One of the most amazing things about LEDs is that they give you endless options when it comes to color and lighting effects. Adding lights to an ordinary piece of clothing lends that garment transformative, chameleon-like powers. I believe illuminated clothing need not be relegated to the realm of costumes and raves, when used judiciously, lights can be a beautiful design element in everyday garments. In designing this Day-to-Night Light Skirt I wanted to find a simple way to use LEDs to create something that could go from a normal piece of clothing to a festive show stopper at the touch of a button. Wear it to a classy early evening event with the lights off, and no one will be the wiser... turn the lights on when you head to a dance party later... or maybe start your own party by transforming into a fabulous light show right before the astonished eyes of your unwitting companions.
By using a pre-programmed LED chip from Cool Neon that can be controlled by remote, I avoided the need for arduino coding, making this project quite a simple one. I also used a new kind of LED strip that just became available: fully addressable rgb side emitting led strip. Which is the same as regular addressable led strip, but the lights are oriented to shine parallel to the strip not perpendicular. This makes it a lot easier to illuminate clothing elements without showing the led pixels themselves, and it allowed me to light most of the skirt with just a single strip around the hem. This is the first time I've used this LED strip and I am really excited about its possibilities.
I constructed my skirt very simply, out of two tutus on top of eachother with an outer layer of embroidered organza. I think the floral organza adds a level of elegance to the skirt and creates a nice silhouette when the lights come on, but you could also make the skirt without it, choose your own patterned outer layer, or even use this technique on any pre-existing skirt of the right material.
Step 1: What You Need
For the Skirt
- Two tutus - I used a white tutu underneath and a light lavender one on top because I liked the effect of the two colors together. You can also just create your own by following an Instructable like this one, or this other one.
- 1 1/2 yards of a sheer fabric with an embroidered pattern like this floral organza to create a silhouetted overlayer
- 1 yard of a wide decorative elastic for the waistband
- About half a yard of white faux fur to diffuse the lights
- 2 yards of 1" wide ribbon or strap in a white or light color
- 12 small sew-on snaps
- Some sturdy white fabric or thin leather to create a battery case
- Rivets to construct your battery pocket (optional)
- A sewing machine
- White thread and hand sewing needle
- An xacto knife
- Sewing Scissors
- Ruler and measuring tape
- Pencil and paper
For the Lights:
- 1 1/2 yards of 60/meter rgb addressable side emitting LED strip
- A Cool Neon Total Control Lighting remote controlled LED Symphony driver chip - this tiny chip is a great way to control LEDs if you don't want to bother with trying to program your own microcontroller. It comes pre-loaded with 300 LED programs and works with any WS2811 or WS2812 LED strip. You can control the programs with a remote, increase or decrease the speed of a pattern, and dim or brighten the lights when they are set to a single color. The programs are mostly scrolling linear effects, and in order for the remote to function properly, you need a 5V power source that can put out at least 2 amps, so there are some limitations, but it's still a great way to drive your LEDs. If your want more control over your programs, you could use any small microcontroller like an Adafruit Gemma or a DF Robot Beetle.
- A 5V battery with an amp output of 2 amps or above, and at least 5000 milli-amp hour capacity like this external cell phone battery pack.
- A USB Cable
- Wire for connecting your LEDs
- Small and large heat shrink tubing
- A wire stripper/cutter
- A soldering Iron
- A heat gun, blowdryer or lighter
Step 2: Make the Lace Layer
To create the lacy overlayer of my skirt, I first took three measurements from my tutu:
- the waistband when stretched out
- the approximate circumference of the skirt around the bottom hem over the top layer of tulle when worn
- the distance from the waistband to the hem
Then I used these measurements to create a lace tube with slightly angled seams on each side. I made my lace slightly shorter than my tutu because I thought it would look nice to have the tulle sticking out the bottom.
I stitched the side seams with opposite sides together, then folded the seam allowance to one side, top stitched it down and trimmed away any excess.
Step 3: Attach the Lace Layer
I pinned the top edge of my lace tube to the waistband of my top (lavender) tutu, distributing the extra lace fabric evenly.
Then I stitched the lace down, being sure to stretch out the elastic in the waistband of the tutu as I sewed. This way the lace ends up gathered around the waist of the tutu and the stretch of the waistband is preserved.
Step 4: Add the Waistband
To get the right length for my elastic waistband, I wrapped my wide sparkly elastic around my waist so it was just snug. Then I cut, pinned and sewed the loop together with a zig zag stitch, folding the ends under so they wouldn't fray.
I pinned the band onto my tutus, attaching the elastic on the outside and the waistband of the white tutu on the inside. I staggered the edge of the white tutu down slightly to give the whole thing less bulk under the waistband.
Then I sewed all three layers together with a zig zag stitch, pulling the elastic a little as I sewed to give it extra stretch.
Step 5: Make the Battery Pocket
Now I needed to create a little pouch that would hold my battery and hide in the layers of the skirt. You could also just use any conveniently sized pre-existing bag our pouch.
I used a ruler and pencil to trace out an approximate pattern for my simple pocket pouch. Then I cut it out in leather and lay it over my battery to get the fit right. I marked where I wanted my rivets to go, then punched holes and set the rivets with a hammer. You could just as easily do this by sewing the two layers together, I just happen to love the convenience of rivets.
Last, I trimmed away any excess leather and cut a hole in the bottom of the pouch for the USB cable.
Step 6: Attach the Pouch
When my battery pouch was done, I pinned the top edge of it to the waistband of my white tutu just above the bottom most layer of tulle.
Then I sewed it on with my sewing machine.
Step 7: Create the Light Diffuser
Even though these side light LEDs shine up more than out, you can still see the individual pixels a bit when the strip is placed at the hem of the skirt. To diffuse the light a bit more, I created a tube with white faux fur on one side and hid the led strip inside.
To create this tube, I first measured loosely around the bottom layer of tulle in the tutu. This is best done with the skirt on the body, but I found that 45" is a good length that will leave room for your legs to feel unrestricted under the tutu.
Then I cut a 45" long 1" wide strip of fur. I used a sharp exacto knife and cut from the back of the fur. This is the best way to cut faux fur so you don't damage the hairs in an unsightly way. Be careful to only press hard enough to cut through the fabric not the fur itself.
Then I measured a matching length of my white strap, leaving a little extra on each end to fold them over and finish.
I marked where all the snaps would go on this strap, 4" apart, then hand sewed one side of the snaps down to each spot.
Last I pinned the fur down to the strap, with the fur facing out on one side and the snaps facing out on the other, and sewed the edges together with my machine. As I sewed I held the fur to one side with my hand so I was only sewing over the hairs at the base.
Step 8: Wire the LEDs
I measured my led strip against my light diffuser and cut a section of strip just slightly shorter than the diffuser.
Then I cut the output wires from my Cool Neon led driver chip and soldered them to the led strip. Making sure to match:
G (ground) from the chip to 'GND' on the strip
D (data) from the chip to 'D' on the strip
+ on the strip to 5V.
Then I heat shrunk over the connection.
I measured the distance from where the strip was going to sit on the skirt to the battery pack and then soldered the USB connector onto the other end of the driver chip at an appropriate length. When you cut into the wire of a USB you will see a lot going on because the USB can also carry data. For my purposes here, I was only concerned with transmitting power, so I just needed the red and black wires. I trimmed the others back and heat shrunk over them. I soldered the ground and power from the USB onto the leads from the chip. Then I heat shrunk over the whole thing (chip, solder joint etc.) with white heat shrink to protect it.
I made sure to test my lights by plugging them into my battery and turning them on with the remote. The led driver chip allows you to change the number of LEDs easily. Just turn of the strip with the remote, then press and hold the menu button for two seconds. The LEDs will come on in red, showing you how many are currently being powered. Then you can use the Mode + and Mode -, or Speed + and Speed - buttons to increase or decrease the number of LEDs. I reduced mine so it it was only powering the number on my strip.
Step 9: Insert the Lights
To make it easier to put the led strip inside the tube, I taped the end of a stiff wire onto the end of strip, folded over the tip of the wire, and threaded it through the tube of fur. It was then easy to use the wire to pull the LED strip through, making sure the edge of the strip with the LEDs were facing up with the fringe of the fur hanging down. I pulled the strip in until it was completely hidden by the fur, then tested how it looked with the lights on.
I actually really liked the way this looked just by itself. I may have to make something with this eventually too.... Make all the things!!!
Anyway, back to the matter at hand :)
Step 10: Attach the Light Strip to the Skirt
To attach the light strip to the skirt it helps to put the skirt on a dress form, but you could also put it on a person, or clip it to a hanger. With the skirt on the form I pinned the light strip to the bottom layer of tulle about three inches up from the hem. I started the strip on the side of the skirt right under the battery pouch and pinned all the way around distributing it evenly over the skirt, and allowing the ends to overlap about an inch.
Then I took the other sides of my snaps and sewed them to the skirt to correspond to each of the snaps on the light strip.
At the overlap I sewed another snap that attached the ends of the strip to eachother.
Step 11: Create Your Light Show
Now I plugged in the battery in and used the remote to select what patterns and colors I liked. You can cycle through 300 modes on the Cool Neon chip which is a little overwhelming, but a lot of them are variations on the same pattern, and you can create a favorites playlist by pressing "Add DIY" when you are in a mode you like. You can also change the speed of the modes, and change the brightness when you are in a solid color. The glow in the skirt will show up best in a dark or nearly dark room, though you can still see it in daylight.
If you aren't an arduino programmer, a pre programmed LED chip like this is a great option for creating dynamic lighting in your costumes. It's really fun to be able to change the color of your skirt with the touch of a button, or make it undulate with waves of light that will hypnotize the people around you. I do wish the chip allowed you to lower the brightness of the lights in any mode though. You so rarely need the LEDs at full brightness and dimming them saves so much power. I have also found that my battery, which has a 2.4 amp output, does tend to shut off sometimes when I'm in a mode with a lot of white light. I think the battery may have an automatic shut off when it draws too much power. It turns on again if you un-plug and re-plug it, and I think getting a battery with a 3 amp output would solve this problem.