These days adding LED lights to art is easier than ever and doesn’t require a degree in electrical engineering. Below are my favorite kits I use in STEM outreach with teens to LED ALL THE THINGS! I have seen all of them used in elaborate art projects too.
Conductive copper tape is my #1 favorite activity to use with STEM outreach. It’s simple to use, works with a variety of flat materials, and has easy cleanup. The only downside is the tape works best with straight lines, curves are difficult. Also, (as with most stickers) they don’t stick well after being removed once or twice.
There are several excellent kits out there such as Circuit Stickers from Chibitronics, which comes with an instruction booklet you could also download. Materials and detailed instructions can also be found on Sparkfun or Instructables, with many other copper tape circuit projects for inspiration.
Conductive ink is another fun activity, but it’s messier than copper tape. Ink has the advantage that it can be drawn in any shape you’d like. However it is brittle and may crack over time.
Bare Conductive is the most common conductive ink, and it is simple to use. They have cute kits to get you started, shown above. Sparkfun also lists conductive ink instructions and projects further down the same page.
Conductive thread is another fun way to add LED’s to flexible textiles such as cloth, felt, or leather. This is how many cosplayers incorporate LEDs into their designs. Brown Dog Gadgets has an affordable starter kit, as does Adafruit.
And don’t worry about electrocuting yourself with your clothes, all the projects run on less than 5 volts and are powered by watch batteries. In case you need a reference for how little power 5 volts is, remember putting your tongue on a 9 volt battery when you were young? No? Uh huh, sure you didn’t. Anyway, it’s less power than half that, so you won’t feel a thing even if you have a stray current or two.
Microcontrollers – Programmable Patterns
If you want to take your LED madness to the next level, add a microcontroller. It’s basically a mini-computer, and with it you can program patterns, add sensors, etc. The limit is only your imagination. Flora (shown above) by Adafruit is custom designed for wearable electronics, and they have tutorials on their website to get you started. But you could use any microcontroller you like, such as an Arduino or a Raspberry Pi.
Adafruit has a video blog called Wearable Wednesdays, hosted by Becky Stern. She has a seemingly endless supply of project ideas to inspire your next creative outburst.
One of the most stunning recent examples of LEDs and art was Lupita Nyongo’s Zac Posen dress, worn for a Force Awakens charity auction. The dress was programmed by girls from Made With Code, an Google initiative to encourage more girls to learn computer programming. Most LED dresses too gaudy for my tastes, but Zac Posen’s dress is elegant and modern. I want it so hard.