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In order to try and make aesthetically pleasing high tech fashion more available, we came up with the idea of creating electroluminescent (EL) patches that can be put on clothing. The EL patch glows in the dark and gives a very retro "cyberpunk" feel to jacket. Though high tech fashion is becoming more mainstream, there's a lack of stylish clothing that's reasonably priced. This project is an attempt to make visually pleasing wearables more accessible to the public.

The method is versatile enough that you can affix the EL patches to other pieces of clothing but this instructable will focus on making EL patches just for jackets.

The total cost is roughly $100, $50 in EL panels, $30 for the jacket and the rest for miscellaneous cost, such as the cloth, glue, etc.

The method described in this instructable will be focused on the workflow used to create the EL panels but can be altered depending on what kind of access to materials, software and machines you have.

The basic idea is to laser cut some art, glue it to an EL panel and then affix it to a jacket with velcro. The wires are poked through the back of the jacket and wired through the lining to access the power source in the jacket pocket. The patches are semi flexible and act like standard jacket patches.

The patches on the jacket are a bit fragile but can withstand "everyday" usage. Protecting the panels from breakage is an ongoing experiment and the current methods presented below, such as strain relief, are our current attempts at making the panels more robust against normal use.

Even though the idea is pretty simple, we think the results look striking.

All the designs we've made are made free/libre (with a CC0 license, where applicable) and can be found on our GitHub page, ElleMal-data. Feel free to use and extend them in your own projects!

Step 1: Materials and Tools

Note that you can use any material for the cloth but not all material is safe to laser cut. Pololu's materials for laser cutting and ATX Hackerspaces Laser Cutter Materials are good resources to make sure the material you're laser cutting is safe. In particular, PVC, vinyl and pleather are all materials that will emit toxic chlorine gas if laser cut and should be avoided. Cotton, polyester, nylon, acetal and Delrin are all materials that are able to be cut safely on the laser cutter.

The cloth above is heavy duty Nylon. Though Nylon melts in the laser cutter, it's still able to retain a lot of the detail of the source image. Since Nylon melts when heated, this helps to make resulting patch more robust as it cauterizes the edge of the fabric to make a nice seal.

Software

The software is optimized for the workflow we've developed but other software can be used depending on what you're familiar with or what kind of laser cutter you have access to.

Inkscape is used to create the vector art for the lettering. Gimp is used to create the art patch. LaserWeb4 is used to convert the art patch to GCode to be sent to the laser cutter.

For laser cutters that can take files directly, such as the Epilog Zing, Laser Web 4 isn't needed.

lobster_2805 months ago
Wow! I'm definitely going to give this a go, although my design will have to be more simple since I'll have to cut it myself (don't have access to a laser cutter) :) Thanks very much!
starphire8 months ago
Nice writeup of your process. It might be helpful to others to point out that something like a thick leather jacket is much less likely to be creased or folded in a way that would permanently damage an EL panel. On a thinner, more flexible piece of clothing, "everyday" usage means NEVER folding it tightly enough to leave a crease in the panel. Commercial versions of these usually back the EL panel with something stiff enough to prevent it from being folded over itself.
The whining noise is familiar, and while certain kinds of capacitors can be induced to make a small, barely audible noise under the worst conditions, with EL inverters the whining usually comes from the transformer that actually steps up the voltage. All the commercial ones today are cheaply made, and even a tiny amount of looseness in the transformer assembly will make it vibrate in its own magnetic field. Potting material just dampens the noise a little. I once had some old surplus EL inverters that were absolutely silent and very reliable, simply because they were aerospace grade inverters.
abetusk (author)  starphire8 months ago
Thanks for the comments, all good points.

I think even thinner jackets might still be ok as the EL panels themselves along with the cloth glued to them add some stiffness. While it's very true that any significant crease in the EL panel might cause it to fail the natural stiffness and location on the back means that this is probably less likely. I think as long as people treat it with a decent amount of care (the amount of care you would have, say, for lace or silk), it should be alright.

I've heard the whining is, in particular, capacitors in the inverter that resonate at whatever frequency is needed to drive the panels. I've ordered some inverters that are actually quite silent but I agree the norm is cheap inverters that tend to emit a high pitched whine.

When you say 'commercial versions', what do you mean? Do you have a link?
starphire abetusk8 months ago
Wearing it on the back isn't a problem, it's the folding that occurs when it's not being worn that tends to do damage. I can fold a silk shirt over and over without hurting it, but folding a shirt with EL accents on it just once to fit it into a suitcase can mean it comes out of the suitcase with a permanent dark spot where it was bent too tightly. It's an inherent weakness in the technology, because the glowing phosphor layer is brittle and easily cracked. So I agree with you about taking care, it's just that people have to get used to giving it a *different* kind of care than they're used to giving other nice clothes that don't have EL accents in them.

I've been using EL wires and panels for about 20 years, and designing electronic circuits for twice that long. I've encountered a few low power circuits with a buzzing capacitor, but it was much fainter and meant that capacitor was being badly abused and would fail soon. But a badly made transformer is an electromagnetic buzzer at these frequencies, and it'll vibrate like that for years. We once designed a power supply for a mass produced plasma globe toy - very similar circuit to what's in EL inverters, but more powerful. We tested samples of custom wound transformers in an acceptable price range from different manufacturers, and they all whined. Sometimes you could touch the transformer in a way that made it immediately quieter, but usually the loose bit is buried inside where nothing can reach it. It was obvious that the cheap quality of their assembly was the reason they were so noisy. The quietest transformers we could find were US made, but cost far too much. The super quiet military surplus EL inverter I mentioned before had a date code from the 1970s, also in the US (EL tech has been around for a LONG time), and they were probably outrageously expensive when new. But they aren't made anymore.

There's a company called ellumiglow.com that's tackled this noise issue, partly by using more expensive components and partly by custom tuning the inverter to match the load of the EL display - in other words, they'll adjust the inverter frequency to minimize resonance noise for a specific size of EL panel or a specific amount of EL wire. But that's an OEM product; you apparently can't just buy one and adjust it yourself. When I say 'commercial versions', what I mean is EVERY ONE of the 25 or so different models of battery operated EL inverters they do sell online. All using cheap components and assembly methods inside. They even admit that all of their inexpensive inverters whine. And they have the widest selection of them I've ever seen. Lots of different shapes and sizes, from several brands. The ones that embed the circuit board in potting material are usually a little quieter - but you can also do this yourself with hot glue: https://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-silence-an-EL-transformer/


bpark10008 months ago
I ordered some of these panels for a Halloween decoration. Every single one arrived damaged because they threw the inverter and the panel into a pouch for shipping. The panel was creased and had numerous dark spots. Panels took over 2 months to arrive! Did you have the same problem?
My recommendation is to not cut the panels. They will fail early. Get one large enough, and cover it with black cloth.
abetusk (author)  bpark10008 months ago
Depending on who I order from, yes, I've had panels have dark spots though I haven't had them be severely creased. Considering the panel is usually covered up, I position the cloth over it to make sure it covers the dark spots.

The problem with not covering is that there could be quite a lot of space that needs to be covered. How would the cut panels fail early?
bpark1000 abetusk8 months ago
I ordered from that exact Ebay source you cited in the Instructible. Regarding cutting, the panel is heat-sealed, with extra plastic at the edges. When you cut, you break that seal at the cut edge, and start delamination (like when you cut into a heat-sealed badge. Not only does the panel delaminate, but moisture leaks into the cut edge. The electroluminous layer is very sensitive to moisture. It is not uncommon for electrical breakdown to start at the cut edge, as the insulating layer inside is very thin, and it extends beyond the electrode area at the edges. You will see small flashes and black spots at the edge, which will grow across the display like a cancer until the display shorts. (I had this happen to an uncut old display). You can do things like try to apply hot glue to the edge, or over-laminate with another layer of plastic. Do not flex the panel parallel to the cut edge!
Alex in NZ8 months ago
This is amazing! Thank you for sharing the designs :-)
abetusk (author)  Alex in NZ8 months ago
Thanks!