Creepy Beasties


Last Thursday’s Afterdark followed the theme Hair, Feather, Scale, and Nail. To fit the night’s motif, we facilitated a new activity in the Tinkering Studio called Creepy Beasties.

For quite some time, we’ve been doing Sewn Circuits, where we use conductive thread, batteries, LEDs, and various fabrics to construct wearable circuits or electronic plushes (right). Creepy Beasties was the love child of Sewn Circuits and a box of stuffed animals, or to be precise, stuffed animal skins.

Visitors were encouraged to use the materials on hand to make their own stuffed toys, the creepier the better. One approach to this task was to stitch together multiple skins in odd, often unsettling combinations. We supplied visitors with needles of various sizes, threads of various colors, fabric scraps, and sheets of felt. All of these could be used to perform surgery on your stuffed animal husk. If that wasn’t enough, we also had conductive thread, LEDs of several sizes and colors, and button batteries that could be used for the circuitry. The LEDs can make eerie glowing eyes or noses, or can be used in a variety of other ways to enhance the beasties.

Guests also had the option of stuffing their beasties. Unfortunately, we ran out of stuffing two thirds of the way through the night. Our visitors–resourceful as they are–were able to salvage stuffing that we missed when eviscerating the toys. Some even stuffed their creations with other skins and fabric scraps, to nice effect.

Also on the table was chalk for marking fabric, string for embroidery (which nobody touched), needle threaders because the conductive thread frays like crazy, googly eyes and fabric glue, scissors, seam rippers, pins, sharpies for marking the positive lead of LEDs, round nosed pliers for curling the leads of the LEDs. and a multimeter (for testsing LEDs and the continuity of your circuit). I forgot to put out thimbles, but they didn’t seem to be missed.

In the future, I’ll probably do without the embroidery string and the googly eyes. The fabric adhesive is difficult to use, and splotches of glue are hard to avoid. If googly eyes are a must, I’m inclined to suggest hot glue. I would also consider putting out ribbons and different types of fabric.

To help our builders along, we have examples of sewn circuity that we spread around the table. These examples show how to make parallel circuits, how to construct switches out of snaps or flaps of fabric, and how to attach LEDs. As per usual, we try not to limit the creativity of our guests, so we actually had a few people come and build their own version of the examples instead of creepy beasts.

The activity can be daunting to people who haven’t sewn before. We tried to dispel any fears by pointing out that messy, ugly stitches really enhance the aesthetic we’re aiming for. This was ample encouragement for most people, and the few who didn’t know how to sew coming in picked it up quickly. This left me with more time to focus on the circuitry elements of the activity.

The tricky thing about our LEDs is that they will only operate at specific voltages; this means no series circuits (unless you plan to chain multiple batteries together). Another obstacle is that not all of the LEDs play nicely with each other. If you’re planning on sticking to one color, this doesn’t matter, but if you want to mix and match, the process requires a lot of testing. (An interesting side-note is that like-color LEDs were generally okay when grouped; orange worked with yellow and white, and green could be combined with blue.) To tests whether LEDs work together, we have a couple examples that are just squares of felt with two parallel lines of conductive thread. You attach the battery to one end, and lay all the LED’s across the gap. These little helpers are a must-have, and before we do the activity again I want to make a few more.

As most of you probably know, our workshop seats eight comfortably. Over the three hours we were open, we were full the whole time and probably saw about twenty-five guests. Tending to the 8 guests were myself (an intern), two project explainers, and Mario (a former intern now fully fledged Tinkering team member). Normally we have three people facilitating; the extra manpower was a real advantage.

Outside of the space we had a table with several examples on it. Visitors were encouraged to interact with them - pick them up, turn them on or off, squeeze them. Most of the time, one of us facilitators was stationed with the examples, talking to the guests about the activity and manning the gate.

To help introduce the project to visitors, we also have a vertical monitor that we use to display information about the activity and photos of our guests’ work. Before the night started, we decided that we really wanted to use the monitor to display photos of what was going on. Doing this live is tricky, as to our knowledge, there isn’t really a [free] service built for posting and displaying photos in real time. We tried DropBox (ugly) and Google Drive (uglier), before something clicked in my mind and I remembered my days of tumblr, which can be customized heavily and has a relatively unobtrusive interface. I set up a blog for the activity, and found a free theme that fit our needs really well. I could have also edited the theme’s HTML to make it really perfect, but I was pressed for time and there wasn’t much need. With the help of an app from the Chrome Store, I was able to snap photos from my phone and post them to the periodically refreshing page with ease (below).

All in all, I think the night was a success. The visitors really seemed to enjoy themselves, and it showed in their creations. The staff had a good time too; some of them built their own beasties, but just watching people go through the process was a treat. The fact that the activity fit the After Dark’s theme was the cherry on top. Sadly though, this is a pretty intensive project, both regarding materials used and from the standpoint of facilitation; we probably won’t be doing it again for a while. If you really want to build your own creepy beastie, give it a shot yourself! There’s also a chance we’ll bring back this workshop for Halloween, so stay tuned!

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