This guide is focused on helping students who have never sewn learn some hand sewing tips, AND sew their first circuit! With this project, your students will make their learning visible. Plus, it is a really easy project for students new to sewing, but will still appeal to an expert.
You will share a simple circuit template, so students can sew power from a battery to an LED, but also let them add their own artistic flair around the light with fabric paint, markers, embroidery floss, etc.
I like to share embroidery tips in this starter lesson with students and here is a great guide to help you share different types of stitches.
Embroidery Hoops, Fabric (Buy thin white fabric remnants or tea towels), Conductive Thread, Sewable LEDs or 5 mm LEDs, 3D printed battery holders, Conductive Fabric Tape also known as Shielding Fabric Tape
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Step 1: Create Sewable Battery Holders
Since the cheapest coin cell battery holder to buy is two dollars a unit, I decided to make my own battery holder to keep costs low for my sewing circuit club. I found this great tutorial on sewing your own battery holder, but I didn’t have any neoprene fabric, so instead I hacked a coincell battery holder in Tinkercad to be sewable.
Hack or print this battery holder designed in Tinkercad. Then use conductive fabric tape to make your positive and negative paths for sewing. Make sure your tape doesn't connect from positive to negative. Run tape from inside the battery holder to the sewable leg for both connections. (You could hack this holder to just use conductive thread by making the hole on the front and back of the holder a little larger and sewing direct pads here.
Test those holders before sewing!
Step 2: Sew Positive and Sew Negative
Share your own half-baked prototype (in other words, make it functional, but not too pretty.) If needed, share a template for students to follow.
Share with students how to sew from the positive end of the battery to the positive leg of the LED with a running stitch. Make sure they knot and cut their thread after sewing to the LED. Start a new thread to sew from the negative end of the battery holder to the negative leg of the LED.
Let students be creative in sewing with conductive thread! My students made cat patterns, Octopus, and more instead of sewing in a straight line! The important thing is only that the two sewing thread paths do not cross.
Once you've sewn each connection, you've made a simple circuit!
Put in a battery and let there be light!
Here is a downloadable template if you need it.
- Test LEDS before sewing!
- Conductive thread is sticky, so keep your thread as short as you can.
- Make stitches tight to conductive pads, and keep stitches tight but not so tight they pucker the fabric. Loose stitches can cause short circuits.
- Any loose thread can short your circuit. Make sure to sew LED on, tie a knot, and cut the thread end close to the knot.
- Use a single thread for sewing a running stitch. A double thread might tangle.
- If you pull hard, conductive thread can tear!
- Attempt to sew the whole positive trace with one thread and the negative trace with one separate thread. You can connect a sewing trace with a new thread, but you run the risk of a loose connection.
Step 3: Embellish With Embroidery, Markers, Puffy Paint, Etc
Once the circuit is sewn, let students get creative with embellishing and designing art with thread, markers, or puffy paint.
Encourage them to add their own artistic ideas to the fabric! Check out these stitches if you want them to try some other embroidery techniques,
More Resources for sewing circuits/soft circuits:
If you are new to sewing circuits and are looking for more resources, here are a lot of things that guided me along the way.
- Read this post about teaching a sewing circuit class at the Denton Public Library where kids made parallel circuit cuffs.
- The Big Book of Makerspace Projects :This book I co-wrote with Aaron Graves contains a full chapter of sewing circuit projects that range from very simple to very complex!
- Sew Electric by Leah Buechley and Kanjun Qui: This book really delves into programming and is co-written by the inventor of Lilypad.
- Sparkfun Firefly Kit: This is a fun intro kit where you sew with a pre-programmed LilyTwinkle microcontroller.
- Sparkfun help page on sewing with regular LEDs.
- Soft Circuits: Crafting e-Fashion with DIY Electronics by Dr. Peppler et al: Great resource for educators that want to teach systems thinking (Includes Design Challenge cards)
- Check out my Sewing Circuit Primer with Makey Makey Instructable!
- Crafty Kid's Guide to DIY Electronics by Helen Leigh: This is a fun resource with lots of kid friendly maker projects!
- Fabric and Fiber Inventions by Kathy Ceceri: Sensors and soft circuit projects for makers of all ages!
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