Technique: How to handmake (conductive) fabric

Introduction:

This exploration came about from the need to have more options with
conductive fabric in small quantities, since the industrial
manufacturers of conductive fabric usually sell large quantities mostly
for commercial purposes. This project seeks to understand and learn how
methods of manufacturing fabric by hand could be applied to create
conductive fabric. Here I will focus on three methods: fusing, painting
and weaving. They not only serve to make yards of conductive fabric but
also to create soft circuits with a nice design layout.

The explanation of each method will include the technical
information, materials, steps and examples. Information on resources are
located at the end of the post.

Method 1: Fusing fabric

Explanation of the method:

This method is based on the fusion of two or more kinds of fabric
through heat. It could also include other materials like wireform, metal
grid, stencil film, foil, bondaweb, parchment paper, mountboard, and
anything else that could work nicely on your fabric project. In my
experiments I combined conductive and non-conductive fabric.

Technical information:

  • Required tools:
  • Iron machine

Note: Although this technique could be applied by using the
soldering iron, I focused on using the common “homie” iron. In case you
want to learn how to use the soldering iron with synthetic fabric, I
recommend checking the book Fusing fabric by Margaret Beal. Be sure you
have all the necessary equipment and that your workspace meets all the
safety conditions.

  • Required materials:
  • It is highly conductive: it has 3 metallized layers plated Nylon fabric.
  • Surface resistance: < 0.02 Ohms
  • It could be sewn or ironed on (for this technique we take advantage of the iron feature)
  • Non-conductive fabric: synthetic fabric, acrylic felt and/or natural fabrics.
  • Conductive fabric: Conductive Metallized Nylon Fabric by Shieldex.
  • Required resources:
  • Laser cutter (Under the section “Resources” you will find companies that offer laser cutting services)
  • Design software (Adobe Illustrator)
  • Design file

Note: If you do not have much experience with illustrator or just
want free vectors, you can find nice icons on www.thenounproject.com

  • Required skills:
  • Design skills: Basic / Intermediate
  • Technology: Basic
  • Sewing: None

Manufacturing steps:

  • Step 1: Create a pattern or design layout on Illustrator. All elements could be connected to each other or separate.
  • Step 2: In illustrator the following settings are required for the
    laser cutter. The settings depend on the features you need for your
    project. Click here to download the instructions. For the pieces I laser cut, I just used the 0.01 red border because I needed solid forms.
  • Step 3: Bring your file to the laser cutting venue (I went to OCAD’s
    Rapid Prototype Office). First they will check that your file works
    well. The laser cutting time will depend on each project. In my case, I
    did two pieces of 8 x 8 inches and it took less than five minutes in
    total.
  • Step 4: Finally, extend the piece of non-conductive fabric on a
    table, turn on the iron machine, and iron the conductive fabric on top
    of the non-conductive fabric until they are stuck together.

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Examples of this technique in use:

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Experiments:
I used the same kind of conductive fabric on all experiments but I varied the types of non-conductive fabric.

Experiment 1: On stiff fabric. The two kinds of fabric got stuck together easily.

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Experiment 2: On felt. The good thing about felt is that it is very easy to sew and glue.

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Experiment 3: On cotton. I cut an old T-shirt and it worked nicely. The
conductive fabric looks like one piece, it actually gives the impression
it was printed on the fabric.

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Experiment 4: On tul. It was the most delicate to iron but it worked very well.

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Testing the method:

Check out this video testing one of the experiments of this method!

Note: For these four experiments I used the same type of conductive fabric, so the LED worked well in every test.

Method 2: Hand painting fabric

Explanation of the method:

This method is based on painting fabric. In my experiments I painted
non-conductive fabric with conductive paint through a stencil. The paint
I used is not specifically for fabrics so it may not last after
washing. I found some alternatives in case you do not have conductive
paint for fabrics:

  • Cover the paint with transparent nail polish. The conductivity of the paint may reduce.
  • Make your own conductive paint for fabric! Instructions here! (Remember to replace the regular paint with fabric paint).

Technical information:

  • Require tools:
  • Stencil: I designed my own stencil and then laser cut it on a thin sheet of acrylic.
  • Brush or sponge
  • Required materials:
  • Conductive paint
  • Non-conductive fabric
  • Required skills:
  • Design skills: Basic / Intermediate
  • Technology: Basic
  • Painting: None

Manufacturing steps: (steps 1 to 3 are the same as method 1)

  • (steps 1 to 3 are the same as method 1)

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  • Step 4: Finally, extend the piece of non-conductive fabric on a
    table, put the stencil on top and paint! Paint may take approx between
    15 to 45 minutes to be completely dry (it will depend on the
    non-conductive fabric).

Examples of this technique in use:

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Experiments: I used the same kind of conductive fabric on all experiments but I varied the types of non-conductive fabric.

  • Experiment 1: On stiff cotton fabric. Since the fabric is very stiff
    the manufacturing results were good. This kind of fabric might work
    well for structures.

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Experiment 2: On felt. It worked but it does not look completely satisfactory and it took almost 45min to dry.

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Experiment 3: On cotton. This paint is too dense for this fabric. Now that it is dry, the fabric looks wavy.

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Experiment 4: On tul. It was the most delicate to paint and the result
is not completely satisfactory. Unless the effect you are looking for is
meant to be “messy”, I wouldn’t recommend to use this method on tul.

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Testing the method:

Click on each link to check out the videos!

Method 3: weaving conductive fabric

Technical information:

  • Required tools:
  • Loom frame or a sheet or frame of wood with nails on two opposite edges.
  • Hammer (only if you do not have a loom-frame already)
  • Comb
  • A wood stick (6 x 0.75 inches): It is where the thread will be rolled for weaving.
  • Required materials:
  • Conductive thread: I used this
  • Non-conductive thread (thickness will depend on your project)
  • Required skills:
  • Design skills: None
  • Technology: Basic
  • Weaving: Basic

Manufacturing steps:

  • Step 1: If you don’t have a loom frame, you can make your own. I
    used a sheet of wood and hammered nails on two opposite edges (15 nails
    on each). There is 1cm of distance between each nail. You can change the
    distance and quantity of nails depending on your project.  There are
    other ways of making a loom, click here to see another simple alternative.

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Step 2: Attach the conductive thread to the frame, like this:

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Step 3: Roll all threads (conductive and non-conductive) on the wood
stick. For the samples I used almost 2 meters of thread, but the length
will depend on your project.

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Step 4: Make knots with each two or more strings on one side, which will be where you will begin weaving.

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Step 5: Start weaving! Pass the stick with thread between the strings on
the frame. You can alternate or tie them. Try to be consistent on the
way you pass the thread among strings for better results on your final
piece.

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Step 6: Once you have finished, make knots with each two strings (the
way you did in step 4) or you can use additional thread to make these
knots

 

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Experiments: I used the same kind of conductive thread on all experiments but I varied the types of non-conductive thread.

  • Experiment 1: Conductive thread with one type of non-conductive
    (white embroidery thread). It was easy to work with these threads since
    both are thick enough.

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Experiment 2: Conductive thread with two three  non-conductive threads
(cherry and pink sewing threads, and white embroidery thread only for
the edge knots)

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Testing the method:

  • Experiment 1:

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Experiment 2:

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Resources:

Where to find laser cutting services in Toronto:

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Note: Final prices may vary on each project but rates range
between CAD$ 1.00 to CAD$ 1.50 per minute. Some companies charge almost
CAD$ 3.00 per minute when a project is needed immediately.

  • Where to find conductive fabric, conductive thread and conductive paint in small quantities:

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Notes:

Usually online stores have better prices than venues but shipping rates tend to make products more expensive.

Canada Robotix sell all materials mentioned above with the exception of conductive fabric.

  • Other materials and tools:

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Sources:

  • Beal, Margaret. Fusing Fabric. London: Batsford, 2005. Print.
  • “Fusing Fabric with Margaret Beal.” Fusing Fabric with Margaret Beal. Margaret Beal. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <http://www.fusingfabric.co.uk/>.
  • Hein, Gisela. “Introduction, Working Materials, Work Procces, Technical Instructions.” Printing Fabric by Hand: Beginning Techniques. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1972. 6 – 10. Print.
  • “Instructables: Home.” Instructables.com. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <http://www.instructables.com/>.
  • “Material ConneXion.” Material ConneXion. A SANDOW COMPANY. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <http://www.materialconnexion.com/>.
  • Plath, Iona. Craft of Handweaving. New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1972. Print.
  • Singer, Margo. “Blockprinting and Stencilling.” Textile Surface Decoration: Silk and Velvet. London: A&C Limited, 2007. 42 – 59. Print.
  • Wisbrun, Laurie. “Hand Printing.” Mastering the Art of Fabric Printing and Design. United States: Chronicle LLC, 2012. 115 – 146. Print.


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