Wheelchair LED Sleeves




Introduction: Wheelchair LED Sleeves

About: I am a professional artist who does Participatory Installations. I use a wheelchair and have ME/CFS and run a resource site for it (www.cfs-me-navigato.com). I also do a wheelchair advice and travel blog…

These are sleeves with LEDs that you can put on your wheelchair arms and easily take on and off. The fabric makes the arms of the chair more comfortable and gives a place to attach the LEDs to. You can also sew a strip of soft velcro to the top of these sleeves as a place to attach chair costume pieces to (my next Instructible).

The LEDS are on the chair sleeves, but also strung between them behind the chair and you can drape it over the top of your headrest or wrap around the top of the chair.

I made these for both my regular and backup wheelchairs to make them more visible at night while having the LEDs done in such a way that didn't need glue and would protect the wires while keeping everything I was going to touch nice and soft.

They are also great because they are easy to remove quickly and they leave no residue on your chair (unlike gluing and zip-tying LEDs).


-some large paper of taped-together smaller paper

-a yard of four-way stretch cotton fabric (test by stretching it both up and down and side to side). Recommend cotton stretch twill for sturdiness.

-a sewing machine (and a serger is nice if you have one)



-sew-on velcro (I used this)

-string of AA power LEDs. I used these.

-see-through ribbon as long as your LED string. I used this, but if you want less detail and an easier time, you could use a wider one.

-a pocket in the arm of your wheelchair (though you can also zip-tie the battery case to the bottom of your chair arm too.)

Step 1: Making Your Pattern

Put the paper on top of your wheelchair's arm and trace the shape of the arm top. Refine the shape to make it smooth and to make the line clear. Now add 5/8" (or eyeball it like I ddi) all the way around the shape. You have made your first pattern piece!

Now the tricky part. Look at the side of your wheelchair arms. They may be different because one side may have a cup holder. Take another sheet of paper and trace your best guess about that side of your chair's arm. If the arms are different do a different pattern piece for each side. Add 5/8" to the outline of each. When in doubt give extra space, not less space. If they are not different you only need two pattern pieces (one for the top and one for the side).

Now you can cut out your patterns! Be sure to label each one (left top, left side, right top, right side).

Most of the time the pattern will be pretty straightforward (like the right side pieces), but if you have a weird shape you may have to make some adjustments. Here I cut the side pattern piece and added in the amount it goes in on the top piece (where the bend is) to the overall length right at the same point where it goes in if you put them next to each other.

I am rather deliberately doing this very hack and slash instead of being super careful and neat. Normally I'd get a ruler and make everything just so, but I want to make the point that with stretchy fabric it doesn't have to be perfect and you can still get a good result.

Step 2: Cut and Pin

Take your stretchy cotton fabric and cut it out carefully according to your pattern with 2 pieces of each side and 1 pieces of each top. Obviously if your arms are the same you cut 4 sides and 2 tops, all the same. If your fabric is different on each side make sure to flip your side pieces after cutting one so that you have one with the correct side out for each side.

Pin your pieces together. Make sure you pin the parts of the sides that touch the top to the top, and if there is a difference in front and back, that you have both the top pieces and the side pieces facing the right way. If you have a weird shape like I traced out for my cupholder, just pin all the way around the angle. If there is extra fabric on the end of the side piece trim it.

Again I am being very hack-and slash here. My point is that it will come out fine regardless so don't be afraid if it isn't perfect!

Step 3: Sew and Hem

First sew the sides of the pieces together. Since you are using a stretchy fabric, make sure to either use a serger or use a zigzag stitch.

After that if you have a serger, serge around the edge of the whole thing. You can also edge it on a regular machine with the zigzag stitch.

Then hem the front and back of your sleeves. You can fold a full 3/4 inch over.

Also hem (minimal fold) one side of each side. Just fold over a tiny bit- the width of your serger or zigzag stich.

After all this those pesky uneven edges will go away. Magic!

Step 4: Try It on the Chair

It should be fine, but always good to check.

Step 5: Pin Your Velcro

On the easy shape I can just use one run of velcro, no problem. On weird shapes you might want to break it into segments (right image).

Pin the scratchy velcro over the top of the side you hemmed with the bitty hem.

Fold over the other side and pin the soft velcro to that side.

Sew them down with zigzag stitches. I suggest stitching own each side of the velcro to give a better hot an keep it from curling up.

Step 6: Optional Step- Add Soft Velcro to Top

Here you can add a strip of soft velcro right down the middle of the top of the sleeve. The reason for this is it gives you a place to attach costume pieces to later. Alternately you could run a little bit of velcro down the middle, but just at the front and back and leave the middle without it for comfort.

Be sure to use the soft side of the velcro and don't the scratchy side!

Step 7: Encase LEDs in Ribbon

First TEST YOUR LEDS. You don't want to get them in there and then find out they don't work!

MAKE SURE LEDs ARE OFF when there are any pins in the ribbon or you are sewing. A little piece of metal in the wrong place could short your circuit.

  • Undo the LED string into one long untangled string.
  • use a zipper foot on your sewing machine
  • Fold the end of the ribbon over a 1/2 inch.
  • Sew the end down
  • Then fold the ribbon lengthwise and sew for a few inches
  • stick the end of the LED string into it and put a pin just under the first LED (not through the wires, but around them in a way that keeps it from slipping down)
  • sew the whole folded ribbon together with the LED string inside until you get to the end of the LEDs

You may want to place another pin every once in a while to keep the string from slipping out. Keep pushing the LED string towards the end of the ribbon and checking to make sure it doesn't slip and the end of the LEDs is still at the end of the ribbon.

Step 8: Pin Ribbon to Sleeves

First put the sleeves on the chair exactly as they are meant to go.

Next locate where battery is going. In this case I put it in the arm pocket on the left side towards the back of the chair.

Then experiment with how you want your ribbon until you are happy.

I did it this way:

  • up from the battery case, pin along the inside of the top edge of the arm, following the seam around the top edge
  • then took it along the side, and then back along the side again so it comes out at the back again.
  • then loop the end over the top of the chair
  • take the end to the top back inside seam of the other arm. You can follow the top seam again, then back and forth until you end with the loose end pointed toward the back again.

This should leave you with a big loop of encased LEDs across the back of the chair. It will depend on the chair what you do with this, but once the ribbon is sewn down you can experiment with ways to loop it. Make sure you account for ways that the chair moves (if it reclines). If you can't move your chair all the ways with the ribbon pinned like this, experiment with your pinning until you find a way that works for your chair.

*In my larger chair I essentially did this step twice and had two strings of lights, which doubles my visibility and also means I can have one one color and the other a different color. If you do this I suggest staggering where the actual LEDs are (in better the first set) to get the best effect.

Step 9: Tack Down Ribbon

This is best one by can, but I use big tacking stitches so it goes fast. The reason for this is so that when the LED string eventually fails the ribbon is easy to remove without hurting the sleeve. It's hard (but not impossible) to remove the LEDs from the ribbon and replace them. It's easier to remove the ribbon, then swap the LEDs with the ribbon straight and loose, then replace the ribbon on the sleeves.

Do make sure you reinforce the ends with extra stitches.

Step 10: DONE!

After taking the first pictures (red lights) I added a second string of lights. Even better!

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    1 year ago

    Very cool. Visibility at night is so important and LEDs are SO cool. Simple design as well.


    1 year ago

    Cool project. If you wanted to take this even farther, you could add expand the circuit to add an Arduino with a photocell so that when it gets dark the LEDs automatically light up.


    Reply 1 year ago

    I understand how, but for lots of situations (theaters, etc.) this wouldn't be good. If I want to get fancy sometime I'll make it with addressibles though.


    Reply 1 year ago

    Right. Good point. That would be a problem.