Introduction: Removable EL Wire Art Panels

About: I am an artist and inventor , I like sewing. I use sheetmetal drafting techniques to make plush toys as a hobby. has some of my art, if anyone's interested :)

how to make Glow-art panels that can be attached to any garment (or bare skin, if you use a body-safe adhesive). The semi-rigid backing allows more detail in designs, without risk of distortion, and hides ‘extra’ EL wire connections (which are needed when a design calls for sharp points and junctures) neatly.

These things are real attention getters, and can make the difference between being just another dude/dudette with glowsticks, or being considered a real light-dancer.Even a simple belt of star panels gets loads of compliments.

Why this is a good idea: One of the major drawbacks to EL is that it is a bit weak, and doesn’t stand up to being flexed about in vigorous activity.  But it is still stiff enough that it will really distort any cloth you try to attach it to if you use much of it, or try to bend it in smaller curves.

Electronics also make any garment they are attached to tricky to wash- and the more you have of it, the harder it gets to wash without kinking or soaking anything.

And the big problem: your awesome shiny art is only on –that- jacket. Which means that a) that jacket isn’t good for day-to-day wear anymore and b) you’ll be wearing that jacket an awful lot. Which is potentially very smelly if you are using EL as a safety feature on your bike, or as part of a costume for performing in (poi are more sweat-inducing than they look...)

These problems can be combated by making an easily detached panel, with some attachment points, so that it can be placed wherever you want it to be. The panel can be printed, painted, or made of coloured cloth, to further enhance it’s appeal.


-Enough EL wire for your design, plus soldering room - I picked up 2 7 foot lengths with already- wired –up inverters (battery packs) for $7 australian each (including post) off ebay.

The thinner the wire, the easier it is to shape. So, big bold designs are right with 5mm, but my fiddly wings can’t use more than 2.3mm (1mm would have been easier, but not bright enough for my liking)

-Clear thread, el cheapo sewing kit ($2 at a dollar store)

-Tape for thimble. Any sort, though a masking, duct, or electrical have better grip.

-Cloth- (thriftstore shirt $1, otherwise anywhere from $3 to $14 per meter)

-Soft plastic (I use the bottom out of green bags, bits of food or drink containers, etc- black is best for most colours (except white) , it makes them look more vibrant. White can make things look washed out, and clear might let your wires show if backlit)

-Glue ( $5) I recommend the tacky, alcohol based fabric glue is good for the back, and spray glue for getting the front cloth on smoothly.

- scissors and other sundries. An air fading or easy-remove fabric pencil is good for marking lines. Sand paper can help to rough up the plastic in preparation for the glue

If you will be joining wires:

-Solder, spare wire for joining, etc (I use a $5 soldering iron, but this design didn’t require soldering)
-copper tape ( nan gave me some, I don’t know what it costs.)

-Electrical tape.

-wire strippers
The cheap automatic ones (pictured. $2.50 ) are not that great for EL. I recommend buying a proper set.

Attachment methods: I like pins on ribbons, but Velcro or double sided costome tape (if the garment isn’t pinnable, you want it over bare skin, or you’re lazy) are good too.

-paints and related paraphanalia
-large eyelets . They need to be big enough to fit your connectors though (hardware stores sell them for a couple of cents each, dressmaking stores charge a lot more.

the wire I bough came with connectors pre-attached, which were bigger than standard, so I will not be using the eyelets, but explain where they would go if I did.
normal wire to strengthen long sticky-out bits, should you want them stiff

-A sewing machine with a zipper foot can be used to make an easy sew-through-able casing from extra-sheer ribbon

picture: finished item on and off, tools, EL

Step 1: Planning Your Design

I recommend sticking with something simple for your first go (I didn’t, but I have a high tolerance for frustration) Make sure that as many corners are rounded as possible, and that the design can be split into layers without too much drama, if need be, and that the places you need to sew will be accessible.

I did some wings in illustrator, so i could test different wire colours before starting work, but chalk on a blackboard could also work.

Plan out where your EL will be, what your layers are, and where your connectors will be- you might be able to skip planning for very simple designs.
Remember not to attempt any too-sharp bends- either use two meeting pieces to make a point or hide a looser bed under another layer. Refer to the diagrams in the later step for the methods used to attach the wires, to help you plan ahead.

Note that smaller loops will need to be sewn down or bound to prevent them from trying to escape. Because there is a backing to prevent flex, you can bend the wires more than normal without breaking them, but it’s best to keep that to a minimum. Anything much tighter than if you were wrapping it around a pencil is going to be a bit risky.

Over-bending ( or bad joins) in EL cause dim spots- for this reason, I recommend plugging the wire in once in a while as you work to check for them. In general, slightly dim bits will ‘heal’ if left overnight, nearly-dead bits will usually perk up to nearly-as-bright if you avoid bending them and let them heal, but actual sharp kinks may be permanently dead, or at least noticeably dim no matter how gently you treat them afterwards.

See for how the wiring works, to give you a better idea of how much room to set aside for joins. Note that the EL wire makes its own circuit internally, you don’t have to have a ‘loop’ set- up, you can just nip off the free end with scissors when you’re done.

Run a piece of string along the lines you’ve decided are for EL wire, to measure how much you will need. Buy a little extra EL on top of this- it prevents having to use bits from 2 different batches, which may not have the exact same tint. You can always use left over snippets for smaller projects.

Generally, line-dense designs like my wing will require multiple wires if you are using the small battery packs as power- trying to solder too much extra onto the end can result in a dim design from over-working the battery.

picture: line drawing, EL plan, attach methods

Step 2: Cutting of the Plastic

Trace off the main layer of your design onto the plastic and cut the shape out. It is important to cut 2 of the main piece, so you can sandwich the connections and the endy bits of EL neatly inside the patch- mine is a funky shape because I want the outside feathers to glow from both sides ( since the tips of the wings peek over my shoulders from the front) and I don’t want to waste EL wire by doing both sides.

Cut one of each other layer. In mine, I am doing two wings, which is why there are extra pieces. The whole thing took the base of only three small shopping bags, which are still usable (if not very stiff...)

If you have several layers, you can trim away the hidden bits of the frontmost of the back layers to reduce bulk.

Step 3: Coating of the Plastic

 Spray the back of your fabric and the good side of your layers with spray glue. Allow it to tack up for 30 seconds or so, then stick them together. Use your hand, a squeegee, or whatever you have handy to squeegee any air bubbles or wrinkles out, if they happen. After the glue dries, cut out around the edges with a little seam allowance. Snip it so it can be folded back easily, then run a bead of the tacky glue around the edges, and fold the seam allowance back into it. In very tight places, you can just scalpel through the plastic and cloth, and rely on the spray glue and stitching.

I  prefer using a small razor wheel for cutting out, but scissors are nearly  as good, if less nifty.
It is very important to keep track of which is the front and which is the back of each peice, and which is the right and wrong side. Do NOT glue the layers together yet.

Leave it alone until the glue is 100% dry, then paint the bits that will be visible in the finished patch, if desired.

Diagram: outer curves need little wedges cut out, inward ones need little straight snips, to allow them to fold back.

Step 4: Attaching the EL Wire

You can sew to the front for more support, or to the back so the front will hide the stitches. Since it'll only be seen in the dark, I have chosen to go to the front, because it's easier.

I have used a simple overhand stitch, but you can do a straight-over stitch, then another tiny stitch to take the thread to the back, if you need it to be neat (I did the first feather in this way, but it does double the number of stitches you need to make through plastic, which makes my hands sore enough anyway).

Before starting, I wrapped my thumb (which I use to push a needle) in tape, to form a thimble (I don't like the normal thimbles, they never fit right). You can use your thumbnail instead, but it will hurt after a bit. cellotape is too slippery to be much good, so I suggest cloth, electric,  or masking tape.

EL wire will not accept kinks without breaking, so you nedd to use the backing to creatively hide the bits of EL you don't want showing. Punching holes in the backing and threading the wire though is good for surface lines- you -can- cut slits, but i find this looks a bit messy (the small feathers on the outer layer were done this way. it is also harder to keep the wire still while you sew.

With loops, if  it is possible, don't have the 2 strands cross, as it adds bulk, so your patch will not sit flat,  try keep bulk down to a minimum (my wings were a little more 3 dimensional than I had intended...)

Pliers can help with pulling stubborn needles.

For edges on simple designs, if you happen to have a sewing machine and zipper foot, you can enfold the EL wire in a sheer ribbon, and sew right up next to the wire to get a piping. You can then simply sew or glue this edge to the wrong side of the patch, leaving the wire showing over the edge. However, most people don’t have that stuff, so I will not use that method in this Ible.

Step 5: Soldering (overview and Links)

this design did not call for it, and there are already plenty of tutorials for it , so there are no proper photos, sorry. Here is the best one i've seen: pyrotect's how to guide

most small things, the money saved for 10cm of wire is more than made up for by the aggravation of soldering. I rarely bother unless i need to change colours, or will save at least 15cm of wire in a join (a splice to normal wire, then back to EL takes at least 4cm in length, anyway).

The cheapest supplier of EL wire charges less for kits-plus-postage than you normally get the wire alone for, so I usually have more battery packs than I need. *shrug*

If you are soldering: Working on the wrong side of your patch, you now need to add all your non-EL connections. Follow your earlier wiring diagram to connect up all the bits of EL wire- I find it faster to cut each bit of connecting wire as I need it, since I just lose track of which piece is which if I pre cut them all. follow the directions here) for how to solder EL wire.

Work from front to back, and assemble your layers as you come to them- make sure that you don’t render anything inaccessible before you’re done with it.. When you’re done soldering, hook up your power pack to test it all works. Unplug it, then use electrical tape to first reinforce and insulate everything that looks like it might even think about moving or conducting, then tape things down to the patch, to keep it nice and flat, and prevent anything from pulling.

Seal any ‘loose ends’ of EL by wrapping them in a little strip of tape, putting a blob of glue or caulk on the end, or some combination therof. Make sure your glue or tape isn’t corrodable or conductive, or it defeats the purpose :)

Step 6: Finishing Up

Make a hole in the backing of your patch for the wires that go to the power pack. If you like, you can use eyelets for the hole ( which is easy enough, just follow the instructions on the box) to keep the edges looking tidy and professional.

If your patch has long skinny bits, or you want to be extra-careful, tape normal wire to it to keep it stiff.

If your design has detached bits, use a ribbon to attach it to the main part, to avoid strain on the wire.

Attach any fasteners to your patch (snaps, Velcro, ribbons for pinning, etc) at this point. Little loops of ribbon, pushed through a slit, with the back of a safety pin through them are good for making badges that will attach to any clothing that will support the patch’s weight.

 This thing is going to be attached with costume tape, though, so does not include any loops.

Thread the wires through the hole or holes, making sure the wrong sides of the front and back are together and the power cord wires are out of the glue, apply glue to the back of part of the ‘good’ side of the patch. Line the pieces up carefully and press together. Repeat until pieces are completely stuck, and you should be done… though, to be cautious, I did a lot of extra stitches.

If you have painted your patch, it's safe to do any touch-ups now.

 what to do with the power pack

I find it better to leave the battery pack wires long, and simply tuck the battery pack into my pocket- this works great for single battery packs, especially if the light is right near a pocket (on the chest, for example, I can either use a breast pocket, or pop the control into my bra (heh, I suppose that’s another type of breast pocket…) on the head, I can stick it to my helmet, goggles, or a hairband, and on the lower body, I suppose my jeans pocket, a garter, or even down the back of loose-top boots would do.

If it’s not close to a pocket the best solution I have found for clothing is to install large eyelets in the garments that I often use lights on for the wires to be passed through, as even a pair of large eyelets, if colour-co-ordinated with the garment, don’t look too out of place when I wear it without lights.

To keep the battery pack or packs secure wherever you want them to be, you can use the left over cloth to form a little bag. Measure around the power pack the long way, then the short way. Make a rectangle the full length long, and half-way wide (so when it's sewn it gets all the way round, of course) , add a little extra for a flap to keep the power pack in. Add a seam allowance all around.

Tuck the top flap and the other short-edge seam allowance over to the wrong side and sew them in place, then fold the bottom edge up with right sides together and stitch them. Turn the bag inside out, to form a pillowcase-like item, which can then be pinned safely, and look relatively tidy. The reason for the asymetric top is so that the wire can get out, but the flap still holds the pack insecurely, so it won't fly out if you jump or dance.

Alternatively, the wires can also be made into a decorative element, so they look like they’re meant to be visible en route to your pocket.

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