Hello, and welcome to my blog post.
I spent 58 hours on this dress.
Please enjoy this tale of my suffering.
Obligatory final photos first because I love the finished product! I can’t re-size a video to be small enough for WordPress, so you’ll find a video of the different capacitive touch interactions within the Process slides.
I created a fluffy, sheer babydoll dress embroidered with flowers, where the embroidery lights up through touch. The transparent dress is made in a natural, pastel-and-nude colour palette, evoking feelings of soft skin and springtime. Many of the flowers are backlit with LEDs, which are activated in differing patterns depending on how and where you caress the wearer. Currently, the dress is coded with four different touch zones, each with their own LED pattern – touching the wearer’s right hip activates a line of lights leading up towards the heart, as if the wearer is being emotionally affected by the contact. Touching around the stomach area sets off frantic flickers, as if mimicking a quick heartbeat. The left hip area makes all the LEDs glow gently in a rainbow loop, like a steady sort of passion. Finally, touching the right breast area causes sparks to light up the entire dress, evoking a nervous excitement. Literally and metaphorically, touch sets off fireworks on the skin. Personally, I think of the dress as more of a wear-at-home item, something you can use as lingerie or a nightgown, but I could see an altered, less transparent version of this dress being used in a more public setting.
There are a lot of objectives I tried to hit with this dress. Primarily, I wanted to make something in the theme of combating COVID isolation. I know the pandemic has made it a huge struggle for people to interact and engage romantically/sexually (am I allowed to be talking about sexual interaction for a school project?), and people are feeling the loneliness more than ever. This dress promotes touching and social/sexual interaction, making it exciting and fun for both parties to explore the wearer’s body. The different lighting modes are meant to mimic how the wearer might be feeling when touched in a specific area of the body – I coded them to my own personal reactions, but they can be changed to light up in any number of ways depending on individual preference. The focus on skin tones is also important – it makes the dress look like an aesthetic extension of the body instead of a fully separate entity,
I also wanted to make a dress with a fun, springtime vibe (since we’re just getting into the warmer days now) as well as touching on high fantasy designs with the detailed nature embroidery. I’ve been obsessed with high fantasy since I was little, and I’ve always dreamed of making a beautiful elf dress one day. Honestly, when I went into this project, I just wanted to make something that I thought was genuinely beautiful – I so frequently make things that I think are “useful” or really meaningful in some way, but sometimes I get sick of that. Not that this dress doesn’t have a purpose, but I think some things can exist only to be pretty.
Core Concepts of Wearability
Comfort – This dress is remarkably comfortable. The chiffon is super soft against your skin, and the Neopixels don’t add any bulk (they’re very flat), so they don’t scratch your skin at all. The insulation layer of chiffon between the LEDs and your skin increase the comfort, and all of the fabric, embroidery, lights, and battery pack are extremely lightweight, so you don’t feel like the dress is dragging.
Durability – This is absolutely not washable, but otherwise it is fairly durable. The battery pack can be removed to charge for extended longevity. The fabric (surprisingly) doesn’t rip easily, and all of the loose ends/frays are burnt off, so they can’t unravel. A lot of the embroidery is sealed with clear nail polish as well, so they won’t likely undo themselves.
Usability – Okay, I had originally intended for this to be a wear-in-public sort of thing, but as I was making it I got more and more obsessed with it being a lingerie-type dress. As a nightgown, it is absolutely usable and functional – as I was working on it in the privacy of my apartment, I would wear it around all the time just because I liked the softness. As an outdoors dress, well, you could wear it in the streets if you had a lot of confidence. It could also be easily altered into an outside-appropriate dress by adding more layers of chiffon to decrease the transparency, but I really like it as is!
Aesthetics – This is up to your personal tastes, but frankly I think it’s pretty gorgeous, if I do say so myself.
As usual there are too many images for WordPress, so I’ve made a separate process document. There you’ll find a much more detailed step-by-step as well as commentary on all of the parts used.
Here are some highlights:
Cutting the fabric for (what I thought was) the hoop skirt. It ended up being more of a gathered hoop bandeau?
Embroidering the first flower.
Positioning CPX and Neopixels!
Everything embroidered, all Neopixels connected! Only thing left to do is the capacitive touch connections.
- Chiffon (2-3 yds)
- Non-conductive Thread
- Embroidery Thread
- Conductive Thread (90 ft)
- Adafruit Neopixels (15)
- Adafruit Circuit Playground Express
- Lithium Ion Polymer Rechargeable Battery + Charger
- Clear Nail Polish
- Sewing Needle
- Embroidery Needle
- Embroidery Hoop
- Sewing Machine (optional)
I guess I have a lot to unpack here, so I’ll talk about the important points first and then you can skip my rambling if you so desire.
The dress can actually take 6 capacitive touch areas/LED patterns. The Neopixels use 3 pins (I used A1 for data), which leaves pins A2 through A7 available for capacitive touch connections. Originally, I was going to use all 6 pins and program 6 different LED interactions, but honestly I ran out of time, so I went with 4 instead. The project overall took much longer than I had anticipated, even though all of the steps in themselves were relatively simple. Everything was just too time consuming.
I’m extremely torn between meticulously planning out every detail of my project, versus just going for it. This project started out with a detailed plan, but quickly devolved into chaos. I generally feel that I work better with no plan and the freedom to simply create, but I definitely ran into issues with my freely high expectations. Going forward, I think the key is to compartmentalize the sections of the project where I can wing it, and the sections that should be written out in full. For example, with the making of the dress base, I was much happier just trying whatever and seeing if I liked it, but I was a mess trying to sew on the LEDs with no plan (don’t worry, I did eventually draw out my diagram).
I regret that in the end, the code was not as complex as I wanted it to be. I originally experimented with a bunch of different things – I remember you (Olivia!) proposing that the dress could maybe “miss” being touched, and I tested out the concept of the dress making a hopeful little chirrup when it hadn’t been touched for a period of time, but I eventually decided that it may be annoying for a wearer, especially if they’re just wearing it for themselves. I want to further explore more complex code and interactions, but I also have reasonable expectations for myself, being completely new to the world of wearable tech. While the final code is not complex, I think it’s effective, and the testing I went through definitely helped me gain more knowledge into all the functionalities of MakeCode.
Now for the other stuff. I had at least 4 – 5 breakdowns while making this, I think just because of the stress of pandemic plus retail work plus end-of-semester pressure. Even with the extension, I felt like I didn’t have enough time to really execute this dress the way I wanted to. Ideally, I would have spent an entire month just embroidering in bits and pieces, taking my time and enjoying the process. Instead, I did all of the embroidery over 4 days, embroidering for 8 hours a day. I felt like my eyes were going to pop out of my skull. Surely, I thought, surely the embroidery would be the most time consuming part of the process, but when I started sewing on the Neopixels I nearly lost my mind. They are just so incredibly finicky, I had to redo many of them several times in order to get them working consistently. Every night I stayed up until 2 or 3 AM just sewing, and went to bed crying because I felt like it was impossible to get it all done. (I also burned the absolute **** out of myself while cooking around this time, and that meant I lost a few days of work because I literally couldn’t use my hand. That was a fun breakdown.) When I finally sewed the last pixel, I felt so much relief that it was over.
All of this is in good humor (or at least, that millenial/gen-z sort of depressing humor), and none of this is to say that I would never use Neopixels again, or that any of this affected my opinion of wearable technology. Overall, making this dress (and this course as a whole) only increased my love for fashion and tech. Right after this post, I plan on dismantling the dress so that I can re-use the components in another high fantasy dress, but this time I’m going to take my sweet time, and I think it will result in something I really adore.
Cooper, J. (2012). Sewable Neopixels. Retrieved from https://learn.adafruit.com/flora-rgb-smart-pixels/overview