Sew Electric, Sew Fun!

Sew Electric--E Textiles Book

Sew Electric–E Textiles Book


Heightening Anticipation

  • Give Purpose and Motivation

I’m taking an online graduate course in Creativity offered by the State University of Buffalo (SUNY) for my M.S. degree (two more courses to go!).  This is the same university that many Coetail students are doing their M.S. through.  The Course is CRS 530 “Creative Teaching and Learning in Formal & Informal Settings”.

This week’s assignment is to share about creativity resources— programs and technologies.

This blogpost will discuss the technology “E-Textile Micro-controllers”.

E-Textile or Electronic Textiles is about embedding technology into fabric, textiles.  It a special form of technology because the hardware must be washable!

So, they say that programming skills are in high demand and will continue to be, as the world continues to be more and more connected with technology.   There is technology in all career-fields, now and we’ll need computer programmers to support all that.

So, there have been a myriad of tools developed in recent years to teach computer programming skills to children.

  • Tickle the Imagination

E-Textiles is a way of interesting children to code, who may not necessarily be interested in traditional toys to code, like robotics or cars.   Mitch Resnick, inventor of Scratch Programming (a computer language for children)  says there are two types of “players”.  Some are patterners and some are dramatists.  Patterners love creating patterns and seeing them “run”.  Patterners would enjoy building robotics, cars and coding them to run.  Dramatists prefer to make up stories.  E Textiles addresses those children who prefer to tell stories.

An example of a programming project is pictured above.  This is a bookmark with a firefly on it that can be programmed to sense the amount of light.  When it gets dark, the firefly lights up.

So, E-Textiles allows children to program anything that involves fabric: toys, clothing etc.   The little bits of hardware are all washable.

The micro-controllers are small “computers” that you attach to your project.  You program the micro-controller to make your project act as you want.  This might involve also attaching sensors (light, heat, sound, motion etc.) so that the project can interact with the outside world.  To get everything working, you have to have an understanding of how to make a closed electrical circuit as everything runs on electricity (usually battery).

So, in years past, students taking “Industrial Arts” in school would learn about electricity.  It didn’t seem to be very useful knowledge unless one had plans to become an electrician.  Learning about electricity is making a come-back as the market is filling up with micro-controllers for people to code to create interactive, programmable projects because the controllers rely on electricity.  (The simplest entry-point is the Makey Makey.)

So, to scaffold the learning of E-Textiles, Sew Electric is a wonderfully easy entry-way into the world of E-Textiles.  It is a book, but there is a kit that comes with it that I highly recommend.  The kit’s components come from LilyPad who specializes in resources for E-Textiles.

The Sew Electric book and kit will allow you to go through the entire scope and sequence below, except for the last project (holiday sweater).

Deepening Expectations

  • Digging DeeperA scope and sequence for teaching E-Textiles
  1. To start E-Textiles, you need a needle, conductive thread, a washable battery holder, washable LED lights, and a 3V coin battery at the minimum.   This is to make the light “light up”.  Sew a closed circuit:  Sew a line from the positive (+ )hole in the light (left) to the positive (+) hole in the battery holder.  Then, sew a line from the negative (-) hole in the light to the negative (-) hole in the battery holder. The light lights up when you flip on the switch in the battery holder.  This is a good time to teach about short circuits (Don’t let the two lines touch each other or the light won’t light up.)
ChezVivian Sew 2a

Closed Electrical Circuit: Battery holder on the right. LED light on the left, conductive thread (grey)


2. Sew a parallel circuit to get two or more lights to light up.

Parallel Circuit (grey threads)

Parallel Circuit (grey threads)

My first E Textile Project

My first E Textile Project


3.  Now, learn to program your circuit.  To do this, you sew a LilyTiny which is a washable pre-programmed micro controller into your electrical circuit that is.  It’s easy.  Just make sure you always sew from a  (+)  to a  (+)  and a  (-)  to a  (-)  and you’ll be fine!  Depending on which (+) hole you sew from on the micro controller, your lights will either twinkle, blink evenly, blink a heart-beat pattern, or fade when you turn it on.

Sewing a Micro Controller (middle circle) into your project. This one makes the light fade in and out.

Sewing a Micro Controller (middle circle) into your project. This one makes the light fade in and out.

ChezVivian Eifel Paris2

ChezVivian Eifel Paris

3D Printed




(Click the above to go to youtube to see the insides of soft-toy blink a heart-beat blink.)




(Clic the above to go to youtube to see the finished toy.)


  • Visualize the Inside

4.  Now, you’re ready to sew in a micro-controller to your project that you program by connecting it to a computer via USB and using free open-source software called Arduino.  There are codes to copy and paste into the program at the beginning for different light blinks.  Then, you can start tweaking the program as you learn how to write the code.  The Sew Electric book has significant information on how to write code for Arduino.

Your first tweak might be to code it to blink in a pattern that you come up with.   Then, attach different coloured LED lights and program them to blink in the pattern that you like, incorporating different coloured lights.

After you’ve learned how to attach a micro-controller into a project and program it for lights, you’re ready to sew in speakers and sensors.   It sounds more difficult than it is.  It’s still the basic process of sewing lines with conductive threads to attach everything in the correct way so that electricity runs and it works!

ChezVivian Sew 5

This micrcontroller has a lithium battery embedded into the board. The medium circle in the picture is a speaker allowing you to program the project to make music.


  • Breakthrough–Expand the Boundaries

Now the fun begins!  The speakers allow your projects to make sounds or music.  Program it as you wish.  Sensors allow your project to interact with the world. There are sensors for sound, light, temperature, motion etc.  They are inventing new ones for E Textiles all the time, that are washable.   With the addition of speakers and sensors, you’ve expanded the boundaries of possibilities for your projects.



(Click the above to go to Youtube to hear a project that I programmed to play “Hot Cross Buns”.)

ChezVivian Sew 7

ChezVivian Sew 4

Programmed to blink lights and play music “O Christmas Tree” when the sensor is pushed




(Click the above to go to youtube to see the Christmas tree in action)

Extending the Learning

  • Visualize It–Richly and Colourfully (appeal to all senses)
  • Having a Ball (have fun)
  • Singing in One’s Own Key (personalize it)
  • Building Sandcastles (imagine, fantasize)
  • Shake Hands with Tomorrow (invent new things)

5.  You now have the basic concepts for E-Textiles.  The next step is to do more complicated projects, with more lights and more sensors.  It’s time for you to use your own imagination to create your own projects.

I went on to program a holiday sweater.  I took a store-bought sweater and attached lace and fabric to the bottom of it.  I sewed in LED lights that blink different colours, a micro controller, and a sensor that senses motion called an accelerometer.  I found code on the internet to program my sweater to blink in random coloured lights but ONLY when I moved.



(Click above to go to youtube to see me put my neopixels [the E-Textile LED lights from the company, Adafruit] through the “strand test”.  It cycles through all the colour possibilities and blink patterns.)





(Click the above to go to youtube to see my finished sparkle sweater which is programmed to twinkle when it senses motion.)


So, here you have it!  A crash course in E-Textiles from the easiest beginner project to learning all the basic concepts and skills for programming your textile project to be interactive.   The rest is up to your imaginations but we can see that E-Textiles has great potential to develop these creativity skills from the Torrance Incubation Model for Creative Teaching and Learning:

  • Visualize It–Richly and Colourfully (appeal to all senses)
  • Having a Ball (have fun)
  • Singing in One’s Own Key (personalize it)
  • Building Sandcastles (imagine, fantasize)
  • Shake Hands with Tomorrow (invent new things)
  • Getting out of Locked Doors (trouble-shoot when things don’t work)
  • Breakthrough–Expand the Boundaries (make new things, previously inconceivable. Technology is redefining the learning task)

I think nothing develops creativity more than free, open-time to explore and experiment.  Tina Seelig’s Innovation Engine says that our environment and resources have an impact on creativity.   E-Textiles with its programmable micro-controllers turns every textile project (visual art, fashion, sewing) into an open-ended exploration incorporating computer science, science (electricity, motion, light, sound), and music if you program a project to sing a song.  If you use it to invent something to solve a social problem, then we can integrate humanities into it too.

E-Textile technology and resources are new tools for projects that can interest people in computer sciences who don’t enjoy programming on a computer screen, or programming robotics, cars, vehicles etc.  E-Textiles has the potential of integrating all disciplines, plus offering an authentic and engaging learning experience.

Sew Electric! Sew Fun!


About Vivian

Vivian @ChezVivian is a Canadian-born Chinese, currently living in Switzerland. She has also lived in Hong Kong and Indonesia. She holds a M.S. (focus: Educational Technology Integration), B.Ed and a B.A. and graduate studies in Kodály and Orff music pedagogy. She is an elementary school classroom generalist, but has also taught as a music specialist, ESL/EAL and also in Learning Support. Most of her teaching career was in International Schools in Hong Kong. She is excited about the IBPYP and the possibilities of using technology to Inquire. Recently, she has been looking at the opportunities that computer programming gives to put #TECHXture back into the hands of children. In other words, technology need not be just about looking at screens. It can be about building things with our hands; and computer programming levels-up what children can do with the things they build---encouraging higher thinking skills. She is a Coetail Post-graduate Certificate grad ('13-'14), a former Coetail Coach and one of the co-founders of #CoetailChat. Her blog home curates her assignments for Coetail and her M.S. graduate studies about Educational Technology integration and anything else educationally-related that she feels inspired to write about. Her twitter tagline sums it up: "Mom to 4, Mentor, Educator, Musician (in that order)".
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