Sewn hearts

sketchpad
03
Oct/13

In the last week or so, we have been experimenting again with sewn circuits, using conductive thread, LEDs, and more traditional sewing tools and techniques to see how we can bring that experience out on the floor in a way visitors might enjoy. Right now we're in the “anything goes” phase, and personally it's been really fun to pick up needle and thread again.

I had never tried sewing anything without instructions or a pattern, completely free-form, and so I initially aimed for a very simple shape—a heart—that I could cut out with scissors and stuff. Then I decided to add an eye patch for personality, and finally the idea of adding a winking "eye" on the other side materialized, activated by a switch behind the eye patch. Check it out:

One of the key aspects of tinkering is that sometimes you start making something without really knowing in advance what the problems and challenges you will face will be, and so the solutions are a bit cobbled together and "janky," to use one of our favorite terms. That is definitely the case here: I had already sewn around the perimeter of the heart when I started putting the circuit in, so I had very limited space to work with, and the switch took lots of mid-course corrections and improvised solutions. Unfortunately it's all sewn up so I can't show you, but there are two brads on either side of the eye patch going through two thick foamies, leaving a small gap between them. When pressed together, the circuit is closed and the LED turns on. It works, but there is a hard feel to it that I didn't like.

So, the next day (inspired in part by a certain guilty pleasure TV show…) I decided to make an anatomically correct heart that beats when squeezed. This presented several problems: I would have to laser cut the shape, as it's too complex to cut by hand (at least for me); I wanted all the circuitry to be on the inside, so the lights would glow through the fabric; I wanted it to feel soft, not like there's a hard switch inside; and I needed to be able to change batteries when they died. Here's the final product, of which I'm very proud:

As I hope you can tell from the brief video, I decided to build the entire circuit on a separate piece of felt. It has a push switch inspired by Nicole's experiments with sewn circuits blocks, which is soft to the touch. I had to learn to use a sewing machine, because I wanted the stitching to look nice, and while I was at it I decided to add snaps along the side of the heart, so that I could take the circuit patch out, troubleshoot eventual problems, and most importantly change the battery!

In our collection of LEDs I found a couple of red blinking LEDs, which are very nice for a beating heart. Strangely, although they mostly start at the same exact time when I press the button, and therefore are in sync, every now and again for some reason they start off sync, which gives it a very nice life-like pulsating quality… now if I only could find a way to start them off sync each time, the heart would be perfect. Something to work on next, I guess…

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