Sewable Circuits and Art Objects

Last fall I took a class in sewable circuits at a local makerspace. It was Halloween-time, so we made masks using Flora and Gemma arduino controllers, conductive thread, LEDs, and battery packs. I ended up with a vaguely Carnivale-meets-Lucha Libre creation:

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I liked the medium and wanted to do more with it, particularly with embroidery, so I started looking for inspiration and examples. Sewable circuits are not new, and neither is the incorporation of computer chips and LED lights into fiber-based pieces (and it’s particularly popular with cosplayers). But a lot of the embroidery pieces I saw incorporated the LEDs as literal lights – as stars or candles or lightning bugs: 

I enjoy all of these pieces but I was also interested in incorporating tech in a less literal way that still felt meaningful and furthered the art object overall. I also wanted the tech to do something that the embroidery alone could not do. 

While I was ruminating on this, a friend learned she needed brain surgery. As she was preparing for her surgery and recovery last fall, she asked me to remind her of several phrases she wanted to focus on during her recovery. I wanted to make something for her that could be a tool for meditation on wellness as well as a big thank you for her encouragement of me as an artist. And I wanted it to involve BRAINS.

My aha moment was when I realized the LEDs could be neurons firing:

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I worked on the piece over six (!) months, including a lot of troubleshooting of circuits, code, and embroidery. It was quite a process, and I learned a lot. Here are some more images of the piece in progress:

In retrospect, it’s curious to note my transition from a wearable (a mask) to an embroidered piece intended to be hung on a wall, and to consider that in tandem with my idea that I wanted the tech to further the art object overall. Embroidery has it’s own arts/crafts tension: it is so often associated with textiles and domestic goods and is often gendered through it’s association with women, and it is also a fine art form. And wearables can certainly be art, as can textiles and domestic goods, but somewhere in the process I made an unconscious (and unfortunate) jump that in retrospect surprises me. When I set out to do an “authentic” art object I, without meaning to, applied many of the arts/craft assumptions I so often rail against.  I really could have just made a cool embroidered mask, but for some reason “taking it further” meant a piece to be hung on the wall. Mea culpa.

Additionally, I realize now I did not apply the “must further the piece” requirement for the Gemma arduino, the battery pack, or the conductive thread. I hid all those components in one way or another. Hiding tech is an ongoing conversation among people doing this kind of work – and there are fabulous examples out there of what can happen when you don’t hide tech, including this famous Lilypad Arduino piece by Becky Stern.

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Becky Stern: Lilypad Embroidery

In the end, my embroidered LED mandala raised all kinds of questions about hybridity for me: between arts and crafts, between art forms, in joining analog and digital methodologies and mediums, and parsing and exploring gendered art forms.

Stay tuned for more embroidered mandalas, this is clearly a rich vein of experimentation!

Components: Cotton fabric, embroidery floss (silk, cotton, wool), wooden hoop, fabric pens, metallic pens, open source code from Codebender, some open source clip art as starting point (profile, brain cells), Gemma arduino, conductive thread, LEDs, battery pack. All electronic components from Adafruit.

Resources Used:

Electronic Embroidery at Instructables 

Introducing Gemma at Adafruit

Gemma Starter Pack at Adafruit

Codebender

Process:

Sketch overall design on tracing paper

Draw circuit configuration on top of design, on tracing paper (ie, how will circuit and embroidery interact/mask/enhance?)

Transfer design to fabric using transfer paper

Put fabric in hoop

Install and test circuit, including programming Gemma if not done already

Embroider on top of sewn circuit, testing LED and circuit viability throughout

Revise and iterate embroidery design (several times)

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