How to sew a bolster-style pillow with light-up EL-Wire piping that glows in the dark.
These instructions should be enough to get you started on your own design. The pillow turned out lumpy and raggedy, but for my second attempt at sewing, I am pleased with how it turned out. Experts tell me I did almost everything wrong and made it more difficult than it should have been. But if I can do it... so can you..
See, I went to the local library planning to make a simple, square pillow. This would have been the next logical step in my sewing education. But I met other makers, and somehow the project expanded into an ambitious (for me) multi-material plus electronics design that skipped several steps ahead.
And it still turned out okay, so have no fear and no excuses folks. Just get to a sewing machine and make something. It's really not that complicated, and it's a lot of fun.
These are some instructables I wish I had studied before doing this project.
- Enlightened wrote a fantastic introduction to sewing EL-Wire onto clothing
- Katvanlew has a very well done instructable on sewing piping
- livenotorious shares great tips on making a simple bolster pillow
- cdstudioNH shows three great examples of EL-wire pillows
- rlciavar introduces us newbies to the basics of sewing materials like thread and fabric
- LindyGirlThay walks us through some basic sewing tasks
- Adafruit's learning system has a wealth of tutorials on working with El-Wire.
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Step 1: Tools and Materials
- Sewing machine
I used the simplest beginner-model sewing machine, so anything you have should be good enough.
- Cutting Board
Self healing type. I only had a 12", but a bigger board is better. The one from the sewing center at the local bigbox store doesn't appear to be very different from any other craft-mat with good markings.
- Scissors or Shears
I used office scissors (yuck), you should use good cloth shears if you can.
- Rotary Cutter
A mid-grade model from the local big box store. We bought one from the sewing department. I don't really know if similar cutters from the paper-crafts section will work.
- Cutting Guides (rulers)
We bought two transparent guides with good markings, one 2' long and 6" wide and another 2" wide. They were expensive, but make measuring and cutting long strips so much easier than a yardstick.
You should use the large-head quilting pins to stabilize all the layers. (I didn't and it was stupid)
- Seam Ripper
Get one, even if you carry a pocketknife at all times.
- Iron - For pressing the seams
- Pencil. Tailor's Chalk or Washable Fabric Pen
- Circle Template - I used a paper plate
You can make this project with just a pair of scissors and some hand stitching. But the cutting boards, rulers and rotary cutter certainly make it easier.
I used three colors of cloth, but you don't have to. I also used the same fabrics we were using in a quilting class. Luckily, two were flannels, and one a damask. I used one flannel for the center portion, and another flannel for the piping. I chose the piping cloth because it seemed to diffuse the light from the EL-Wire into a nice, soft glow. The damask was the only fabric I used that had a directional pattern, so I was careful to cut the two pieces so that the pattern matched on both ends of the pillow. I also mirrored the patterns so they both pointed out from the center.
I used a generic white, all cotton Coats-and-Clark thread on both the top spool and bobbin.
Use real pillow stuffing or foam. I used a bag of stuffing we had from the maker club. I did not realize it had glitter in it until it was much too late (oopsy)
- EL-Wire - EL-Inverter/Battery Pack
You get what you pay for. I can personally recommend EL-Wire from Adafruit or Sparkfun. Their products are consistently bright, richly colorful and reliable. Specialty vendors also have good quality products, but I know and trust both Adafruit and Sparkfun from years of purchases. Sure, you can also get five times the amount of wire for the same price on Amazon, and it works fine, - sometimes - but the quality, brightness and color have never been as good or dependable. Test to make sure your wire will be long enough for the size pillow you design.
Step 2: Stitches, Settings, Needle and Feet
I just sat down and started sewing on the only machine available to me. The master quilters have now informed me that the following items are important to know about:
I used a basic straight-stitch with the tension and stitch-length set to the machine's default. It turned out okay according to the quilters, but I could have loosened some of the tension and used a longer stitch on some of the thicker sections to avoid puckering and gathering, or used a tighter stitch in some of the curves for finer control and smoother curves.
The machine I used cannot "drop the feed dogs," so the machine was pulling the cloth along at full speed even on the tightest corners instead of allowing me to guide the cloth free-form. I have now been told that disengaging the feed-dogs would have made sewing the curved seams much easier allowing me better control of both direction and speed.
I have also been told the "drop arm" on this machine did not have the ability to adapt to multiple layers of cloth. I did have to be careful when I transitioned from two layers to four, but the foot did "ride" the thickest seams with just a little bit of extra guidance from me.
The machine I used also did not have the ability to set the "center point" of the stitch. Apparently, this would have allowed me to move the needle over to one side so more of the seams stayed securely under the presser foot.
I used the needle that was in the machine at the time, a basic sharp-point 80-12. It worked fine, but I had to go very slowly when I was sewing through four or more layers of cloth. According to feedback, a heavier quilting style needle would have made the task much easier.
We only have a basic presser foot, so that's what I used. Luckily I used huge seams (like 1/2 inch wide). If I had tried using the standard 1/4" seams, the basic foot would have "pushed around" the cloth and tried to shove it to the side. Every one of the expert quilters had a strategy and favorite foot. I don't fully understand it all, but apparently there are a variety of specialty "stepped" feet (piping, zipper, seam, quilting etc.) designed to make these types of tasks easier. Moving the needle's "center point" of the stitch (if possible) can also make keeping the seam centered an easier task.
Step 3: Designing the Pillow
There are many ways to construct a bolster pillow. Most of them are simpler than the route I chose. But I had a vision, and expected to fail at least three times before I got it to work... so I dove right in and designed a multi-part pillow at the sewing machine. This guide and design isn't the best way to create a pillow, I'm only sharing it to encourage any other beginner to try. Modify and change this design any way you want, just have fun, experiment and learn.
I wanted the bolster to have the following features:
- Use the same materials that were being used in the quilting class. This meant three contrasting fabrics.
- Have at least two loops of EL-Wire on each end.
- Use sewn piping as an encasement for the EL-Wire rather than sewing directly onto the cloth.
- Be large enough that the center portion was usable as a pillow while the light-up ends extended past the users head for easy viewing.
- Have a secure, interior pouch for the battery and inverter pack.
After a quick design sketch, just to confirm the count for the pieces, I used a very scientific approach to the design and measuring... I held the fabric up to the side of my head and added a couple of inches to either side. That determined the width of the center section. I almost doubled the length of the center section because I wanted a deep flap and a pocket on this part.
For the accent pieces at the end, I looked at the pattern on the cloth and picked a width that allowed at least one row of florets to show. I wanted the patterns on the accents to mirror each other at the ends (one points left, the other points right), and I wanted the make sure the pattern could be matched across the length, so I also cut these pieces extra long to make sure I could find a matching point in the pattern.
I made the piping very oversized so I could feed the EL wire through easily, and to make it easy for me to sew on a curve.
The diameter of the pillow was determined by the size of a plastic bowl I found left on the table. I based the length of the other pieces based on precise mathematics and geometry (I rolled the plat along the fabric, then added an extra half turn to be sure.)
I cut the pieces out, and because I wasn't sure I understood how they would finally go together, I started sewing and learning as I went.
Step 4: Sewing the Piping
There are numerous ways to attach EL-Wire to fabric. You can hand-stitch, use a zigzag stitch, or even use fabric glue. I chose to use the piping method. (aka cording, welting, encasement) because I wanted the EL-Wire to be very secure and because the fabric covering would make it more comfortable to touch and would also diffuse the light.
I planned to insert the EL-Wire into the piping after the pillow was completely sewn together, so I made my piping oversized to give myself plenty of room to feed the wire through. By the time I finished pushing/pulling the wire through four loops, leaving all that extra room turned out to be one of the best decisions made during the entire project.
I'm not very good at sewing, and maintaining a simple straight-line seam is a difficult task for me, so having some room for the stitch to wander helped a lot with my comfort level. I was also concerned about maintaining a steady size when the piping was bent into a curve. I know metal pipe tends to buckle and pucker when bent. I had no idea how fabric would handle, so left myself plenty of extra room for error.
Cut a strip of fabric 2 inches wide and fold it in half lengthwise. To keep it simple, I folded the strips back-to-back (unprinted side) and sewed down the center to leave 1/2 inch flaps on either side and a generously sized tube in the center. This is a beginner technique and results in very visible stitching. Make four of these.
Step 5: Center and Accents
The center (green flannel with ripple pattern) was the most difficult part for me to visualize. I wanted the center portion to have an access flap, plus an interior pocket to hold the battery-pack/inverter for the EL-wire. The main concern with the end sections was for the patterns to match.
My first thought was to leave the pocket area as a loose flap so it could fold back and I could bury the battery-pack into the middle of the pillow's stuffing. But after some test squeezes of an existing pillow, I decided to put the battery pack on the opposite side of the pillow, against an outside edge. This gave the most face protecting padding for the hard plastic battery pack, allowed easy access to the on/off switch, and put the inverter (always a tiny annoying transformer whine) as far away from the ear as possible.
I cut a piece of fabric almost twice as long as the circumference of the end caps. I sewed two quick, fold-over seams on both of the short ends. Then I folded one of the ends about 3 inches an sewed two lines perpendicular to the end. This formed a very simple pocket. After using the pillow for a while, I think I should have sewn most of the remaining open side as well so that there was only a slot to access the pocket. I don't have to change the battery as often as I thought, the pocket is actually very easy to access even though its inside the pillow, and the pocket is actually so roomy the battery-pack tends to slide out.
I wanted the end pieces to feature a discernible portion of the pattern, not be just a random series of blobs. Luckily, the smaller cutting guide was a perfect width for this. I found a part of the pattern that had a floret that repeated using this width.
I also wanted the pattern to match along the length of the pillow, and to mirror each other (one points left, one points right)
Step 6: Putting the Pieces Together
There are two strategies for sewing the pieces of the pillow together.
1) Sew the parts together to form a flat sheet, then sew two edges of the resulting sheet to join them together and make a tube of them. Finish with the end caps.
2) Sew a piece of piping together with an end cap, then add the next section, then another. This creates a short tube that you basically stack more tube sections onto.
Either strategy works, and both have their advantages and disadvantages. Most of the sewing experts told me(after they saw the completed project) that sewing the flat sheet was the best way to make the project. But these are expert sewers with years of experience. They are comfortable with measuring and can visualize how the pieces will work together throughout the construction of the project.
But as a beginner sewer, I was not sure I understood how the project would assemble. So I sewed it together piece-by-piece, forming the tube as I went. It was actually good practice, and I discovered some errors on the early tries (piping tails too short for example) that I corrected.
Place one flap of the piping face-to-face with another piece of fabric. You will see the two unprinted sides showing. Sew them together about 1/4 from the edge of the fabric. This will give you a hidden seam when you unfold the parts with the faces showing. Add the next piece, and then the next. I backstitched at the end of every seam even though the experts said this was probably not needed.
When you have the sheet assembled with all four pipings, the two accent ends and the center portion sewn together, you will have a flat sheet. Fold this sheet in half with the unprinted faces showing and the printed faces hidden on the interior of the fold. Sew the edge of the sheet together to form a tube, being sure NOT to sew across the piping or the flap of the center section. So its really only the two accent ends that you join here.
Now join the edges of the center flap to the piping. You will be sewing on a curve here, so drop the feed dogs if your machine allows it.
You should now have a tube with two open ends. You can reach through the tube and pull in inside-out to check your seams at this point. Turn the tube once again, so the unprinted sides are showing.
Sew the two end caps onto the tube. Again, drop the feed dogs (if you can) to make sewing on a curve easier.
I now know that snipping slots into the flap-seam of the end piping will make it easier to sew in a circle, and will reduce puckering.
You can reverse the pillow again, but this time you will have to reach into the slot in the center portion. If it still looks good, reverse the pillow to get ready to put the EL-Wire into the piping.
A Note on Bias
The expert sewers have now told me about cloth "bias", something similar to woodgrain, only for cloth. I knew nothing about his when I made the pillow, and it isn't really important for this project because it's so simple. But if you notice that the same type of cloth sews or handles differently depending on which direction you are sewing it, that is probably the effects of bias.
Installing the EL-Wire
The inverter/battery pack I used has two ports. But I only had one strand of orange colored wire, so I only used one port. Luckily the EL-wire was long enough to go from the center, loop twice around one end, then run back to the other end and loop twice. But if you have two pieces of EL-wire that you like, it would be much easier to run one piece to each end. And if you doubled the wire, with two loops in each piping, it would be even brighter.
Running the EL-wire through the piping is very similar to stuffing anything else into a flexible tube. If you have ever put a tent or tripod into a flexible case (or made sausage) you are familiar with the pinch and gather technique. But you will need to do four loops with this design, so some planning is needed.
Push the EL-wire as far as you can into the first run of piping. Now hold the EL-wire and push the piping down onto the wire so the fabric gathers into a bunch. Grab the El-wire on the other side of the bunched fabric, release tour grip of the wire on the first end, and slide the piping down the length of the wire. The wire should now be much deeper in the tube of the piping. Continue to do this until the EL-wire emerges out of the other end of the piping.
At this point there isn't much friction between the EL-wire and the piping. But by the fourth run of piping, there is quite a bit of resistance, so it is important to pull all the wire you will need through this first run at this time. Put the battery pack into the pocket of the center section. Grab the end of the EL-wire and pull it through the first run of piping until most of the wire has gone through the piping and only a short run remains between the start of the piping and the battery pack.
Now put the El-wire through the second loop of piping using the same pinch-push-pull technique. Then pull the wire taught again. Continue this process until the EL-wire is in all four loops of piping.
Step 7: Stuff and Enjoy
I was super excited when I had finished sewing and running the El-wire. The project looked almost like I intended, it held together, some seams were almost straight - this was like magic - awesome.
In fact, I was so excited, I grabbed the first bag of stuffing I found and began to put it into the pillow. Big, big mistake. The "stuffing" was actually glitter filled decorative cotton fluff. It was lumpy, gave no body for my tired head to rest on, and is still shedding glitter at random intervals.
You, being smarter than me, will use stuffing made specifically for pillows. Whether it's cotton, polyester, foam or even memory foam - please use the correct stuffing.
Question: Is their such a thing as transparent or translucent stuffing? I think the light would really make the pillow glow much better if I could find less opaque stuffing. .
Use and Enjoy
Turn on the EL-Wire, turn down the room lights, and enjoy the show for a moment. Put the bolster behind your head and invite friends over to enjoy your handy work.
But most importantly... sew something, anything. It's fun, and a really useful basic skill for everyone.
Thanks for reading.