Introduction: Getting Started in Wearables
If it fits, it’s lit...
If it doesn’t fit, we’ll make it fit…
Just put that in because, anything you can wear is a wearable. But mostly here, we will talk about wearable electronics or really, how to get started in thinking about embedding electronics into garments or anything that can be worn.
The field is pretty wide considering there is a market for biofeedback devices, watches, medical monitoring, communication, data gathering, jewelry, Cosplay and so much more. It is sometimes referred to as E-Textiles, wearable tech, wearables, soft circuits and whatever can be used in marketing and promoting a product. Haute couture and Fine Art circles may have their own terminology. This is more of an introduction in getting started to embed electronics for showy bling-bling and not for a specific goal in mind. Also, this is for the non-tech creative person/ STEM-STEAM learners to get a feel for what they need to know when working with electronics in wearables. Anyone can jump right in!
I consider myself the loss leader in wearables. You wouldn't select me as an expert witness on wearables but I have made some stuff in my time, all for the fun of it.
A serious note:
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Step 1: Designer Goods...
Everything starts out as an idea. Inspiration or motivation to make something comes randomly or timed for an entry into an Instructables contest. I don't know if it helps to have a warped sense of humour too.
With an idea, you can think it over so many times before putting it to paper and actually start materializing your project. Don't overthink too much.
Written notes, doodles, drawings or sketches help to work through your design.
For more professional renderings, browse through this to get a sense of technical drawing:
When designing, you are concerned with aesthetics - the way things look and feel; and technical - how it was engineered, the way they work, how it functions and interacts, materials, durability, ergonomics, how it's made.
Build up your technique and tools. If you are limited in tools, stretch the limit of what you have (anything is possible with a 3 or 6 pack of crayons). On the computer, I use GIMP graphics editor and other open source software. There are several CAD (Computer Aided Design) design and modeling software packages like Tinkercad or SketchUp out there to use but comes with a possibly steep learning curve in order to use all of the advanced features. Many are available at low or no cost. I always go back to sketching by hand which is more suitable for the way I do things. Scribble on paper scraps destined for the recycling bin.
Since the creative process drives you into all forms of mixed media, you will find that you are incorporating ideas, techniques or work from 3D printing, stencil cutting, metalworking, woodworking, pottery/ceramics and so on... Don't be afraid to try something new and explore.
Research is a big part of making something.
See if there is prior art. Take inspiration from things you see in blogs, magazines, ads on the bus or train. If there is something already being produced, see if you can copy it, not in a plagiarism way but just as an opportunity to test your own skills. With the power of an internet search you might find that someone else has already tackled your idea before. You can improve upon it or do it differently. Put your own spin on things and innovate. It's okay that what you thought up may not be the first discovery but there is also the Theory of Independent Thought that states someone else, independently, can come up with the same idea at the same time. You have permission to make. The idea you came up with is still fresh and original, so go with it. One of the coolest things is that if you are searching for something on the internet, you see your project come up in the listing. It's even more interesting to see where your project got propagated to or from. It's validation that you created a somewhat unique project in the universe.
Learn about what materials are available to you or what is out there.
It's always good to go through each aisle of the fabric store to touch every piece of fabric to actually sense the properties of each. Hold it up to the light to see what it does, can it diffuse or transmit light well, would it be good for hiding lights behind it to make one of those invisible displays where the text or graphic just appears, does it have interesting textures/shadows?... Is it stiff, drapey, flowy, heavy, can it survive repeated sewing and deconstruction with a seam ripper tool?... My favorite is micro-fleece because it's soft and fluffy. It's great for diffusing the harsh light of LEDs. Salvage old T-shirts to use as a soft liner fabric. Fiberfill batting in sheet form(for quilts) instead of a hand full of fibers pulled from a bulk pack is great for an even diffusion layer. Use iron-on interfacing to reinforce your fabric where you need to mount electronics or cut holes to pass wires through. Always use the non-adhesive velcro as it gums up the sewing machine needle. Build up your sewing notions inventory with an assortment of different fabrics, felt pieces, craft foam, webbing, paracord, elastic, ribbon and tapes, snaps and buckles, and that seam ripper tool.
All wearables can be constructed by hand sewing with needle and thread. For heavier materials like leather, punches and that awl stitcher is needed. Think about what is easier to do with a sewing machine. If you are shopping for a sewing machine, get the most heavy duty model you can that does just a basic straight stitch and zig-zag stitch. Those are the main features you will really need. And that needle threader thingy is nice. Tens of decorative stitches are seemingly unnecessary and rarely used. For prototyping, I like to use a serger which makes quick work of sewing a seam which at the same time binds the cut edge with an overlocking stitch.
Once you get sewing, you will pick up a lot of technique where you have to work things from the inside out so you get the nice presentable finished seams on the outside. You learn how to sew pockets or channels for mounting neopixel strips, batteries and electronics. You get good at camouflaging all the electronic components.
Keep your scissors sharp and don't get glue on them.
Whenever you go shopping at a store, no matter what the product is, pick it up and think about how it was made and what you can make with it.
I found some placemats that had the texture of carbon fiber mat and some that were good to use for faux leather.
So yeah, you'll never know what you'll find when shopping that could be made into a wearable...or made more wearable.
Step 2: Electronics...
Here is my more detailed primer on getting started with electronics in general:
When thinking about electronics, things can get complex really fast. You will only enjoy working with it if you have your fundamentals down and can break large tasks into smaller simpler steps.
Say you want to make a cool light up monster costume with some animatronics like ears that wiggle, glowing eyes or a tail that moves. You have to break that down into smaller tasks that you can tackle. Light up eyes, maybe add light up stripes along the body, sound for the roar or footsteps, motors to move the scales or tail on the back... Each task corresponds to a different function or process for the microcontroller.
If you wanted a make a wristwatch cellphone, you have to understand that DIY components available to you are not that small. Be realistic in your expectation that you can only "shrinkify" a project so much since you don't have the multi-zillion dollar factory tools to create you own custom chips or circuit boards. If you are a beginner, the tiny parts may be frustrating to work with if you do not have advanced soldering skills. To get to Soldering Hall, Practice, practice, practice...
With wearables, portable power is always a concern so how many batteries will you need? Can you hide them in a pocket or hang them off a belt somewhere. Are they accessible if they need changing or do you estimate or tried that they will last long enough for the event you are attending? Rechargeable Lithium Ion power packs are better than your disposable alkaline batteries but you need to exercise caution on how they are used, stored, and recharged so they don't become hazardous. This would be a major concern when designing wearables that will be put on children...and pets.
I'm always up for a trip to the dollar store to find electronics that I can hack or use to embed in my wearables. I started out with those LED bicycle flashers which had several blinking modes, electronic candles, and even the big button lights which were a substitute for getting real "Easy Buttons" to hack. Oh, and a bunch of laser pointers. You can never have enough lasers.
To begin understanding electronics, grab a flashlight. It has batteries, a bulb, and a switch to turn it on and off. This is the most basic of all circuits to see how electricity flows and can be interrupted or shut off with a switch.
You can then move on to the LED throwie. It is just a coin cell with an LED. You can use the wire leads on the LED to connect directly to the coin cell battery. The LED will only light when the wires are hooked up to the correct sides of the coin cell. Ah, so now you have to learn about polarity, (+)positive and (-)ground. And know about Sparky, the Blue Smoke Monster - appears when you "fry", "toast", "burn out" electronic components because you hooked them up the wrong way or it shorted out by touching or connecting wires where they were not supposed to be connected. So you can then learn about the forward voltage required or specifications for your LED to get it to light up, which lead goes to which terminal on the battery, and the addition of a resistor to prevent bad things from happening. And that leads to learning about Ohm's law which you can calculate the value of the resistor needed in your circuit.
There are many tutorials on beginning electronics. For younger kids of all ages, Adafruit's Circuit Playground set of videos illustrate electronic concepts, going through with subjects corresponding to the alphabet. I think they are up to O for Ohm's law at the latest.
You need a microcontroller to make your LEDs light up in simple or fancy animations.
Regular LEDs are like normal lightbulbs, they turn on and off. With a microcontroller you can vary how fast they turn on and off which can be perceived as a flickering effect to dimming from full brightness to off. That is a technique called PWM (Pulse Width Modulation).
RGB LEDs are actually 3 LEDs in one. There is a Red, a Green, and Blue LED placed in one shell. By varying the power to each component, you can mix the light to create any color of the rainbow. With each element full on, you get White light. Each value is in the range of 0 to 255 so any visible color can be expressed as 3 numbers(tuple) for the RGB value i.e. white(255,255,255), red(255,0,0) or purple(255,0,255) There are tables or charts to look up your favorite color. Because the eye perceives light differently for various colors and brightness than what the LED produces we need to do a "gamma correction" in code to adjust the color so that it looks better than the RGB value we calculated for it.
Neopixels are LEDs with a tiny controller chip built in. When neopixels are chained into a long strand, ring, or stick, matrix display, they are individually addressable. Unlike a chain of regular LEDs, which all turn on at once and all at the same color, neopixels can be controlled so that each component in the chain can light up a different color at once.
You can read here for more info on neopixels:
There are also Dotstar LEDs, which are slightly different to accommodate different hardware requirements of controllers like a raspberry pi. Since there are a plethora of microcontroller boards out there, get the kind of LEDs that will work well with the board. There is so much new tech that it is hard to keep up.
If you were to jump into using microcontrollers, there are a lot of great options out there. I started out in Arduino with an Arduino UNO, got the wearable Adafruit FLORA, some Adafruit TRINKET attiny85s, Adafruit Circuit Playground, and an Adafruit Circuit Playground Express. I will recommend the Circuit Playground Express for it's built in sensors. MakeCode, a block style programming language makes it easy for complete beginners to use the board. I like transitioning from Arduino to Circuit Python as it makes iteration and programming changes on Circuit Playground Express so much faster.
For wearables, if you are using a lot of neopixels in your design, Arduino boards with the older chips may not have the necessary memory to run your sketches which would limit the number of neopixels you can drive. Remember, it has to save RGB data for each neopixel and possibly manipulate all that data in an array or matrix which pushes the limited computational power of a microcontroller. Audio spectrum analysis and image processing are tough to do on a small microcontroller board because the processing power is not there. Sound playback requires an add on board. A more powerful controller board like a Teensy, raspberry pi or an add-on controller neopixel controller board like Fadecandy or NeoPXL8 for the Adafruit Feather may be an option if you need it.
Just like on your regular computer, add ons to your microcontroller board need drivers or libraries to make that specific component work. In addition to the Adafruit Neopixel library, there is also the FastLED library for neopixels. Each work but may have better features for what you want to do. FastLED is based on the HSV(Hue, Saturation, Lightness) system description of color instead of RGB.
There are many different sensors you can attach to your microcontroller. I have used PIR (passive infrared) sensors and ultrasonic distance sensors to detect people and how close they are. Microphone modules are great for sound input since speaker or headphone audio line level signals need to be converted to be compatible with a microcontroller. These components are wired directly to the board and may communicate by different protocols like USB, serial, SPI(some pronounce it spy or (ess-p-eye)), or I2C(pronounced eye-squared-see). The hard wiring takes different sets of pins or connections to the board.
On the subject of wiring, I think conductive thread is not really a good choice for beginners. I do see the novelty of using it but when you get into more critical applications, conductive thread is not really as good a conductor as you need it and troubleshooting the circuit is more difficult due to the unsoldered connections it makes with the board or components. Learning to solder is really not that difficult. Silicone insulated wire is the preferred product to use for wiring since it is very flexible and is real wire.
If you want to light up a piece, figure out how you can wire up the least amount of components to give you a more robust product and require less power. Configure your wiring runs so that multiple strips can be run in sync with one pin to save on processing power for faster animation. Neopixel strands are bendy but you really can't bend them at sharp angles nor would you want them to be flexed repeatedly. Cut the strip and bridge the connections with silicone wire. The new side emitting neopixel strips may provide a better way to place your neopixels to light up an area. Incorporate diffusion materials, light pipes, fiber optic strands to get the most out of the light. EL panels may work but I find them a bit dim in regular light. If you are trying to get a picture of your LEDs or neopixels, set it to a low brightness in setup code so that it doesn't overexpose on the camera.
It gets a little more complicated when you are trying to add in components for GPS, wireless, bluetooth, radio or celluar phone. HAMs or licensed amateur radio do a lot of work with homing beacons and such in rescue operations or wildlife conservation tracking.
Because motors draw a lot of current at start up or while running, they can damage the microcontroller needing an H-Bridge circuit or transistors to isolate the controller from the power spikes. A capacitor helps to smooth out power too. There are driver boards for things like haptic vibration motors, stepper motors like those used in 3D printers, servos, and geared drive motors for robotics.
So by now you might be overloaded with a lot of tech talk. You can always go browse through instructables or the many sites that have tutorials and guides on getting started with microcontrollers and electronics. I recommend Adafruit's blog for getting inspired for new ideas and their LEARN section to get familiar with some the the components and see how to use them in a project. I use the demo code provided as starting points for my projects.
I also reference this a lot because they document and show a lot of the neopixel effects I have incorporated in projects:
The Adafruit Ampli-Tie sound reactive code has been the basis for so many of my projects. Even the basic Strandtest demo code that comes with the neopixel library is a great place to start and modify for your project.
As always, a great place to get questions answered is on the Adafruit forums for their products or join the community that is on the Adafruit channel on DISCORD chat where you can bounce off any ideas or questions you have, especially for wearables.
Step 3: Building Your Skills...
I've always had an interest in how things are made. I think its the creative me that tries to emulate those processes and that's where I pick up a lot of techniques along the way, well, experience or knowledge of what is needed. I think reverse-engineering would be the term used to describe figuring out the magician's trick in making something appear. Iteration and experimentation are always good when you can actually see if something will work.
My mom was a seamstress so I learned to sew a long, long time ago. Actually, it was playing around with the treadle sewing machine and discovering it could perforate paper like a book of checks...wait It's just growing up in an old house that needed a lot of TLC that you learn to be real handy, taking apart stuff and trying to fix it with whatever you had. That evolved into having hobbies like model railroading, model rockets, model airplanes, musical instruments, electronics... and so on. Maybe that's why I can make things first with paper, cardboard, glue, tape, bamboo skewers, whatever.
All those modeling skills scale up to working in any size.
Maybe the takeaway is to put the smartphone down and do something else.
So it starts with knowing you can adapt ready-made things into clothing. You gain more knowledge of electronics and try to embed the circuitry in other things.
Start with a bicycle flasher or electronic candle/tealight which has the battery, controller and LEDs all built into a convenient package. Learn basic electronic circuits with that.
Along came the Arduino, microcontroller programming for everyone. You could light the LEDs the way you want. And even control motorized servos. Everyone needs to build a set of Necomimi cat ears
or do something with your headphones
Embed electronics in jewelry:
Shirts and shirts with lasers:
Hack dresses or skirts, even tutus:
I made a whole bunch of wearables that are variations of a scarf. A scarf is an excellent platform for electronics. It's easy to construct because it is just a folded over piece of fabric sewn around the edges. It's simple shape can be embellished for anything.
Traffic Light Scarf using bicycle flasher:
Thermometer Scarf with temperature sensor and neopixels:
Hunger Games Scarf with temperature sensor, neopixel matrix text display, fire effect:
Falling Meteor light effect Scarf - NASA, Ghostbusters
High Striker Game Scarf:
Cortana Scarf with blue pulse lights:
Pink Ribbon Scarf with light up ribbon logo:
Make a light up mermaid tail snuggly blanket:
Jacket lapels with sound reactive lights:
Or hoodies. Make your iHoodie:
Mod your pants:
Shoes, sandals and slippers:
Gloves for all occasions:
Turn Signal Cyclist Safety Gloves:
Then you find you can stuff electronics into other clothing accessories like a handbag
Brassieres, someone has to make one...
Hack a garter belt to make it extra special:
For Cosplay you can make Fire and Ice Wings:
Embed electronics in toys or make plushies:
Electronics on fabric kites?
Or even mod a fabric lampshade?
And if you fear electronic surveillance:
Anyway, like I was saying, shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sauté it. There’s shrimp kebabs, shrimp creole […] shrimp gumbo, pan fried, deep fried, stir fried. There's pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp […] shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich …
— Bubba from Forrest Gump
And that's not all of it...
Step 4: Going a Step Beyond...
Do you have an occasion to make a gift, save the planet, have a school project or just want to make something cool? Looking for an idea to build for the next themed instructables contest?
If not for you, how about making something for your pet?
Once you have finished your project, test it out and get reactions on things that you can improve or do differently.
Every make should allow you to learn something new.
Use your light up wearables to learn new aspects of photography.
Create time-lapse photos or special animations that you want to capture on video.
What effect have you seen in a movie, TV show or seen in a book or magazine that you would want to interpret on a wearable?
You too can become the painter of light….wait, that title's taken.
What else can you light up or needs some electronics?
Step 5: Shareable Is Wearable? Sharing Is Wearing?
Show off what you made.
It doesn't have to be perfect or working as it should, if at all.
It's may be a daunting task for many but just do it!
It's all in the spirit of Open Source. It's the internets, so be nice, have a positive outlook and ignore anything un-constructive. Inspire others with your work.
Be sure to take many pictures of your build along the way. Yeah, just do before/after pictures if you happen to be doing paper mache...or concrete.
Instructables is a great way to document your work and to put into a professional format when it may be a class project or linked for a job or school application.
Selecting or editing all of those pictures you took provides an opportunity for you to hone your presentation skills.
Do a nice writeup and possibly create a video clip of your work.
Get out there and post your video online.
Use social media to get your instructable out there.
With the focus on electronics, sites like Hackaday or Hackster.io can host your project writeup.
MAKE is working on another project sharing platform.
Mention your project on the Adafruit forums or their DISCORD chat. Adafruit even has a weekly live Show and Tell webcast.
Have fun and make.
Step 6: Extras
Since videos for these are not hosted on youtube...
A few #badgelife #lanyardlife neopixel lanyards and badge holder PyGuranimals.
Search through my @caitlinsdad tweets.
Adafruit Circuit Playground Express coded in Circuit Python.
Wurlitzer Jukebox Jacket
Adafruit Circuit Playground Express coded in Circuit Python.
Portable aquarium pump provides the bubbles.
Second Prize in the
Electronics Tips & Tricks Challenge