Introduction: Getting Started in Wearables Part 2

For Part 1, go here:

So from a couple of questions that rolled through on Twitter...

What's in the mystery bag?

Here ya go...

Usual bag for hyperspeed travel on the subway, not.

Gym bag for that workout or yoga class...


Step 1: Serendipity...

As with thrift store and dollar store hunting, you never know what you are going to find.

I was at the NYC Big Reuse store, a place for reclaimed building materials and found this roll of thin non-woven(felted matted pressed fibers) material that might be good to use for wearables. It is similar in feel to fabric that reusable grocery tote-bags are made from. It had no label but later deduced that it might be a blackout or “masking” fabric for theatrical stage backdrops. Makes sense, the place had a lot of donated stage set background panels(“Flats”). The fabric may have been a remnant of the specialty fabrics used for the set decoration. Haven’t tested it for it’s fireproofness but it seems the real stuff is made fireproof to standards for use in the industry. It's a tighter weave/density than that utility covering fabric used under your chair or the back of the sofa.

I made a simple tote bag using a serger. One big pocket and two handle straps. Simple and fast.

I’ve always been experimenting and trying to find the best “blackout” or filter fabric. Something that would appear dark or complete black and lights would magically appear when they are lit.

I’ve tried using sheer fabrics, material from pantyhose/stockings, micro fleece, felt, muslin… The benefit is to increase the contrast and make the colors appear bolder. It also serves to hide the magic of the electronics below whether it be a points of light like LEDs or neopixels or some kind of electronic display panel. Thin wood veneer or carved out foamboard is cool but for another discussion.

Step 2: Your Ad Here...

Everyone wants to have a big text marquee scrolling across on their hat, coat, or dress, ok, some people do…

So I want a wearable display but:

1. I don’t have all that fancy and expensive tech.

2. I’m kinda cheap…wait, frugal.

Keeping in mind the scale we have, nothing that big that we need to go the projector route - although we can, tiny pico-projectors are on the market and small enough to hide in the brim of a wide hat. Nothing really holographic…yet...

So we can do simulation in a simulation. Create your own matrix.

Taking a look at a typical flat panel LCD screen, can we make something like that in a flexible wearable form for our wearables? Sure, we can!

There are small display panels - charlieplexed LED matrix, LCD, OLED, e-ink and others but they all need an advanced microcontroller to run. We are only looking to replicate something within the confines of the basic gear I have on hand which we can only make a primitive type of dot-matrix resolution display.

Step 3: It's Lit...

You can do surface lighting by attaching LEDs, neopixels or EL wire on the outside of the garment.

If you have a transparent or slightly translucent material, you essentially have something like a huge fiber optic cable. "Inject" light at one end or edge of the object and light will be reflected off of any surface in its path. There are some cool "Cyberpunk" style glasses, sculptures or signs that have designs etched or engraved in the plastic or glass plate and edge-lit.

If you are new to electronics, the best thing to do is to start taking apart premanufactured things to incorporate into your wearables.

I started out with repurposing flashlights, keychain laser pointers, dome lights, string lights, LEDs from all kinds of stuff. I've got some of those COB(super bright circuit-on-board LEDs) lights to mess around with.

Then it gets more complex when you want to animate the lights. You then have to get into using microcontrollers like Arduinos or flasher circuits you build from scratch.

The time has never been easier to jump into using microcontrollers. The programming is becoming easier to use and ability to integrate advanced features such as wi-fi connectivity, bluetooth LE, GPS.

With the Internet of Things(IoT) and a whole range of sensors available to use with these boards, you can imagine any type of project to visually display data.

There is still something to note that a more advanced processor and programming language such as Python, CircuitPython, may actually run slower animations due to the way they work. Some things like Fire animations run faster using Arduino. Of course, new features are being developed every day so it may work better some day.

This write-up is focused on wearables but I've always wanted to figure out the starfield effect and jump to warp or hyperspeed effect on a wearable. I guess infinity mirrors create part of the illusion but more work to be done. I think I can add lights to a wearable and then film the person to achieve the disappearing/appearing transporter effect.

Another wearable worth mentioning is turning your conference lanyard into a light up strand.

There's a few more variations on the theme posted as videos on Twitter for #Badgelife #Lanyardlife.

Look for tubular nylon webbing to encase the neopixel strip. You can add swivel hook snap buckles at the ends to hang your badge which is also the microcontroller to drive the neopixels.

Step 4: Soften It Up a Bit...

My aesthetic is that you shouldn't see LEDs unless they are supposed to be LEDs. Otherwise you should just see the light emanating from that object.

My light panel is just a long neopixel strip taped in place on a stiff backer piece of cardstock. You can sew channels in fabric over a base piece to route your strip too.

Besides using a layer of felt or microfleece, I am a big fan of having fiberfill batting to diffuse the LEDs or neopixel elements. Works great for packing in light sabers.

Fiberfill batting comes in rolls of sheet form or the big bag of clumps to pull from for stuffed animal making. Take from the land what you need and never more. Do not waste it.

Parchment paper works as a diffuser but becomes too rigid to place, doesn't drape well and would make crinkly noises when worn.

A sheet of vinyl plastic can also act as the diffusion layer if you scuff it up with fine sandpaper or something abrasive.

Shelf liner is good as it acts double duty in diffusing the light and imparting a shadow pattern. The are some plastics that have embedded patterns formed by tiny lines, shapes or surface textures which act as a a light refractive prism to give you that rainbow light-scattering holographic effect. Some may form a fresnel lens to give a magnifying or fisheye lens effect. See, all the neat stuff you learn from STEM...or Star Trek.

Step 5: Cut That Out...

Shadow puppets are always fun.

Now you know what you can do with light and casting shadows, apply that to changing the things making the light and the shadows.

Use your electronics to provide the lights and light animations.

Substitute image prints of graphics for your hands making the shadows.

You can use anything printed out but it is best with a toner-ink which has a more opaque quality to mask the light.

Place it over your light panel.

The neopixels will provide the color so we don't need a color film transparency or slide. Think more of this putting up an x-ray slide up to a lightbox to view. Although you can use sheets of colored acetate/styrene as light filter gels if your LEDs are a fixed color.

For the really creative you can do paper or leather cutouts or even just use lace ribbon or fabric to create the shadow patterns.

To simulate having an expansive matrix of tiny LEDs, I put a piece of plastic canvas(used for yarn hook rugs?) over to create the look of individual pixel blocks, a grill of sorts.

Mask off any bleedthrough light from areas that should not be lit with an opaque tape or other material. Professional Gaffer tape is a duct tape that doesn't leave a sticky residue.

Step 6: Looking Good...

So now to worry about the outer layer or wear surface. You want it to be durable. You want it to be somewhat flexible or form fitting. Glossy or matte. Or just leave it nice and fuzzy.

Clear plastic is a great choice.

I've experimented with packing tape back to back to form a tough film. Sheet or roll plastic is easy to find from food wrap, packaging wrap. tape, clear shelf-liner paper, adhesive book cover paper, laminating plastics, tablecloths, tarps, shower curtains...

Reuse clear plastic packaging from things you get, some may yield big enough flat pieces to use or work with the shape that it is in to form eyepieces or whatnot. You could get into vacuum-forming or 3D printing on the side. Note that working with plastics gets into a whole arena of knowing how to safely work with the different kinds of plastics. Think heat, fire, fumes... No shrinky dinks in the same toaster oven you use for breakfast.

You can apply coverings used for window tinting. The partial-reflective mirror coating makes for one-way mirrors. You can make infinity mirrors or use it for Pepper's Ghost illusion effects(see through heads-up displays).

All increase the contrast by making a darker background for the lights to really shine bright.

Step 7: Braggadoccio

So a couple, more than a few, wearable projects happened in the meantime. Go to the instructable to see the video of each project in action.

Flaming Neopixel Oven Mitts >>

Cardboard Cat Bagpipes MIDI Controller >>

Animated Ugly Christmas Sweater >>

Light up Hair and Shoulder Spikes Clothing Accessories >>

Light up Cat in the Hat Hat >>

Cardboard Batman Samurai Helmet >>

Light-up Kimoyo Beads from Black Panther >>

Werewolf Motion Ears Headset >>

and a few more using neopixels and LEDs that you might be interested in if you care to look through all the instructables I have.

Learn to solder. It's the most reliable way to connect your wires and save yourself a lot of trouble figuring out why something doesn't work.

Learn to sew. It’s fun and a practical life skill to have. You can then hem your own pants, fix a button that tore off, replace a worn zipper…

When you can afford it, get a serger to go with your sewing machine or buddy up to someone who has one. It’s really handy for rapid prototyping.

I’m Caitlin’s dad.

and that was my master class…


(What was the question? Again. Whatever I forget to mention will be in a Part 3, maybe.)

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