Review: ‘Sew Electric’ Adds Flash to Your Fabric

Books Electronics Hobbies
'Sew Electric' Cover from
‘Sew Electric’ Cover from

When my daughter was born, I taught myself basic electronics so that one day I could teach her. But how to make that introduction? It’s hard to imagine plopping her down one day in a couple of years and saying, “Today we’re going to learn electronics!” What I’m instead doing is working on various projects that she can help with and that will perhaps fuel her imagination and desire to learn.

To that end, I bought Sew Electric by Leah Buechley and Kanjun Qiu. The book, which is a bound form of the projects on the website, aims to teach its readers how to integrate electronics—specifically from the LilyPad platform—into fabric arts.

The moon hides two white LEDs in this bookmark inspired by 'Sew Electric'. Photo by Derrick Schneider
The moon hides two white LEDs in this bookmark inspired by ‘Sew Electric’. Photo by Derrick Schneider

It’s easy to recommend this book after doing the first two projects. Buechley and Qiu start you off slowly with a bookmark that doubles as a book light. Battery holder, conductive thread, LED, felt, and regular thread. That’s it. If you’ve never done hand-sewing before (or, if like me, you’re very out of practice), the book has easy-to-follow illustrations on making stitches. Electronic components are glued down so they don’t slip, and the authors walk you through making tight stitches around the metal tabs of the LilyPad components for good connections.

Markings by my daughter, sewing by me, in this flickering-LED bracelet inspired by 'Sew Electric.' Photo by Derrick Schneider
Markings by my daughter, sewing by me, in this flickering-LED bracelet inspired by ‘Sew Electric.’ Photo by Derrick Schneider

After that, it’s on to a bracelet which adds metal snaps and a LilyTiny, a pre-programmed chip offering a few common LED circuit behaviors—flickering, pulsing, and blinking. While the authors suggest designs to cover the components, you can obviously do what you want. I’ve not yet moved on to the programmable stuffed animal or the felt piano, but I’m sure I’ll be tackling the latter. Both require programming a LilyPad, which the authors walk you through as well if you don’t have Arduino and/or programming experience.

A word of advice: It’s almost certainly worth it to buy their kit for at least the first two projects. Maybe you have enough LilyPad components, batteries, snaps, conductive thread, and needles with big eyes and thick shafts to use when sewing felt, but I didn’t. I tried assembling something out of the spare parts I had around, but I ended up frustrated.

Speaking of frustrated, here’s another thing I noticed. When a metal circuit doesn’t work, you check all the connections and shuffle things around. All the same principles apply with fabric projects, but the “shuffle things around” step often involves ripping out stitches and swearing loudly. Hang in there, and you’ll get the results you want.

Whether it inspires my daughter or not is too early to tell. But I know that I’ve spent more than a few idle moments thinking of other sewn circuits and wearable widgets to make in the future.

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