Introduction: Programmable Fiber Optic Fairy Wings

About: Costume and experimental fashion designer and artist. Maker of clothing and accessories for time traveling cyborg superheroes, and lucid dreamers. Interested in fusing couture design and leatherwork with weara…

The fairyland I believed in as a kid may not be objectively real, but when imagination, technology and a few button clicks on the internet gives you the tools to create your own glowing wings, who says you have to stop believing in magic?

When Natalina created her amazing fiber optic dress last spring, she opened up a whole new world of wearable lighting magic and costume possibilities. Since then, some of us who love making ourselves glow have been playing with different ways to use fiber optics on clothing and costumes. For this latest experiment I applied the idea to some relatively simple fairy wings, hoping to create a sparkling enchanting fiber optic costume piece fit for a real fairy. To power my wings I made an easy lighting module with leds, a battery and a microcontroller that allows me to program the color of the fibers, or give them different patterns or fades.

Fiber optics are an amazing way to create illumination in costumes because you only need a single light source to add glow to a whole costume. This also makes them a lot more durable and less likely to have electronic issues than some other forms of illumination. These wings are actually quite light, sturdy and wearable... which makes it easy to flit through the forest on fairy related business.

The line between science an sorcery is really just a matter of perception and understanding... so from my perspective, being a maker really does give you supernatural powers ;) For anyone who ever wanted to grow up to be a magical fairy princess, this project is for you. Clap your hands if you believe... then go use them to make some magic.

*fantastic fairy photos by audreyobscura

Step 1: What You Need

For the Wing Structure:

  • Stiff but still bendable wire - I used 12 gauge galvanized utility wire, available at most hardware stores
  • Very thin flexible wire - I used a 24 gauge steel galvanized wire
  • Strong tape like Duct tape
  • Wire Cutters
  • Plyers
  • Measuring Tape
  • Thin tights or thigh highs preferable in a light color because this will show the light from the fiber optic best
  • Leather or a strong fabric to create the cover for the center of the wings
  • Faux fur or another decorative fabric to cover the light module in the center of the wings
  • Velcro
  • Double sided tape
  • Snaps and rivets
  • Fabric or leather glue like Magnatac
  • Hand sewing needle
  • Thin fishing line or clear thread
  • Scissors
  • Sewing machine (hand sewing or fabric glue will work in a pinch)

For the Lighting:

  • Enough fiber optics for your wing design - I used about 12 feet of 75 strand fiber optic end glow cable from Wiedamark containing individual strands with a .75mm diameter. I ended up dividing up my fiber so I was using bundles of about 35 fibers per LED. This was just about the right number, more would have created a bundle too big to be lit by one LED.
  • 6 neopixels, or other individually addressable LEDs - I used two sections of LED strip, but you could use other kinds of LEDs
  • A microcontroller to program your LEDs - I used a DF Robot Beetle, but any small Arduino designed for wearables will work fine
  • A switch
  • Wire to connect the LEDs like this 3 strand servo wire
  • A battery - I used a 1000mah lipo battery with it's own charging circuit encased in a 3D printed case, I will show you how to do this, and provide my battery case file, but you could just as easily use a small cell phone recharger like this one, or a cage of 3 double A batteries.
  • A battery connector - I use these
  • A box to house the electronics and the ends of the fiber optics - I used an acrylic box from Tap Plastic, but you could use almost any small box that will fit your components and can be drilled into.
  • A power drill
  • A soldering iron
  • A hot glue gun
  • A heat gun
  • A wire stripper
  • An xacto knife
  • Solder
  • Heat shrink tubing - clear 1/4" and 1/2" in any color
  • A computer with Arduino to program your LEDs

Step 2: Designing the Wings

I wanted my wings to look a bit more like dragonfly or cicada wings than butterfly wings, with an emphasis on the wing veins that would be traced by the fiber optics. I also decided that I was going to only create one wing on each side, not two like most wings. I did this for simplicity and because I wanted to allow the fibers to cascade down freely at the bottom of the wings creating a swallowtail effect. I looked at a few different insects and then created a design with each bundle of fiber optics originating from one of the 6 LEDs in the center of the wings and fanning outward to create the veins. I decided to end some of the fibers on the body of the wings to create extra points of bright light, while the rest of the fibers looped around to the base of the wings and fell freely.

I drew out my design in Illustrator, color coding each bundle of fibers to help me navigate when I was sewing them down.

I also designed my wings to be worn by sticking them down the back of or corset or tight dress. You could also attach them to a harness, which I will probably do eventually as well.

Step 3: Creating the Wire Frame

To create your wing frame, cut two lengths of your thick wire, about 65" each. Then, referring to your wing diagram, start shaping your wire to create a the central "body" (which will sit against your back and hold the electronics), and two wings. Use your pliers to bend the wire when necessary, this will also help you avoid getting blisters. Create one wing shape first, then use it as a template to create a matching wing on the other side. I made each wing about 24" from base to tip.

Attach the two in the center by wrapping lengths of the thin wire neatly and tightly around the connection areas. Try to avoid letting the poky ends of the wire stick out in any places where they might snag the tights or poke you.

When you have the wire wrapped securely, cover any especially pokey ends with duct tape.

Then look at your wings and make any shaping adjustments to make the two sides even,

To be honest, this was actually the part of this project that, very unexpectedly, gave me the most trouble. The first time I tried making my wing frame, I used wire that was too bendy, and when I tried to stretch the tights over the frames, the wire just got crushed out of shape. So make sure you are using a sturdy wire like the one I recommend.

Step 4: Creating the Base Cover

To create a cover for the central "body" of the wings, I traced this part of my wire frame onto a piece of paper and then added a 1/8" seam allowance around the outside and curved tabs on each side to cover the base of the wings. I also traced the profile of my electronics box onto the pattern so I would know where it should be attached.

Then I cut this pattern out twice in my white leather. I left a little extra on the wing tabs of the underside piece to accommodate the wings bending out.

Then I sewed two pieces of velcro onto the top piece of leather where I wanted to attach the electronics box.

I used double sided tape to stick my two pieces of leather together, right sides out, and then sewed them together around the bottom, making sure to stop where the bottom of the wings branch off from the base.

Now the cover can be slid right over the middle section of the wings, creating a nice clean looking base to hold the electronics.

Step 5: Covering the Wings

To cover the main parts of your wings you will need your tights, scissors and a needle and thread.

Using the right kind of tights or pantyhose seems to be as important for getting a proper wing shape as using the right kind of wire. I tried a few different kinds and ended up using "sheer tights" from Target. It helps to get as large a size as you can find, but I found that some pantyhose do not have enough lateral stretch to accommodate a wing shape, even if you use queen sized ones, so tights seemed like the best bet. However, they need to be relatively sheer so the lights will shine through to the other side.

If you are using tights, start by cutting the legs off, but be sure to do this above where the fabric transitions from leg fabric to "control top" or whatever the top portion is made of. This will prevent the tights from developing runs.

Now take one leg and scrunch it up the way you would if you were about to put it on your foot. Pull it over the end of on of your wings, and start carefully stretching it down over the whole frame. You want to line the toe seam up with the wire on one of the edges so it doesn't show up. The wire shape will deform as you stretch the tights over it, but you will be able to get most of that shape back.

When you have the tights stretched as evenly as possible over the whole wing, take the end and twist ti around the frame at the base. then take your needle and thread and securely tack down the twisted end of the tight onto itself. Cut off any excess fabric past your sewing line, and do the same on the other side.

Now use your hands to gently try to re-form your wings into their original shape. To be honest, I still found that they still ended up a bit longer an thinner than I had intended, but the shape was close enough to my original plan that I didn't mind.

Step 6: Covering the Base

Before you put the cover over the base of the wings, cut a 4" slit in the top layer of the leather about 1 1/2" down from the velcro. This a where you will keep the battery.

Then slip the cover back over the wire base and use fabric glue to glue the open edges down onto eachother and the bases of the wings.

Step 7: Adding the Fur

Now cut out a piece of your fur, or whatever decorative material you've chosen to cover your electronics module (you could just use the same leather as the base). Make this fur piece a little longer than the leather base, and about the same shape.

The best way to cut faux fur is to cut it from the back side using a sharp exacto knife and a light touch. This will help prevent you from cutting the furry part of the fur.

Then attach the bottom end of your fur piece to the bottom end of the leather base. I used two silver rivets, but you could also hand or machine sew the fur to the leather.

At the top end of your base, the fur needs to attach to the leather with a snap or other clasp. I used a snap which I set into the leather on one side, and the fur on the other side with a hammer and snap setting kit.

Step 8: Creating the Fiber Bundles Part 1

To begin creating the fiber optic bundles for the veins of the wings, first take some approximate measurements on the wings to determine how long to make each set of fiber bundles (referring back to your sketch to see where each set of fibers needs to travel). On my wings, the bundles emerging from the top LEDs would be about 30" long, the next ones down 52" and the lowest 36".

Using a large pair of wire cutters, I cut the fiber optic cable into one section of each of these three lengths: 30", 52" and 36" (you will be dividing each of these sections into two bundles of fiber so you have one for each side).

To release the fibers from the case, first wrap a piece of tape around the exposed ends, then use your exacto knife to carefully slice open the plastic sleeve. Be careful not to cut to deep or you could damage the fibers.

Then grab your fiber bundle and pull it out of the sheath.

Step 9: Creating the Fiber Bundles Part 2

Now take each of these three length of fibers and divide each one into two approximately equal bundles (there should be around 37 fibers in each, but you can just eyeball it).

Then take a length of clear .25" heat shrink tubing (about 1.5" long) and slip it over one end of each bundle of fibers. Use your heat gun to shrink the tubing around the fibers and press them together with your fingers.

When they are dry, cut the end off each one with a sharp exacto knife, creating a flat surface on the end of the fibers.

Step 10: Wiring the Electronics

For a more advanced version of a fiber optic led controller, check out the amazing one created by Jenn Mann that can be controlled by ipad! But for a simpler version, here's how I made mine:

To hook up your LEDs to your microcontroller battery connector, and switch, first cut your LED strip into two sections of 3 LEDs each. Measure your box and solder a length of wire between these two sections that allows the LEDs to curl around and fit inside the box with a little room between the LED strips and the walls of the box. Solder another short length of wire to the input end of the strip and cover all these solder joints with hot glue and heat shrink.

Then wire your switch, LED strip, and battery controller to your microcontroller as shown above, making the components the right distance apart to fit inside the box. Heat shrink your solder joints where possible to protect them.

Step 11: Programming

To load a program onto your microcontroller and test that all the lights are working properly, open Arduino and plug a usb into the controller and your computer's usb port. If you already have a battery hooked up, it's a good idea to unplug your external battery from the controller before you do this.

I'm no programmer, not at all. But it is fairly simple to load LED programs from the Adafruit library or some other arduino library onto your microcontroller and alter them to your liking. See this instructable, or follow the instructions in the Adafruit learning center to help you understand how basic arduino programming works.

For the DF Robot Beetle controller that I use, choose "arduino leonardo" as the board type in your Arduino menu under Tools > Board.

I've tried a few different lighting set ups on my wings. You can extract fades and color wipes from the basic Adafruit Strandtest, or write your own if your know how. I often use the simple two color fade I've included that friend wrote for me, and change the colors to match whatever outfit I'm wearing at the time.

-Set the pin# to the digital pin you've soldered to on your microcontroller, I used pin 11

-Change the "holdcount" number to make each color appear for a longer or shorter amount of time

-Change the colors by entering different RGB values for "Color 1" and "Color 2"

Step 12: Wiring the Battery

I use lipo batteries in a lot of my designs, but there are risks with these kind of batteries. They can catch fire if they are bent or punctured or charged improperly. It is good to keep them in a hard case, and I also like to wire a charging board directly to the battery. This lets you charge each battery by just plugging it into a normal mini usb wall charger with no risk.

To do this, I soldered my charging board to the battery connection wires, with red wires to Bat+ pin, and black wires to Bat- pin.

Then I inserted the whole thing into a case I had 3D modeled and printed just for this purpose which allows access to the usb charging port and the battery connector wires.

Otherwise you can use a pre-assembled battery like this external cell phone battery, in which case you can hook up your battery directly to your microcontroller's usb port with a usb cable instead of wiring in a battery connector. Or you could use a cage of 3 AA batteries and wire them to a connector.

Step 13: Drilling Holes in the Box

Mark the outside of your box where the LEDs will line up inside the box and where the switch and the battery connector will emerge, then remove the microcontroller and LEDs from the box. Choose a drillbit the same diameter as the fiber bundles, then clamp the box securely and drill three holes on each side of the box. use the same bit to drill a hole for the battery controller, then use a smaller bit to drill two holes right next to eachother for the switch. You can use an exacto knife to clean up the holes and make them larger if necessary.

Now you put the lights and microcontroller back in the box and insert the fibers to check that the holes are in the right places.

Step 14: Attaching the Electronics

To attach the electronics module to the wings, glue the other side of two strips of velcro to the black box so it can stick to the velcro already sewn onto the leather.

Then take one of the 30" bundles of fiber and insert it onto one of the top holes on the box, making sure to orient it so curl of the fibers is going in the right direction to follow the curve of the wings.

Turn on the lights and find the best positioning for the bundle over the LED so all the fibers are transmitting light. then turn the lights off and use your hot glue gun to fix the fiber bundle in place up against the LED inside the box.

Attach your electronics to the wing base by sticking the box onto the velcro and slipping the battery into the pocket in the leather below it.

Step 15: Sewing the Bundles

Now thread a needle with fishing line and start hand sewing down your bundles of fiber, looping your thread around the bundle and through both layers of the tights each time. For the bundles that run along the edge of the wings, loop your thread all the way around the wire as well as sewing through the fabric. Divide the bundles to create branching veins in the appropriate places as you go. Follow your diagram and cut some of the bundles of fibers off on the body of the wings to crate bright points of light, while letting others flow down off the bottom edge of the wings.

The hand sewing is a bit delicate, and I don't recommend pinning the fibers in place first, because the pins might tear holes in the tights, so you have to hold the fibers down with one hand as you go. Make your stitches fairly far apart, but keep your needle going in and out close to the fiber bundle to you don't stretchholes in the tights.

When you have finished each bundle, glue in the next one back at the light module and start sewing it down until all the fibers are attached.

Step 16: Trimming the Fibers

When you are done sewing you will have a few strands hanging off the bottom of your wings on each side. I decided to trim these a bit to spread out the light and give it a more natural look.

Put your wings on a dress form, a person, or prop them up somewhere where the fibers can hang down. To attach the wings properly to a person or a dress form for using a corset, put the corset on the person, leaving the back lacing loose. Un-snap the fur layer of the wing base and slip it and the leather base down behind the laces of the corset until the bottom of the wings sits just at the top of the corset. Thread the fur layer out through the laces, tighten the laces over the leather base, then snap the fur back in place, covering the laces and wing base.

Turn on the lights in the wings, turn off the lights in the room, and use scissors to trim the hanging fibers in a way that looks good to you.

Step 17: Flying

Now you have wings! I've been wearing mine by sticking the central body section down the back of a corset or fairly tight top as I described in the previous step. I've found they are really quite comfortable, and their size and angle prevent them from being too awkward when you're walking around. I will probably end up attaching a simple harness to them for more versatility, which you could do by riveting or sewing straps onto the central base.

Because of the way fiber optics distribute light, you will only be able to see the full glow of the wings in darkness, but once the sun goes down, they will really pop. The dangling strands are great for dancing, mesmerizing people around you, and light painting photography. I am very happy with how this project turned out, it was really not that hard to construct, and it's going to make a great Halloween costume.

Halloween Costume Contest 2015

Participated in the
Halloween Costume Contest 2015