The great thing about quilting—well, okay, there’s lots of great things about quilting, but the one that comes to mind at the moment is the fact that even though our primary medium is fabric, we’re not necessarily limited to it. This is particularly true of art quilts or any quilt that is meant to be seen and not snuggled with. And while we can certainly reach for the ribbon or lace, some beads or other objects to give our quilts texture and dimension, there’s a new wave of embellishments that give a quilt a more techno edge. With a little learning, and some easy kits, you could add the power of light to your next art quilt!
Cheryl Sleboda works in the comic book industry, but she’s also an art quilter. She became interested in, as she puts it, “the intersection of technology and fabrics” in 2009 when she began noticing works being created by fashion students that used electronics and micro-electronics as components and embellishments. (See the blog Fashioning Technology for a gander at some of the ways tech is blending into clothing.) In January of 2010, she made her first small quilt using LEDs, a portrait of a very charming squid.
LEDs, or Light Emitting Diodes, are a type of light source that uses a semiconductor, rather than gasses or a metal filament—as in fluorescent and incandescent bulbs—to produce light. LEDs can be very small, use energy efficiently and do not produce much heat, making them suitable for use with fabrics. In fiber art applications, conductive thread (generally silver-plated nylon) carries the current from a small button-cell battery to the LEDs. The LEDs can rest inside the quilt or poke through the fabric to shine on the outside.
Cheryl used the simplest configuration to create her squid, but she soon discovered new tools and technologies for adding light to quilts and creating different effects with them. A series of Under the Sea quilts (all Cheryl’s e-quilts are small and intended as wall hangings) uses electroluminescent wire to add glow to the tentacles of a jellyfish and a photocell for another squid makes his lights shine brighter when the ambient lights of the room are brighter. “I’m starting to play more with switches and sensors,” says Cheryl. “My latest quilt uses a microcontroller called a Lilypad Ardruino.” This controller makes the LEDs light up in a random pattern.
Blogger and crafter Katie Dektar has made an entire quilt using LEDs. She has made only two quilts in her crafting and sewing life, both based on a quilt in Amy Karol’s Bend The Rules Sewing. “The second is my LED quilt,” says Katie, “which follows the general pattern of the first quilt but with fewer panels and a bunch of LEDs inside.” Katie says the wiring is finicky and so “the quilt needs to lie just so for everything to light up properly.” The quilt isn’t hanging on the wall just now, she says. “It’s packed away so I can bring it to Alaska and use it as an example in a class I’m teaching to kids about fibers and electronics.” (Go here to see how Katie wired the quilt and to see some videos of the lights in action.)
You may not be able to use an LED quilt as a snuggly, lighted bed cover, but think of the fun you could add to a child’s bedroom wall or the soft light you could bring to a wall hanging in a dark bathroom. (The knee I banged on the sink last night says, “Yes, please!”). And it doesn’t stop with LEDs. There are all kinds of electronics that can find their way into textile-based crafts, and Cheryl is also interested in “smart textiles,” which are fabrics or threads that are treated to react to the environment, such as glow-in-the-dark-paint or sun-reactive thread. (And hey, it turns out my ironing board cover with the cute guy who gets naked when you run a hot iron over him is a “smart textile”! Who knew?)
Cheryl sells kits for adding LEDs to quilts and below you will find that link and some other resources for learning about electronic circuitry in textiles. – Megan Dougherty