Introduction: LED-lit Tron V2.0 Suit

Costumes rule. Glowing costumes rule even more. To make the king of glowy costumes - you gotta look just one place...inside your computer :). By following this instructable, you'll have the knowledge and ability to make an LED lit garment that looks just like the ones in the new Tron flick.

My goals in making this costume were to make a robust, easily washable, waterproof, Tron style suit which was energy efficient to minimize battery weight and hardware bulk. To do that, I had to dodge the commonly used EL wire implementations and switch to LEDs.

Even if you aren't interested in making a Tron suit, I would highly recommend reading the section on lighting implementation - I did not individually stitch each LED with conductive thread...instead I used a combination of silicone coated LED strips and faux leather to produce a beautiful, diffuse light without seeing those pesky LED points.

Step 1: Other Lighting Options - Why Not Use EL Wire?

Most Tron-ish garmets are made with this stuff called EL wire or EL tape (which is based on the same technology). Although EL technologies are great for a lot of reasons, I feel that they aren't very well suited to wearable apps. I built an old school Tron suit using EL wire, and found the following problems with it:

  • EL Wire is super fragile! Bending it too tightly or repeated bending motions (i.e. wrapping around body joints or placing into a washing machine) will cause the EL wire to fail. And when you try to repair any EL wire damage, you quickly find out that...
  • EL Wire repair isn't pretty! To repair EL wire, you splice in solid non-glowing wire to the broken sections...which completely destroys the effect of a single, unbroken line.
  • EL Wire is pretty dim! You won't be able to see EL glow at all during the day, which leads to the next problem...
  • EL Wire looks lame if its not illuminated! You can get fancy and do some work to hide EL wire, but in general, unlit EL wire looks like just that - wires on the outside of a garment. So, if its not glowing, its generally pretty ugly.
  • You need an AC inverter for mobile applications! EL wire runs on AC current, and any battery pack you can buy will be DC. Therefore, you need to add more bulky hardware, and there are more things to break while wearing your creation!
In an effort to dodge these issues, I decided to use LEDs as a technology to light the suit instead. They are harder to implement, but the results are worth it.

Step 2: Clothing Layout

I'm not really a clothing design expert, so I made this suit by attaching laser cut faux leather to a store-bought undergarment instead of sewing *everything* from scratch.

Your undergarment needs to have the following characteristics in order to work for this project:
  1. You want an undergarment that is pretty much form fitting (I got one that was a size too small for me on purpose).
  2. You want something that can diffuse light well, and absorb very little light.
  3. It is recommended to use something with flat seams on both sides of the garment. This will make your life *much* easier when it comes to attachment of the light blocking material.
This requirements pretty much limit your search to lightweight athletic performance base layers. For the record, I ended up using an REI Lightweight Polartech Power Dry Base Layer as my undergarment.

For the overlay material, you need something that is going to be completely opaque to very bright LEDs, yet laserable. This limits your choices pretty much right off the bat to some sort of synthetic leather (which stinks since it is still kind of spendy...I'd love to hear of other lightproof, wearable, black fabrics that people know of in the comments below). I used some Home Decor Fabric made from polyurethane

Step 3: Designing the Laser Vector Paths

Based on watching a few of the trailers for the new Tron, I got a decent idea of what the new suits should look like and drew some front on / back on views of what I wanted the design to look like (see below). I then turned these concepts into single pieces of vector art to be cut using Illustrator. You can download the .zip file of all the pieces in .dxf format below!

Note that the files provided are sized based on an XL garment, and they do require a 18" x 24" laser deck to do the cutting. If you roll over the individual sections in the cut list, I list what the size of leather you will need for each vector file (for an XL garment!). It is likely that you will need to resize these based on your garment size.

Step 4: Resize the Vector Paths to Fit Your Shirt

The vector paths created in the previous step were not made using a de-facto shirt pattern in order to make them as easily scalable and widely applicable as possible. Therefore, in order to resize the paths downloaded in the previous step, you only need to make 2 measurements and do just a tennsy bit of math. Don't worry about being super duper precise with the measurements, the patterns are designed to be a bit big, then trimmed down to size once they are on the garment.

First, measure the width of the shirt from side seam to side seam (see image below), and write that down. If your shirt doesn't have side seams, lay your shirt out as flat as possible and measure its width. If you shirt has curved side seams, measure the longest width (should be just below the arms), and the shortest width (should be right by your belly), then average the results. This will be the "width" in the math bits below.

Next, measure the height of your shirt. Measure from the absolute bottom of the shirt (like where your legs come out of it) to halfway down one of the shoulder seams (see image below...the shoulder seam is tough to see so I outlined part of it in red). Write this number down. This will be the "height" in the math bits below.

Now for the math. The patterns I provided are sized for a shirt that is 24" in width and 26" in height. Therefore, if your shirt is only 22" wide, you should make the width of the patterns (22/24) of their original size. You can use a bunch of different proggies to do this (if you don't have one, try the GIMP. Its free, and available for any platform!).

Now, do the same thing for the height. If your measured height is only 21", then you need to make the patterns only (21/26) of their original size.

Make sure to get enough leather to make your outfit when buying materials - realize there is a fair amount of wasteage here. I used ~1.5 yards to make my shirt using the 24" x 26" patterns.

At this point, you should have some .dxf vector paths that fit your favorite shirt primed and ready to rip on the laser. Check? Let's start the cuttage!

Step 5: Laser Cut the Opaque Leather

If you're using the same fake leather that I am, you'll realize that you can get amazing cuts on this stuff with the laser - no overburn, fast speeds, and no jagged edges. To do the cutting, I used the following parameters on an Epilog Helix 45W laser:

Speed = 70% of max
Power = 50% of max
Frequency = 500Hz

When you are done, you should have enough pieces to assemble a tron suit horizontally on a table (see image)

Step 6: Attach the Lasered Leather to the Undergarment

Now that you have a whole bunch of leather pieces, all you need to do is get them on the garment :).

I did the attachment using a heat-fusible adhesive called stitch witchery. Its simple to use - you cut a piece to length, place it between the 2 pieces of fabric, and put an iron on top. You only need to apply the stitch witchery on the edges of each piece of leather.

I would recommend attaching in some logical pattern so you can make sure you are aligning everything properly. I started with the pieces cut from the vector pattern "front center", then added "front left" and "front right", then the "upper back" and "lower back pieces".

While you are attaching away, keep in mind that the patterns aren't going to match your shirt perfectly. You'll need to trim away excess leather from the neckline, and the shoulder pieces for sure. These are easy to see, and easy to trim. You can't wrap the side panels around the arms - instead, you'll need to cut the panels when you reach the arms.

You'll need to test fit, test fit, and test fit some more while you are doing the attachment. Since the shirt is skin tight, it probably has some spandex in it, and therefore stretches a lot. Leather doesn't stretch at all. Therefore, you're going to need to purposely cut some sections of the garment to allow for the underlying spandex to move without ripping the leather layer on top. See the images below for the places I had to cut and why.

Step 7: Cut and Attach Leather for the Arms

You'll notice that I did not supply any laser patterns for the arm leather. Given the differences from shirt to shirt on how the arms attach to the rest of the garment and the differences in sleeve lengths from size to size, I figured I'd leave the arm design simple, and just cut straight pieces of leather from the scrap to cover them. I suggest you do the same!

To do this, I cut 2 long, rectangular sections of leather to match the sleeves. Then, I cut the side closest to the body of the shirt at an angle so I'd have another straight patch of undergarment to light (see picture).

Step 8: Picking Some LEDs for the Lighting!

Now that you've got a shirt that looks like a beautiful leather clad Tron dude, you're going to need to light it with LEDs.

Rather than conductivley stitch individual LEDs to the shirt, I decided to use flexible, waterproof LED strips to make my shirt. This takes away a lot of the stitching hassle, and also makes the shirt very easily repairable and upgradeable. If for whatever reason a section of LEDs fails, it can be removed and replaced with a low cost and time investment.

Now, when using LEDs, and trying to diffuse them enough so you can't see individual light points, the only thing you need to worry about is *space*! Anything you can do to increase the space between the LEDs and the cloth of the shirt, the better the diffusion you'll have, and the more you can light by using fewer LEDs (more power and heat efficient).

Therefore, diffusion becomes the next big reason to use flexible LED strips instead of individual LEDs since they will stand off from your body a bit. If you couple this with a super tight shirt, you'll create a "tent" where the LED light can shine (see pictures below). LED strips are thick enough to create a reasonably sized tent to look awesome. However, if you use too loose of a shirt, you won't get this tent effect, and your shirt won't glow!

So, what did I use in the end? I used White Silicone Encapsulated LED Strips from Oznium. I picked these for two reasons. First, they were much more flexible than any other LED strip I could find. Second, since silicone is clear, you can get a lot of side diffusion out of these LEDs (a picture of the strips are below).

I needed a total of 11 of them for my outfit.

Step 9: Cut the LEDs to Size

Now that you've got your LED strips in hand, you'll need to cut them to size, and position them on the shirt.

Your LEDs should be offset so they are just *underneath* the opaque leather (because you don't want to see any of those nasty LED points). The LED strips I was using could be cut every 3 LEDs (about 2"). See the below images to see the LED layouts I used. I included kind of a crappy squiggly line so you can see where the leather on the frontside of the garment is.

I would highly recommend you label the LEDs as you cut them as well as their positions on the garment as you cut. They will start to all look the same after awhile!

Step 10: Add Velcro to the Shirt and the LEDs

Layout done? Check. LEDs cut? Check. Now, all you've got to do is attach them to the shirt!

I ended up using velcro to do this. Not only does it add a little more height to the LED strip (thus increasing the amount of "tenting" you'll get - see step 8 if you forgot already), but it makes washing and replacement a breeze. If you are scared your electrical work isn't stable enough to take a washing, then just take the LEDs off when you wash, and reapply later! If a LED strip breaks, make a new one, slap some velcro on the back, and stick it to the shirt! Simple!

Anyways, I used sticky back Velcro so I didn't need to apply an adhesive between the Velcro and the silicone LED strip. I needed about 11' of it to do the entire shirt. I affixed the other side of the Velcro to the shirt using the same magic heat fusible adhesive (stitch witchery) that I described earlier.

I affixed the LED strips so the LEDs would be facing my body, not the shirt. This also helps to increase the distance between the LEDs and the diffuser fabric producing a smoother glow. See the image below for the order in which I affixed everything.

Step 11: Solder and Hot Glue the LED Strips

OK, now you should have a shirt that has a bunch of disjointed LED strips stuck to it. Chances are, you had to make a bunch of cuts, and you need to resolder.

Thankfully, if you are using the same strips I am, each cut end of the LED strip is clearly marked with a + and - pad. Pretty much, all you need to do now is solder all of the + pads together, and all the - pads together. Do a little planning - you want to minimize the number of times a wire crosses a white section (the wire crossings can generally be seen). Also, in order to only use 1 battery connector, the strips need to be connected in a single loop.

These connections are kind of tricky - not only are you soldering a wire to a surface mount connection, but its a surface mount connection that can flex! If you've never done surface mount soldering before, check out a tutorial or so before you start.

Since these connections are going to come under a fair amount of abuse, we'll have to add hot glue on top of every single joint for strain relief. Trust me...if you don't do this, one connection or another will break within an hour of you putting it on. So seriously, just do it.

Step 12: Add a Battery Connector, and a Sweet Battery

To size your battery, you need to know how many volts and amps your particular LED strips are using. If you are using mine, they are 12V strips that use 130mA per foot. I'm using ~11 feet of LEDs, which means that my whole setup uses 1430mA @ 12V.

Batteries capacities are usually listed in Ah (amp-hours) for a given voltage. Ah are just amperage requirements multiplied by time. In other words, to keep a 1.43A system lit for 1 hour, we'd need a battery capacity of 1.43Ah @ 12V.

For this setup, I'm using a LiPo battery which has a 6.2Ah life @ 12V. Its waterproof, shockproof, and fits snugly inside of a hip pocket. Using this battery, I can run my setup for about 4.5 hours continuously or so. If you want yours to run longer or are OK with a shorter life, scale your battery appropriately!

My battery uses a trail tech connector to discharge. You want to solder the red wire to the "+" side of your first LED strip, and the black wire to the "-" side of the LED strip.

Step 13: Power It Up!

If you've done everything properly, you should now have an amazing looking suit! Use your tron suit to do something epic, like fend off your living room from evil forces headed up by the Hawaiian breeze fan and folding chair behind you!!

Thanks for taking the time to read, if you loved it! Feedback and questions are welcome, ask away!

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