Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab
Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab

Project 5- embroidery, soft circuits, and sewing

The idea for this project came when I realized one of my roommate’s birthdays was right around the corner. I wanted to make a personalized dice bag for her, since she inexplicably bought 6 sets of dice all at once. So, I asked one of my more artistically inclined friends to make me a sketch of one of the characters from our shared DnD game. My only real stipulation was that it had to have a place for the lights to fit in naturally. My friend delivered in spades, and gave the sketch you see below.

At this point, I discovered that the gray settings on the scanner were insufficient for my needs. There was too much noise in the image for me to properly colorized and refine it to something I could use. So, I traced over the image with a pen, erased all of the pencil, and scanned in black and white only, to get the clearest outline I could.

The inked image, scanned

To get the basic coloration down, I pulled the scan into GIMP, and used the fill tool to fill in areas with color.

This didn’t go so well. An side-effect of being a scan of a drawing was that some of the lines, though they look complete, had very small holes in them. So, when I filled, the fill to “escaped” through those holes, and filled the outside parts of the image. So, I went over every line in the image with the pencil tool, and fixed all of the small holes I could find, so my outline was a true outline.

Once that was finished, I experimented with a few colors, before finally settling on a gray cat, blue overalls, and yellow buttons/fireflies. I made one of the fireflies blue as a nod to Navi, from the Legend of Zelda. I also moved the fireflies closer, in order to lower the overall size of my embroidered design

The colorized image. The eyes will eventually be colored blue

Now began my struggle against PEDesign. PEDesign does not like having small, differently colored features, like the irises, or the claws. I spent quite a lot of time slowly enlarging these features, until they finally were stitched. I picked my 9 thread colors, and went to embroider.

My first embroidery attempt, mid embroider

The picture caption is slightly misleading. I put in the wrong color on my first try (you can see it off to the right), and scrapped it. However, the second attempt went far better.

Right up until the end

my second attempt “complete”

The machine had a bobbin tension issue, which caused the bobbin thread to show around the edges. On the overalls and shirt, this wasn’t too much of an issue. But when the machine went to do the black outlines, It looked really terrible. Furthermore, many of the outlines were larger than the features they were outlining.

The end result was that I decided I didn’t need about 85% of the outlines in the image. On fabric, the lack of outlines was far less odd that it was on the image. So, I removed almost all of the outlines from the original image, in order to enlarge the features, and avoid the bobbin problem (should it arise in the future).

My image, with only the most necessary outlines remaining

I had to increase the thickness of most of the remaining lines in order for them to be picked up by PEDesign, in addition to increasing the size of the claws. Since I was sewing on black felt (which was apparently recommended to me in error, as it’s not the greatest for embroidery), I decided not to stitch the outlines, instead allowing the black fabric to show through. This ended up being a very good idea, as it allowed me to enlarge small features, like the whites of the eyes, and the embroidery

Embroidery attempt 3- success!

Aside from the blue fairy, whose thread nearly pulled a hole in the fabric, and forced me to manually repair its shape, my third embroidery attempt turned out quite well.

For the soft circuitry, I spent quite a bit of time considering how I wanted to sew the circuitry on. I definitely didn’t want the gray conductive thread showing through. I considered sewing on a separate layer, only sewing halfway through the felt, and securing the thread with only hot glue. In the end, I decided to sew the lights onto a separate piece of felt, and sew that to my front panel in black thread. This allowed me to securely attach all of the electronics to fabric, while keeping the stitching hidden.

The circuitry patch attached

A peek at my circuitry

The patch wasn’t the prettiest, but it was functional, and wouldn’t be seen in the final project. The switch is facing out, so it can be flipped through the front panel (it can be felt distinctly beneath the fabric). One major issue with this design, I realized later, is that replacing the battery is now effectively impossible. However, with only 3 LEDs to drive, I’d wager the current battery will be going for quite a while.

With the front panel complete, I moved on to creating the pouch. Since the highlight of the pouch is the embroidery, I went with a dark blue lining and a black zipper. I made a relatively small bag, as I intended for it to be a dice bag for my friend. Mercifully, the creation of the bag went off largely without a hitch. The zipper had some sections on either end that were pas the stoppers of the zipper, and those holes had to be sewn closed, but aside from that. the bag ended up looking not too shabby.

the bag, almost finished

The final bag

Were I to do this project again, I would definitely have chosen fewer colors for the embroidery. Switching out 8 different thread colors was nerve racking, and made the embroidery take over an hour, so my failures cost me quite a bit of time. I would also have just forgone the claws entirely, as they are not very visible at all on the final bag, and cut down on the amount of thread the toes have. Better to remove the small features entirely, than enlarge them to the point where they show up, because even when they show up as small in the PEDesign render, they may be enlarged on the final fabric.

Those minor quibbles aside, I am quite proud of the embroidery. I may not have done the original sketch, but it took quite a lot of work (6+ hours) to transform the sketch into an image that could be satisfactorily embroidered, most of that time being zoomed far in, and using a 3-5 pixel wide brush to change lines and feature width. The embroidery is by far my favorite part, as it is what really made this gift stand out, rather than just being a amateur, though competent, bag with some lights. I believe the work paid off, and am very happy with how the embroider (and the entire bag) turned out.

And yes, my roommate did like it. Quite a lot.