Making Light-Up Fashion: Introduction to LEDs for Wearable Tech
Whether for awe-inspiring high fashion, functional wearables, or costuming and cosplay: many DIY designers and makers are integrating LED lights into their garments.
As a cosplayer or costume designer, you may be looking for ways to add some extra shine and sparkle to your creations. One option to consider is using LEDs (light emitting diodes) to light up your costume or cosplay. LEDs are a popular choice for costumes because they are small, lightweight, and energy-efficient, making them easy to hide and power without adding too much weight or heat to your outfit. But for someone who is new to electronics, it can be confusing to know where to start. For the absolute beginner, here’s a primer demystifying using LED lighting for wearable tech.
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Two Pin LEDs: The Basics
There are many different types of consumer LEDs available, each with its own unique features and benefits. Here are some options to consider when adding lights to your costume or cosplay, starting with the most basic:
LED stands for “light emitting diode”. LEDs are perfect for wearables, since they’re small, inexpensive, and easy to work with once you know the basics. The most simple LEDs, and the best place for beginners to start, are two pin LEDs. These LEDs have two pins, or wires. The longer wire is the positive side, known as the anode, and the other is the negative, or the cathode.
Currents in LEDs only go one direction, from the positive to the negative. This is important to remember when working with LEDs, since LEDs with wires in the wrong direction won’t work.
Two pin LEDs come in a variety of sizes and colors. They are relatively inexpensive to purchase, and therefore a great starting point for beginners.
GamerGirls for MakeFashion by Phi Illuminated Design
For a more customizable lighting experience, consider using programmable LEDs, or addressable. These LEDs can be controlled using a microcontroller or computer to create dynamic light patterns or displays.
These are multicolored RGB LEDs, or addressable LEDs. These LEDs can be controlled for a variety of functions, including lighting up and changing colors in a pattern or sequence written in code, or responding to sensors.
RGB (red green blue) LEDs have three pins powering the red, green, and blue elements The fourth pin is a return pin. Addressable LEDs have a “data in” pin, a “data out” pin, a ground pin, and a power pin. Both of these LEDs gather data from a signal that determines the brightness and color of the LED.
Most Lumen Couture professional designs use addressable LEDs, and the kits I have adopted from my designs are this style. If you’re just learning to work with electronics, I’d recommend learning with basic two-pin LEDs before moving to the more advanced ones.
Strip LEDs: Lights on a Roll
LED strips can also be used in wearables. These are convenient to work with since they are already wired together and can be cut into the length you need for your project. The lights on analog LED strips all act as one, and digital strips allow each LED to be addressed individually.
In wearables, use these when you want the effect of a strip or grid of dense lighting.
LED strips are popular for home lighting projects, so are easy to find. This one has self-adhesive tape which is handy if you’re attaching it to fabric (you’ll still want to use glue). White LED strip.
Addressable LED strips have also become easy to find. In addition to wearables, they are fun to use for app or voice-activated home projects. Addressable LED strip.
Flex LED Strands: Designed with Wearables in Mind
New! Hot off the production line, we’ve recently produced our own flexible LED strip designed with wearable tech in mind.
This strip has LED spaced out perfectly for fashion tech projects, and is flexible and durable. This has recently taken the top spot as our go-to for wearable tech, since it offers the convenience of strip LEDs without the tedium of sewing LEDs individually one at a time.
The kit starts at $13, comes with a controller, and ships internationally.
Learn more about our DIY FashionTech LED kit.
Sewable LEDs: One by One
Motion Sensitive Dress for MakeFashion by Laura Dempsey
As DIY wearable tech have increased in popularity, there are a number of LEDs and microcontrollers designed specifically for sewing. The Adafruit Sequin and LilyPad LEDs are both designed to be small, lightweight, and with small holes for thread. While these can be slightly more expensive than standard LEDs, they can be a great starting point for beginners and projects where you intend to have the LEDs visible on the surface.
Adafruit sequins are small and easily stitched. They are perfect for making soft circuits, and look great on wearables. White Adafruit sequin.
This is a mixed color pack of the Lilypad sequin LEDs, compatible with LilyPad and Arduino. Get them here.
Where should you start?
The type of LED you choose will depend entirely on your own needs and the complexity of your project. We hope this brief guide has given you a starting point to choose the right product. By choosing the right type of LED for your costume or cosplay, you can add some extra shine and creativity to your ensemble. Whether you are looking for a subtle, diffused light or a dynamic, programmable display, there are plenty of LED options available to help you light up your costume and bring your fashiontech, costume, or cosplay ideas to life!