If ballet has taught me one thing, and sometimes it feels like it has only taught me one thing if you don’t count “how to spend all your money on leotards”, it’s that failure is an integral part of the learning curve. Just over a year ago and freshly armed with this knowledge I decided to learn how to sew, partly because I have some very awkward proportions and thus finding clothes which fit me can require patience in the face of overwhelming odds, and partly because it’s a skill which has slipped out of general use and I find that interesting. On the understanding that I was unlikely to make anything I’d be seen dead in straight away I’ve been sewing basic pieces as toiles for about a year now before I finally made one up and thought that if I did it in real fabric I might admit to having made it.
Given my recent discovery of Adafruit’s wearable electronics platform it seemed logical at the time to combine the two. In retrospect I may have been a little ambitious, not that realizing this would have stopped me. In the end I think that it took me the same amount of time to create the skirt as it did to sew the electronics and neither were particularly quick.
The pattern that I’d decided on for the skirt was Hollyburn, it’s a deceptively simple piece and having worked the toile in a medium weight calico I knew I’d be able to use a fabric that could handle the weight of all the conductive thread. This point will become very important later on. In order to make the pattern work with the sparkle skirt project I was going to have to add an overlay, I spent a reasonable amount of time going through the My Messings Hollyburn sew-a-long trying to work out if I could (or should) use a similar technique to the one used to add a lining. Eventually after doing some sense checking with Kathryn I decided that I was going to have to attach the overlay at the pocket seams and zip as well as at the waistband in order to get the look I was after at the same time as disguising the conductive thread and softening the LEDs. Given my penchant for science fiction it was always likely that I’d end up with a sports mesh, after working my way through Berwick street in search of the perfect fabrics I with with airtex along side a medium weight cotton poplin for the base. As this was the first time working with a mesh, or any sort of fabric with that much flexibility, my first chunk of project time was taken up by sewing a series of test swatches. Safety first.
Sewing the mesh into the seams along the pockets worked out rather well; I managed to keep the crisp line that I was hoping for without creating a bulge at the beginning of the airtex seam. I put the zipper in with my sewing machine but as I had to sew through the poplin only to avoid an ugly line on the airtex it was hard to sew as close to the line as I would have liked, so I ended up hand picking it as well to try to keep things neat. The waistband was also a fairly challenging due to the sheer bulk of the fabric in some areas but I managed to wrestle it into submission.
Having finished the poplin hem I moved onto my circuit diagram. I wanted to sew FLORA and the accelerometer onto the inside of the skirt so they wouldn’t either show through the mesh or snag on it. As you can see from my original diagram below (spot the sadly not deliberate mistakes) I’ve put FLORA underneath the pocket to protect it and me while the skirt is being worn.
I ended up moving the accelerometer closer to FLORA but as I still wanted to keep the positioning that I had I ended up having to jump the connecting line over the VBATT – thankfully with sewing this is much easier than it would be otherwise. I gave myself a 5 inch section of the skirt (below the line where the overlay was attached to the zipper) for the LEDs and created a random number generator in excel to work out the placement within that space at regular intervals.
But here is where I reach the most irritating part of my story. I’d originally planned to use 3-ply thread, and in fact I sewed the first 10 LEDs on by hand. Unfortunately at that point it became obvious that the thread was impacting badly on the drape of the dress, so I ripped out all of them and started again with 2-ply. It was not my finest moment. Thankfully 2-ply thread can be used in the bobbin of a regular sewing machine so this enabled me to sew the power and ground lines on different sides of the material, cutting down the likelihood of them touching and shorting out. It’s also easier to sew, and crucially, to knot than 3-ply although that still doesn’t make it easy to work with. Using single runs of 2-ply thread works for the sparkle skirt because the LEDs are only on in tiny bursts, but when I run them using the regular strand test they just don’t hold up because they’re not getting enough power. I’m going to have to do some serious thinking about how to manage my next project.
Soft circuit, front
Soft circuit, back
Even after moving to 2-ply, running meters of stainless steel thread through the fabric has noticeably sharpened the silhouette.
And this is the skirt in action.
All in all not bad for my first real project.