Introduction: Indigo Starlight Quilt - LED Hand-dyed Constellation Quilt
This dark and dreary winter I wanted to create a quilt that would radiate and uplift. This quilt is lovely by day, and at night it has an inner layer that lights up with a gentle twinkle.
Though this project is complex, it can be accomplished with basic machine sewing and micro-electronics skills!
If you like the concept but not the style, you can easily adapt the colors and patterns to create a completely different feel. Note that in this demo I made a king-sized quilt; if you are making a smaller quilt, scale down the sizes of fabric accordingly.
- Sewing Machine
- Walking Foot for better quilting
- Washing Machine for pre-washing fabric
- Gloves for fabric dying
- Large bucket that fits fabric with room to move around for fabric dying
- Continuity tester for testing fabric circuits
- Heat gun or hair dryer
- Wire strippers
- Small pliers
- Pencil Sharpener for fabric chalk
- Seam Ripper
- 3.5 yards of dyeable fabric that is 120in wide. (NOTE The width is important so you can use a single piece of fabric to cover the whole quilt. If you can’t find fabric in this width, then you’ll have to double the amount and sew two pieces together.)
- 6 yards of batting that is 45in wide.
- 3 yards of inexpensive fabric or an old sheet the size of the blanket you're trying to make. This is used for the circuit layer.
- 2 pouches of Dylon Denim dye
- Several tablespoons of salt for dying
- Thread (1 lg spool of gold for stars and quilting, 1 lg spool of navy blue for quilting, 1 sm spool of silvery white for astrological circles)
- Needles (Extra small needles that fit through LED Sequin holes, Medium or large needle for miscellaneous finishing work, Extra sewing machine needles -- this is a large project, I almost guarantee you’re going to break a machine needle at some point.)
- Fabric chalk for drawing circular pattern on top piece
- Piece of string and tape for drawing circular pattern on top piece
- Pack of safety pins
- Drawer liner for protecting electronics
- Approx 1 fat quarter of fabric for electronics pocket. I’m using canvas but this can be anything
- Approx 24in of velcro for electronics pocket
- 2 rubber bands for electronics pocket
- 4 or more weights for assisting with pinning layers together.
- Electronics Microcontroller. Any small one that can be battery powered will do. I used a Teensy 2.0++, but I also recommend newer Teensies, Adafruit, ProMicro or Arduino Micro.
- Approx 4-5 bobbins of 2-ply stainless steel conductive thread. The amount you will need will depend on how large and complex the circuit you draw is.
- Approx 7 packs of LED sequins. The amount you will need will depend on how large and complex the circuit you draw is.
- SPST push button for triggering lights.
- UBEC DC/DC Step-Down (Buck) Converter - 5V
- Pack of breadboard jumper wires
- Heat Shrink
- Clear nail polish for finishing circuits
- 9v battery
Step 1: Dye Fabric
Wash all your fabric so that you’re working with pre-shrunk fabric. Dye the fabric following the instructions on the Dyelon packet.
Step 2: Plan & Test Your Pattern
Think about how you want your top pattern and light pattern to look. In the end we will have a top piece, a circuilt later, batting, and a bottom layer.
Test Your Stitches
When thinking about the top piece, there are lots of ways you can customize it: What color do you want the base fabric to be and do you want it to be completely even and solid or patchy and hand-dyed looking? Which colors would contrast nice with the base fabric? What kind of stitches might look good -- straight or zig zag, wide or long, etc. Test out different stitches on a piece of fabric with batting so you can verify the tension and stitch settings.
Plan Your Circuit
For deciding how many LEDs to use, keep in mind two limitations: To make the LEDs fade in and out, we need to use a PWM pin (and the total number of these depends on which micro-controller you are using) and each PWM pin can power about 4-5 according to the Adafruit product page. So for my quilt I have a maximum of 9 pins, and I’ve placed 3-4 on each, giving me a total of 35 leds.
When you draw your circuit, all LEDs must connect on one side to a common ground line, and on the other wide to their respective pin. Since we are sewing this, none of the lines can cross unless they’re supposed to. If any circuits cross incorrectly, this can cause a short in the circuit.
Step 3: Embroider the Top Piece
Following the sketches you planned in the first step, you’ll be actually sketching these patterns on your top piece with your fabric chalk.
To draw a large circle, tape a piece of string to your fabric chalk on one end, and a safety pin on the other. You can then fashion a sort of compass and sketch a full circle.
You can hand-embroider the stars or if you have an embroidery machine you can use the attached .pes files contained in the .zip.
Step 4: Program the Microcontroller
For this demo I’m using Arduino to program my Teensy 2.0++ controller, but you can use any microcontroller you prefer.
In my demo I’m programming 9 separate light circuits, but again you can adjust this source code to match the number of light circuits you’re using from step 1.
Step 5: Sew Fabric Circuit
In step 1 you should have planned a circuit diagram that defines how many clusters of lights you are going to control. One side of each cluster should connect to a microcontroller pin. The other side should all connect together in one big common ground line.
Draw this circuit on your middle layer with a pen or a silver chalk pencil, and mark your leds with safety pins.
Sew along the circuits diagram you have drawn with conductive thread, leaving space to add your LEDs. I recommend leaving several inches to a few feet of extra thread at the end of the sewing machine stitch, as fabric tends to get bunched and will pull more thread through once you pull the fabric taut.
Add your LED sequins using your small hand-sewing needle. The - side should point towards the common ground line, and the + side should point towards the cluster's individual circuit.
To join two threads to connect a circuit, double knot them together and add a touch of clear nail polish to keep them from fraying. Use your continuity tester A LOT to test each and every join.
In the corner of our circuit, all the lines converge so that we can attach the micro-controller lights here. Attach jumper wires to the end of the your thread to that you easily remove your electronics later for any reason. If possible, use a different color for each line to make it easier to connect them to the micro controller lines later. Use heat shrink to keep the thread and jumper cable snugly attached.
Sewing with conductive thread can be a bit tricky, I highly recommend going through Adafruit’s overview of sewing with conductive thread here.
Step 6: Sew Pouch & Prepare Electronics
Since these electronics are going on a bed, we want them to be nice and squishy so they don't hurt, but reasonable well-protected so we don't accidentally break them. Also it's helpful if they are somewhat easy to administer in case you need to change out the battery or troubleshoot a connection.
In this case I'm using a drawer liner, which provides cushion but also has little holes we can thread the jumper wires through. Cut out a piece of the drawer liner and wrap it around the micro controller and battery. Thread the jumper wires through and put a rubber band around it to keep it soft and safe.
Sew a very basic pouch to hold the micro-controller and battery. This can be any material and method, but I’m using canvas and Velcro here.
Step 7: Sew Batting Together
Since the batting we’re using is half the width of the top and bottom pieces, you’ll need to sew pieces together. Use an extra-wide zig-zag stitch to join the two pieces together.
Step 8: Pin Layers Together & Mark Seams
Find a big open space and lay out your layers one-by-one. Use your weights to stretch each layer taut. Once you have all four layers stacked, pin them together with A LOT of safety pins.
Step 9: Quilt! Quilt! So Much Quilting
Mark your quilting lines with chalk and pins. Sew along the lines you’ve drawn to create a quilted effect. Once you are done with the quilting, finish your edge with the remaining muslin.
Check out the tips and techniques here for quilting with your normal sewing machine.