Getting started with LED embroidery

As part of the Art + Tech residency with Space Studios, London (which they have kindly allowed me to do while continuing to “reside” in lockdown in Sheffield) I’m getting my head around LED embroidery at the moment, with the view to creating a very large piece this year for the Cis Penance interactive portraits project. I feel like I’ve got my head around the very basics now – what can electroconductive thread do as a material that both makes attractive shapes and also forms part of a system? How do some different ways of fixing traditional LEDs to fabric compare to one another? I learned quickly that improvising a circuit on-the-fly doesn’t work very well for me – even with this very simple circuit, things end up not working, and I don’t really understand why, so I do have to spend a couple of minutes sketching a design first so that I have set up a nice, clean path from power to ground. I always feel tickled when I end up filling a small sketchbook with ideas on a single theme. I’m not a trained artist, and when I do this exercise it feels like I’m temporarilty role-playing as one. I like the way ideas end up iterating on each other, getting more complex in a way that emerges from simplicity, rather than just getting really big in my head before I have any idea how to materialise them.
I started getting very excited about these simple graphical representations with thread that are just enhanced or enlivened by LEDs. It’s a very easy thing to do, and the results are quite dramatic. Meanwhile, I kind of fell out of love with one particular thing I did with the cosmonaut and the leaf, where the leg of the LED stays long and just loops back on itself enough to be secured in place. Although it’s nice to use the LED legs as part of the image, it’s very annoying to have them flapping about while you finish sewing the circuit in place, and they don’t always stay upright even after they’ve been sewn down. Curling them into tight loops is much more practical, though it can get in the way of the image as you see around the iris of the eye, so sometimes a compromise is probably best. Resistor values might be another thing to consider in the future. Using different resistors to deliberately vary the intensity of different LEDs could introduce some depth – or going the other way, LEDs of different colours or types do kind of need different resistor values in order to be as bright as one another. The next things I’ll be playing with are:
  • Beadwork embroidery techniques that best incorporate LEDs
  • Sewing solar light circuits to create embroidered LED nightlights
  • How to have multiple light circuits in one piece, so that different sets of lights can be switched on or off.

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