How to Sew a Light-up Plush Tux Penguin With EL Wire and LEDs




Introduction: How to Sew a Light-up Plush Tux Penguin With EL Wire and LEDs

About: I'm an electrical engineering graduate student and enjoy making things in my spare time.

Need a way to one-up your co-worker's awesome Tux desk pal? Or need a sledding buddy who won't get lost in the snow at night? This tutorial will show you how to sew a light-up Tux penguin (or any penguin, really). The example was made for a Gentoo Linux fan, but can be modified for your favorite distro (or even just as a plain penguin).

This project uses electroluminescent (EL) wire sewn into the seams of the stuffed penguin and a LilyTwinkle microcontroller to power 6 LEDs sewn onto the front. The batteries are stored in a compartment beneath the penguin, closed with a zipper.

I became interested in sewing light-up, wearable circuits around Halloween, the most obvious time of year to make clothing glow. After the holiday, I needed a non-Halloween project to work on. Eventually, I settled on a light-up stuffed Gentoo Tux penguin as a gift for a Gentoo Linux fan.

Step 1: Materials

Below is a list of the supplies I used. I chose a felt-like fleece fabric because it was soft, affordable., and resistant to fraying. Pick your own fabric based on your budget and what you feel comfortable sewing. Your fabric size needs will vary based on the pattern you use. My (very) approximate fabric usage is based on the pattern below in roughly the default size. I already had most basic sewing supplies, and I picked up the rest (mainly fabric and stuffing) at JoAnn Fabric. It cost roughly $20-30 for the basic sewing supplies, with plenty of leftovers.


  • Tux/penguin fabric pattern - free-penguin project $0
  • Sewing needle (need a wide hole for conductive thread)
  • Sewing machine (optional)
  • Thread (black and white, orange optional)
  • Black fleece (~ 22" x 27")
  • White fleece (~ 10" x 10")
  • Orange fleece (~ 15" x 21")
  • Stuffing
  • Black zipper (or velcro), long enough to go most of the way around the derrier fabric piece
  • Sewable (welted) EL wire & Inverter - Adafruit $28
  • LilyTwinkle microcontroller - Sparkfun $7
  • Coin cell battery holder - Sparkfun $5
  • 6 Lilypad LEDs (purple for Gentoo logo, change for other logos) - Sparkfun $5 for 5
  • Conductive thread - Sparkfun $3 for 30'
  • CR2032 Battery - Sparkfun $2
  • 2 AA batteries

You can choose a non-welted version of the EL wire if you prefer other colors, but keep in mind that it is MUCH easier to be able to sew the wire with welting. Otherwise, you will have to sew loops around the wire to hold it in place, and it may move and slip in the loops.

Step 2: Cut the Fabric

Trace your pattern pieces on the fabric and cut it out, remembering to leave a seam allowance.

There are two slight differences from the original pattern:

  • Cut 2 (not 1) of the "derrier" piece (this will create a pouch where electronics and batteries will be stored)
  • Leave extra seam allowance around the two derrier pieces. You may need this later when adding the zipper

The image shows the cut pieces, all doubled and pinned together, except for the second derrier piece which I realized I needed later.

Step 3: Begin Sewing the Fabric

This is the only step where I used a sewing machine. Sew the following pieces as usual, using thread to match the fabric color:

  • Sew the two white bib pieces together
  • Sew the two black side pieces together along the back and head (leave a hole in the seam at the very top of the head)
  • Sew the two orange beak pieces together along the curved edge
  • Sew the top of the beak onto the two sewn side pieces
  • Sew both sets of feet pieces together, leaving a gap to flip inside out and stuff (best left on the heal or a flat side seam)

DO NOT sew:

  • The white bib pieces onto the side pieces
  • The derrier onto the side/belly
  • The wings

The hole at the top of the head is to allow you to line the gentoo penguin head markings with EL wire, but if you want to skip that part you can sew the head completely.

Flip the sewn feet inside out, stuff them, and then finish sewing them together with a ladder (or invisible) stitch.

I forgot to sew the bottom flaps of the side pieces together in the picture, but they should be sewn before adding the EL wire in the upcoming steps.

Step 4: Add the Eyes

Next: add eyes to your penguin. You can purchase eyes and sew them on, but I chose to make them out of the same fabric. This is easiest if your fabric is fray resistant (e.g. felt).

I cut a large white oval, a smaller black oval, and a tiny white circle using the eye drawn on the side pattern for measurements. Sew the black pupil onto the white back, then the white spot onto the black pupil. When you're happy with both eyes, sew them onto the face, using both the pattern and your judgment for placement.

Step 5: Cut Out the Gentoo Markings

If you do a search for gentoo penguins, you can see that they have some distinctive triangular markings on their head. Wikipedia has a few good pictures. For this project, I added the markings and lined them with EL wire to make them glow. Alternatively, you could modify these steps to make penguin earmuffs or a hat instead of a head marking, which would probably look cute.

I made a free-hand pattern to fit on Tux's head, which you can see in the photo. It's essentially two triangles connected with a bar over the top of the head. I used one that is 7 3/4" long and 1 7/8" tall. Cut out a similar pattern for your penguin and make sure it's the size you want. Then use the pattern to cut out a matching fabric piece.

If you use a felt-like fabric that doesn't fray, there's no need to cut a seam allowance. Otherwise, cut a small seam allowance and fold the extra fabric under as you sew to leave a clean edge.

Step 6: Thread EL Wire Through the Head

Feed the EL wire through the hole at the top of the head, with the connector end down by the tail. Leave enough length at the connector end that it sticks out of the bottom, to allow you to maneuver the battery holder/inverter. I tacked the wire in place with a few stitches at the top and bottom. Make sure you leave the wire loose enough that it doesn't deform the finished penguin. Wire that is too short will pull down on the head and give your Tux a squished look.

When sewing the EL wire, make sure that you sew through the plastic selvage flap and NOT through the rounded wire portion. Sewing through the wire itself could break the wire, preventing electricity from flowing and lighting up the wire.

If you are using EL wire with no plastic selvage, you can attach it to fabric by sewing loops around the wire. Make sure that the loop is not so tight that it cuts into the plastic coating. Also, be aware that this method will not hold the wire in place as securely.

Step 7: Add the Gentoo Markings

To attach the markings, place the EL wire between the white and black fleece as you hand-sew the marking in place. Sew through the plastic selvage close to the wire, but don't put the needle through the wire itself. To help the wire go around some of the tight turns, I cut triangles out of welting. Otherwise, it would form ripples under the fabric when the plastic bunched. Once you finished sewing all the way around, feed the remaining wire back through the hole at the top of Tux's head. You can now finish sewing the hole shut around the wire.

Step 8: Attach the Bib (stomach) and Line With EL Wire

The next step is to attach the white bib area and line it with EL wire. Put the good sides (sides that will face outside the finished penguin) of the fabric together with the EL wire between the two pieces. The wire part should be facing away from the edge where the two fabrics meet, so that you can sew them together and catch the selvage next to the wire.

I started by lining the beak (make sure you follow the curved "beak" line on the bib piece, not the straight edge. I chose to hand-sew this part because of the curved seam and the wire is a little tricky to work with. If you use a sewing machine, make sure you get a heavy-duty needle.

Once you've sewn around the beak, keep sewing the rest of the EL wire around the bib while attaching it to the side pieces, bringing the end back to the inside when you get back to the beginning. I had some trouble with this part: the line around the white bib had a larger perimeter than the side pieces. I'm not sure if I messed up my pieces, or if this was meant to make Tux fatter, but I had to scrunch the white bib slightly as I went to make it work.

Afterwards, I stuffed the beak and sewed the top of the bib to the black fabric above the beak. I'm not sure I was supposed to, but the pattern looked (to me) like that's what you were supposed to do and it will keep the stuffing from falling out of the beak and into the head/body.

Step 9: Add the Wings

The next step is to line the wings with EL wire and attach them to Tux. Cut a small hole on one side of Tux where the front of the wing will attach and feed the EL wire through it from the inside of the penguin to the outside. Again, leave enough wire in the body so that it doesn't get too tight/deform the body of the penguin.

I chose to keep the wing right-side out and sew them using a modified hidden stitch (or ladder stitch) to avoid having to flip them right-side out with EL wire attached. To do this, flip fabric seam allowances under (folded on the seam line) and place the wings wrong-side together with the EL wire in between. Then sew a ladder/hidden stitch around the entire wing, but sew through the EL wire selvage every time you switch between the pieces of fabric.

After sewing the wing pieces together, close up the "bottom" of the wing (where it attaches to the body) using an invisible stitch. I cut a little of the welting off of the wire right around the end to make it easier to keep the edges inside at the corners.

After completing the wing, make another hole where the other end of the wing will attach. Feed the EL wire back into the body through this hole. With the wire back inside, you can now sew the base of the wing onto the side of the penguin. Repeat this process with the other wing on the other side of Tux. When both wings are finished, cut off the excess EL wire and sew the end in place inside the penguin. That's it for the EL wire portion of this project!

Step 10: (Optional) Program the LilyTwinkle

The main point of using a LilyTwinkle is to light up the LEDs without any programming. However, they are smaller and cheaper than a full-sized Lilypad. If you want to use one and then program it, now is the time since the program will affect your desired LED placement.

I'll provide a few starting points if this is something you're interested in doing, but it's not really part of this tutorial.

This ISP Pogo adapter may prove helpful if you want to go this route. It provides an easier way to access the programming pins. You have to solder it yourself, but it's not difficult (~30 minutes once you know how to solder) and Sparkfun has a great how-to video.

For reprogramming, Sparkfun has a GitHub account with the default firmware for the LilyTiny and LilyTwinkle. Modify this code as desired to reprogram your microcontroller.

Step 11: Create the Logo

Because this Tux is a Gentoo fan (and because I needed an excuse to add LEDs) he has a light-up Gentoo logo on his stomach. To do this, I cut out two logo-shaped pieces from a purple fabric, about 3.5 inches tall. It doesn't match the logo colors exactly, since these were some scraps I happened to have, but I think it worked. Alternatively, you can replace this with the logo for your favorite distro, a classic red heart, or anything else you can come up with.

I spread out 6 LEDs along the logo. You could try more, but I'm not sure how many a Lilytiny or Lilytwinkle can power. I decided to attach two LEDs each to pins 0, 1, and 2 on the LilyTwinkle so that they light up in pairs.

To sew the conductive thread, I put all the negative LED sides to the middle of the logo to help prevent shorts by keeping it contained. Make sure you do NOT allow the separate threads to touch each other, this will short out the circuit. If they need to cross, putting each thread on a different side of the fabric when sewing should be enough. I also added an scrap of fabric for extra separation in a few places. I also ended with a loop at the knot, so that I can easily connect another thread to run it to the LilyTwinkle. This allowed me to attach the LEDs to the logo before putting the logo on Tux.

Test your circuit before continuing. Use alligator clips (or any other wire) to connect the negative thread to the negative side of a CR2032 battery. Then one at a time, connect one of the positive threads to the positive side of the battery and make sure the correct LEDs light up.

Sew another logo layer on top of the lights to hide the circuitry. I sewed the seams right sides together and then flipped it right-side out. This method caused some trouble with the corners in the shape, so you may want to do a hidden/ladder stitch the entire way around with the fabric right-side out. Don't forget to cut a hole in the g and sew that as well. To make the LEDs visible, make a small cut (I used a seam ripper) directly above the LED. I then used thread to sew the fabric down tightly around the LED on all 4 sides. I liked to bring the thread up through the fabric near the hole, then bring it down through the hole itself (not going back through the fabric) in order to pull the fabric back from the LED a little.

Step 12: Attach the Logo and Feet

First, decide exactly where you want the logo placed. In the first picture you can see my initial placement, as well as the embroidered lines I added. Optional, but I thought it made the logo look better.

Before sewing it onto the penguin, you need to run the conductive wire into the body of the Tux. Tie a piece of conductive thread securely to each of the four loops on the back of the logo. Sew the thread down into the body directly below where the loop will be when the logo is placed. Make sure you won't make any short circuits when the logo is sewn on. Also make sure you somehow mark the threads, or remember which one goes to which connection on the logo. Then sew the logo in place.

The side pattern has an area marked where the feet should be attached. Sew an oval-ish shape to attach the back of the foot to the side pieces. Make sure they are attached securely so they don't fall off.

Step 13: Run the Wires Through the Body

In this step, we're going to run all of the wires from the LEDs to the bottom of the penguin where the batteries and LilyTwinkle will be. To make sure the wires didn't touch and create a short, I added an extra piece of white fabric on the inside of the penguin. You can sew the top of it to the seam at the top of the bib so it will stay in place without being noticeable from the outside. Then I sewed the conductive thread along the fabric down to the bottom, and attached the bottom of the fabric with regular thread to the bottom seam allowance of the bib pieces.

Important note: make sure you remember which thread is which. They will all look alike when they get to the bottom. You may want to label them somehow, or write down which thread goes where.

Step 14: Stuff and Add the Inner Bottom Piece

Once the conductive thread is fed through the bottom, make sure that the connector end of the EL wire also comes out of the bottom. Then stuff the penguin until it's the firmness you want.

When you're finished with the stuffing, sew the front side seam of one of the derrier pieces on. Keep the seam edges facing out (the opposite of how you would normally close a seam), this will allow you to sew the second derrier piece and zipper over it with the seam allowance. Then sew the conductive thread through the derrier piece so that it comes out at four separate places. Finish sewing the bottom piece on, making sure that the end of the EL wire sticks out so that it can connect to the battery. I chose to have it come through at the tail. I also added a loop of fabric to the derrier piece to keep the battery in place.

Step 15: Add the Electronics

Next we add the LilyTwinkle and coin cell battery holder and attach the conductive thread. Sew each thread through the bottom piece to the correct pin on the LilyTwinkle, making sure that the threads never cross. Knot the thread securely through the correct pin hole. I made a few extra stitches to sew the LilyTiny to the fabric at each pin and keep it in place. You can see in my pictures that I sewed the LilyTwinkle on upside down. This was to expose the programming pins in case I later decided I want to reprogram the lights.

Once the LilyTwinkle is added, sew both positive ends on the coin cell battery through the fabric to the + pin on the LilyTwinkle. Then sew both negative ends of the battery holder to the - pin. Again, use a few extra stitches to make sure the connection is secure and the battery holder is securely sewn onto the fabric. Now insert a CR2032 battery, flip the switch to on, and verify that your LEDs twinkle like they should.

Step 16: Add the Zipper and Second Bottom Piece

In the final step, add the second derrier piece with a zipper (or velcro) to keep it in place. First, decide where to position the zipper. It does not need to go the entire way around, so I chose to sew the tail end on using a normal ladder/hidden stitch, then add the zipper going around the front.

Keep the zipper zipped shut while sewing, and sew on one side at a time. I'd recommend starting with the seam on the side attached to Tux. Place the zipper with the "up" side facing the good side of the fabric and sew the seam. Make sure that the seam is close enough to the zipper that it will be able to open and close, but isn't so far away that the zipper is obvious and sticks out. I left an extra length of fabric on the Tux side so I could fold it over on top of itself and partially cover the zipper and make it less noticeable. To make the excess fabric fold over, fold it over and add a stitch or two every so often, sewing just the fabric together. I didn't make the fabric flap big enough, so I repeated the process with the other side of the zipper.

Repeat this procedure with the other side of the zipper. Make sure that the two derrier fabric pieces are attached to each other securely at both ends (where the zipper begins and ends) with a ladder stitch.

That's it, your Tux is finished! Now add some batteries and enjoy the glow.

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    8 years ago

    I made something like this a long time ago but mine is a steampunk penguins and the whole belly glows. Also it's eyes


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Do you have a picture? Because that sounds awesome.


    9 years ago

    my phone went bizerk I'm sorry about that comment I didn't mean to leave one.


    9 years ago

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    9 years ago on Introduction

    I'd just like to interject for a moment, your project is awesome, also Gentoo with GNU plus Linux. :P