough, I would have looped the wire from both ends of the light strips over to the amplifier board so a single break in one of the LED strips wouldn't cause any lights to die, but alas it's been fine so far without this.

Some Durability Notes: Wiring and clothing are a challenging mix, because clothing flexes, and flexing breaks connections. Putting the battery and Electronics on the front/sides of the coat in the pockets helps because this part of the coat doesn't get much abuse. What has failed on me repeatedly is the connections at the bottom of the coat, because it's so long that it often drags on the ground, gets stepped on or kicked. If I were to make it again I'd make it 3" shorter to avoid this - for the nonce I just wear platform boots with it most of the time.

Step 9: Test It Out

Nobody has managed to capture a proper photo of just how bright this coat is. It produces a LOT of light and can be seen from half a mile away easily if there is no competing light source. I've been caught by breathless people before who've been chasing me for 20 minutes to catch up and see what exactly this odd source of shifting light is. With the coat on I do not need a flashlight to see 30 feet in front of myself at night.

Step 10: Rock Out

Obviously if you're making this, you want to be noticed. One thing I will say is that it's so bright and distracting that the polite thing to do sometimes is turn it off, say, if someone else is doing a performance, or you're in a small space with lots of other people. Enjoy kids!