El wire is a great material for lighting clothing, but poses a few problems for long term use and wear. While using it on outerwear and accessories sometimes eliminates the need for serious washing of the material, opting for other types of clothing can limit re usability. If you want an article of clothing that will last you longer than some other el wire projects and even stand up to washing, this will be a great starting point.
Using a mesh tubing to house the wire allows you to remove it to wash the article of clothing, replace el wire that happens to break, or change out the colors as you see fit.
In this tutorial I will show you how to make a triangle design on a tank top, but there is a lot of freedom with this technique as far as what clothing you'd like to work on and what design you choose. Similarly, I'll be using a sewing machine to attach the mesh to the cloth, but you could also hand sew or glue it with success. I prefer machine sewing because I find it to be the most durable method and faster than doing it by hand. If you want a project that can hold up to a few wash cycles, then glue may be the fastest and most viable option for you.
Article of clothing:
Most types of clothing will do, though stiffer material always supports el wire better. The tank top I use here is quite light and soft, however, and still works just fine. Remember to pre-wash your item before you begin to prevent shrinking and distortion of your design after it's attached.
Soldered el wire:
Unless you're up for an additional challenge or plan on using a LOT of el wire, it's easiest and cheapest to buy soldered el wire (available on amazon for under $10 in almost any color) with a battery pack already connected.
Sewing machine, needle and thread, or glue:
Whatever you choose to use, see above description for advice on how to select your method.
Mesh or tulle in the color of your choosing:
I use black mesh because I like the look of it and it matches the shirt well. In the dark, the color will have little to no impact on the appearance of your wire, but it will be visible in the light.
Step 1: Choose Your Design
El wire is very flexible, leaving you a ton of options for choosing a design. A few things to keep in mind are how much space you have on your clothing, and how many sharp corners or tight curves the design will require. It's usually best to minimize the twists and turns to lengthen the life of your wire, but it isn't overly fragile, so don't be afraid to get creative. The complexity of the design will also depend on the length of the el wire you purchased. Here I'm using a 9 foot piece, but any length between 3 and 11 feet are commonly available. Also consider where you want your battery pack - they can be sewn into heavier pieces of clothing or left unattached to be held in a pocket (my preferred method for comfort). When looking at my design, you can see that it intentionally reaches down to the bottom corner so that the battery pack will be placed well without any free hanging wire.
Lay out your design or sketch it to scale to make sure the lengths are correct. When you know how much mesh tubing you will need (it will be equal to the length of wire you need), measure out your mesh or tulle and sew your tubing closed.
How wide should the tubing be?
The thicker the tubing is, the easier it will be to get the el wire in and out. A thin tube will require a good amount of effort to change the wire out, while a thicker tube will make the process much quicker. It also allows more give in the wire, placing less stress on it. The advantage to using a thinner tube, however, is that it holds the wire more firmly in place. This preserves the integrity of more complex designs by essentially minimizing the wiggle room. The design I use here is somewhat complex, but doesn't have a lot of fine detail, so my mesh tubing is about 1/2 inch across.
Leave a small hem or margin on the tubing to attach it to the cloth.
Step 2: Attach the Tubing
Using the space you allowed when sewing up the tube, attach it to the cloth in whatever design you planned out. I find the easiest way to do this is to pin the tube with straight pins over the tube's opening itself. This allows you to stitch right over where you sewed the tubing shut, giving you a bit more stability and no wasted space. I highly recommend pinning it down first to make sure the design comes out just how you want it and that you use the available space well. If you choose to hand sew or glue the tubing, I would still highly recommend pinning it down in just the same way, and following the seam as well.
Make sure that if your design has any overlapping lines you don't stitch the tube closed, or you won't be able to get the wire through. In this design, I left the corners of the triangles unattached because of how tight the angles ended up. I would recommend using wider angles if possible, but this is certainly doable. Not attaching the corners allows the wire a little more wiggle room to get through these areas, which can otherwise be very challenging to maneuver.
Step 3: Insert Your El Wire
Now that you've got your piece all sewn, all there is left to do is insert the el wire. The best method I have found is to feed the wire through bit by bit to bunch the clothing up around it. You can then slide the material down the wire. Depending on how wide your tubing is and how many angles and corners you've included, this can be a little time consuming. A simpler design will take little time or effort at all. Remember to be gentle, both with the wire and the tubing. Removing it is essentially the same process, but in reverse!
I've masochistically included a bunch of twists and turns just to make sure it takes me a long time to switch out. If you would really like to switch out the colors often, or run several wires through the same tube for a rainbow effect, make your design fairly simple and your tubing fairly wide for ease.
Remember that if your design doesn't look exactly like you wanted it (likely due to the freedom of movement associated with the tubing) you can still shape it. Bending the el wire will cause it to retain that shape and produce more desirable results.
Step 4: Care and Upkeep
Now that your piece is all done, it's ready for wear! Keeping up with it should require very little now that you've put in the effort. How often you choose to wash the piece of clothing is entirely up to you and will depend both on the type of clothing and how much wear it receives. Slide the wire out of the tubing when you'd like to wash it, and wash the material by hand if possible. If you have machine sewn the tubing, it should be able to withstand a normal washing machine cycle, but hand washing will always be gentler. If you have hand sewn or glued the tubing, hand washing is strongly recommended.