How to Make an Interactive, Blinking Fabric Map of the United States

Introduction: How to Make an Interactive, Blinking Fabric Map of the United States

As you can see, I attached a fabric map of the United States to a canvas, with lights wired to a Lilypad USB on the back of the canvas. I then connected a long string with a snap to a positive pin on the Lilypad and connected each light to a different snap. So when the snap is affixed to different felt patches, different lights on the U.S.A. light up. For example, in the picture the snap is attached to the purple fish, so the light in Washington state will be blinking. My final version ended up being pretty straightforward, but I originally wanted to do a lot more with mixed media - I think this idea has some potential!

Step 1: List of Supplies I Used

  • Row of 6 sewable LED lights of all different colors (there were 7 in the row, but I was advised not to use the purple, because it wasn’t very bright, so I didn’t)
  • Conductive Thread Embroidery Thread and Felt Canvas (16” by 20”)
  • Outdoor/upholstery fabric
  • Needle and regular thread
  • A coil of wire, cut into strands that are long enough to reach from your light to your snap-patch, with slack on the ends to coil (I used strands of copper wire coated in rubber, which I stripped off on the ends)
  • Battery
  • Lilypad USB ($~24.95)

Step 2: Circuit Diagram

The first step of this (and any project requiring programming and electricity) was to draw a map of where I wanted the circuits to go. I sketched out a very basic map of the United States on notebook paper several times and tried to make sense of where my positive and negative connects would be located. I drew and re-drew my circuit diagram at least a dozen times. Even though this project was simple, I wanted to be sure of how everything would connect. Here is a cleaned-up example of what my diagrams looked like:

Step 3: Print Enlarged Version of the U.S.

Next, I printed out an enlarged version of the U.S. map, cut it out, and traced it backwards on the back of my canvas. The printout I got was a little small (11” by 17”, even though my canvas was 16” by 20”), so I was generous around the edges. I wouldn’t recommend this! Print it at a larger size than you think you’ll need--I think it’s easier to accurately shave it down than it is to enlarge it.

Step 4:

Next, draw out the circuits on the back of the canvas! Even though you probably won’t be following these EXACTLY, it will still make your life easier when you are connecting the positives and the negatives. Here is a picture of the back of my (finished) product. As you can see, the real thing is a little messy - not quite as neat as color-coded pencil diagrams! But the diagrams still help. Trust me!

Hold onto the paper map that you used to trace onto the back of your canvas, because we’ll be using it in the next step.

Step 5: Cut Out Fabric Map

Trace your map backwards onto the wrong side of outdoor/upholstery fabric and cut it out. The fabric I used came from my local JoAnn’s (fabric can be seen here, in case you want the specs or even want the exact fabric for another project: Even though I don’t know much about fabric, my reasoning was that outdoor/upholstery fabric would be sturdier and a sort of canvassy texture that would suit my project well.

Step 6: Attach Lights

Next, carefully attach your lights to the canvas. First of, make sure each of the lights are oriented in the same direction (negative sides one way, positive sides another way)--this will save you a headache later on down the road. Then, attach them with CONDUCTIVE THREAD (this is important -- you will use the conductive thread to attach to the positive wire, and also to attach to a long string that will be the negative connection.) Here is a close-up of one of the lights on the back of the canvas--you can see that I labelled the positive and negative sides clearly, just in case. (This picture shows the light after I attached the wire and the negative thread, which I will cover in the next step.)

Step 7: Attach Wires to Positive Sides of Light

Next, you will attach your wires to the positive sides of the lights. Carefully strip the ends of your wire strands so there is a couple of inches of exposed metal on each side. Don’t strip off too much, because that might increase your chance of creating a short somewhere on your project! (My positive and negative lines overlapped a couple of times, but luckily the wire I used was coated, so I was okay!) To attach the wires, I (carefully) poked wire through the positive hole on the light and twisted it around the positive side a couple of times to make sure the connection was strong. I then (carefully) poked it back through the back of the canvas and twisted it together. I was really afraid of ripping my canvas at this step, but it was stronger than it looks! This is what the back of my canvas looked like after I connected some of the wires to the positive sides of the lights, but before I connected them to the snaps or created the negative line (this might give you a good frame of reference for how much I stripped the ends of my wires):

Step 8: Make the Negative Line

Next, you will want to attach all the negative sides of the lights! For this step, I used conductive thread and tape to make a trail that all connects to the same negative pin on the Lilypad USB. This was pretty simple--I just used a needle to tie the strands of thread through the negative side of the light several times, and then tied them all together and taped them to the canvas. In the future, I might reinforce the negative line with more wire, which takes more time but would be sturdier. So it’s up to you what you would like to do! Here is what the negative line of thread connections looked like, including the knot connecting the whole line to the Lilypad USB.

Step 9: Cut Holes for Lights Out of Fabric Map

Next, you will want to cut holes out of your fabric map to allow the lights to shine through! The easiest way I found was to lay my fabric map over the canvas and make rough colored pencil marks where the lights were, then cut small SMALL holes. They don’t have to be very big to let the light show through! Here is an example of what the front of the map looks like, close-up on the light. As you can see, the hole covering the light is tiny. Don’t get too crazy with the scissors!

Step 10: Attach Map to Canvas

The next step is time-consuming but easy: attaching the map to the canvas! I first pinned my map on carefully, making sure the holes I just cut corresponded with the lights, and then I attached it with a sewing needle and simple thread. However, if you wanted you could probably attach it with something easier / sturdier (I toyed with the idea of fabric glue?). Because I was attaching to canvas with needle and thread, I left the edges “raw”, but you might want to hem the edges, depending on your fabric and what you want it to look like. I liked the “unfinished” look, but that’s just me! Here is a closeup of the edge of my map after it was sewn on.

Step 11: Attach Felt Shapes

Next, you’ll want to attach felt shapes to your canvas in a way that corresponds with your circuit diagram (so you can easily connect the positive wire to the snap). To attach them, I used embroidery floss, because it is a little cuter, but you can use whatever you want! Here is a close-up of one of my patches connected.

Step 12: Attach Wires to Snaps

The next step is a little tricky, but easy if you are careful! Coil ends of the positive wire (so the stripped part makes a nice spiral), match these spirals to their respective felt shapes, and attach the wire coil and the snap with conductive thread. To make sure the connection is strong, I recommend wrapping the conductive thread around the wire several times, and sewing it through all four “holes” on the sewable snap! Here is what the back of it will look like.

Step 13: Create the Positive Connecting Snap

Next, you will create the positive connector that will be used as a switch when it is snapped to each of your patches! For this step, I first tried to braid together conductive thread, but because of the texture of the thread, I found it hard to braid, so I ended up twisting a lot of it together and tying knots in it. I used around four strands, though you could use more, less, or even use something like a pretty metal chain (that was lightweight, of course--you don’t want to pull your new patches right out of the canvas!). Attach your strand to a felt piece with a simple needle and thread, and then attach the final snap to that piece (that will connect to all the rest of your sewable snaps). Finally, connect it to one of the number pins on the Lilypad USB (not an A-pin--I did pin 2).

Step 14: Coding!

The final step of this project is to do some simple coding! To test this project, I recommend using the “blink” feature in the Arduino examples library and changing the pin to the corresponding pin you are using to connect the positive snap. This is a good way to see if your project is working initially, and make sure you don’t have any shorts! Each of the snaps will connect to the same pin, so it made my coding very simple--however, if you wanted the snaps to do different things, you can stretch your imagination and make the coding a little more complex!

Step 15: Customize!

And then, you’re done! You can customize this to change the locations to places that are significant to you, of course. Just make sure to reflect the changes in your circuit diagram. Happy crafting!

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