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The Electric Flapper Dress

A sound-reactive dress with DIY fiber optic fabric

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Our audio theater group had been booked to perform at an SF convention with a 1920s "retro futurism" theme. I immediately thought of a dress with a fiber optic skirt that would be sound reactive and also do patterns.

We all know what happened in 2020. The convention was postponed and the project shelved. I don't know if the event will take place this year or not, but I decided that either way I should get this finished and reclaim some space for other projects.

The project is partly based on the Instructable linked below.



I am building the electronics on top of a thrifted dress. 

The "brain" of the project is a Circuit Playground Bluefruit. I'm starting with the code for the No-Solder LED Disco Tie at Adafruit and making changes to suit my project. 

The sound reactive code will be used on stage, and I'll have the rainbow chase engaged for other times. Yes, I'd also like to have some other patterns, but right now I just want to get the dress together and working! I've also added a mode to turn the lights to 0,0,0. Not exactly off, but if I'm in a situation where it's going to be a distraction I can easily shut it down.

I'm also thinking of adding a tactile button so I can cycle through modes without having to get out the phone.

Thank you to everyone who has liked and followed this project. I hope I don't disappoint you!

  • 1 × Circuit Playground Bluefruit
  • 2 × 100 m Fiber optic cable I didn't use nearly that much, though. I still needed over 100 meters.
  • 1 × 5 volt WS2811 addressable light strand There were 50 in the strand, and I ended up using 22 for my project.

  • Finished!

    Julie Barrett06/07/2021 at 20:01 0 comments

    The dress is done! I still want to go back and adjust the software and add more patterns. Other work is calling, so that's going to have to do it for now. Here's a quick video I put together.

    If I were to do this again, I would want to use a different set of lights. I'm not sure what I would use, but there are more and more addressable lights hitting the market, so I hope there will be better choices in the near future. I would also distress the fibers *before* I weave them into the tulle.

    All in all, I think this will look pretty good on stage. My phone camera just isn't good at picking up the lights in video mode. I'm crossing my fingers that I'll have an opportunity to wear it before the year is out. 

    All in all, it was a fun plague year project, and I did learn a lot in the process. 

    Thanks to the gang here for your support and suggestions!

  • Hello, I Must Be Going!

    Julie Barrett05/17/2021 at 21:29 0 comments

    Family business has slowed down my progress, but hey, it's all good. Well, mostly. I lost some pictures in a phone meltdown (almost literal!), but I think there's enough here to give  sense of what I've been doing.

    Last time I mentioned spray painting the bulb housings. I painted them metallic silver (to reflect back inside) then followed up with flat black. The flat black didn't stick very well (it's been WET here in North Texas), so I followed that up with old-fashioned acrylic paint and a brush. That worked out great!

    Next, I fashioned a pocket (not pictured) that snaps to the dress to hold the battery pack and processor. I took the additional step of making a felt sleeve (again, not shown) for the battery pack to keep things from bumping and scratching. For my next trick, I added a 3-pin JST connector so I can easily remove the processor. And yes, I do have a picture of that!

    My next step was to try the dress on again and measure the length of the mesh/fiber optic layer, as it was much longer than the overskirt. I ended up cutting about five inches off, then further distressed the fibers. (I may have to take off another inch. I'll see when it's all done.)

    Next, I made the sash and bow. Here it is, just all kind of pinned and clipped together on the dress form.

    I'm happy that at least the edges of the skirt show up in full light. It still shows up best in low light. (And I need to steam out some wrinkles in that bodice!)

    What's left is mostly fiddly bits. I need to add hooks and eyes to the sash, and attach the bow. Then I need to finish off the bodice overlay. The raw edges need to be bound and I need to add snaps and hook/eyes in a few spots. 

    A couple of weeks ago we were watching the remastered version of "Animal Crackers," and the nagging thing about this dress finally came to the front of my brain. I knew I'd seen something similar before!

    I would have preferred that lace, but I can't have everything.

  • Now I'm Getting Somewhere!

    Julie Barrett04/17/2021 at 22:44 0 comments

    (Update 4/19: I'm taking a short break in order to take care of some family business. I also realized that I had forgotten to spray paint the bulb housings, so that will be next. I can work that around the family stuff. The plan is to paint them silver, then follow up with black. I hope to have an update on 4/25 or 4/30.)

    The fiber/netting bits are mostly finished. The top I ordered seems to work. Pardon the messy work area and the wires, but this is what it looks like now.

    I need to dress the top up a bit. Maybe some pearls and/or some extra lace. But for now, it works. I also like the idea of a contrasting belt to break up the black. (Another update: After I moved the belt up a couple of inches, it looks like the original lace overlay for the bodice is going to work. Whee!)

    Tomorrow I'll try it on and figure out where to cut the tulle/fiber to length. 

    Here's a video:

  • Distressing Fibers...And a Setback

    Julie Barrett04/14/2021 at 18:37 0 comments

    I may have been a little too enthusiastic in distressing the fibers. The netting couldn't take it in places. I think its going to be okay, particularly since I have a lace overlay for the skirt. This picture shows about half of the fibers (from the bottom up) distressed. It definitely helps.

    I made the skirt next. There's no picture because I still need to sew off the end of the elastic, but am waiting to do that once I'm certain I have the skirt length correct, since I have to shorten it from the waist end. 

    Next up was the sash for the dress. And - horror of horrors! - after all of the measuring, the belt wasn't going to cover everything. Today's task was to vastly shorten the distance between the lights and the netting.

    This is much better, but may still not be enough. If it isn't, I plan to replace the lace overlay with a satin top I'll be sewing from a vintage pattern. The top is designed to add a sash at the bottom, so maybe it will do the job. I may also have to move the light belt up an inch or two. All of that mess will be covered by lights and fabric, so I'm not worried.

    And this is exactly why I thrifted a dress. For $3 I can fail and not feel a lot of pain.

    This has definitely been a learning experience!

  • Attaching the LEDs to Fiber Optics

    Julie Barrett04/03/2021 at 22:52 6 comments

    This is the trickiest bit, and I got it done!

    I made bundles of about ten fibers each. Some had a bit less, some more. These pictures are of a test piece I made with some short fiber optic cables and a single light. I wanted to be sure I could do this reliably before I potentially ruined something.

    As you'll see in a moment, the diameter of the light is larger than the diameter of the bundle. What to do? The original instructions mentioned using electrical tape. I live in Texas, and can't imagine electrical tape holding all of this together. I expect it would get all melty.

    The other option that came to mind was heat shrink tubing. But what to do with the different diameters? My husband and I sat down and came up with a solution. It's not pretty, but then, this is all hidden, so pretty is secondary to something that works.

    The first thing I did was to expand one end of the heat shrink tubing using needle nose pliers.

    Now the tubing will just slip over the end of the bulb.

    Next, I seal that end with some hot glue and then hit it with a shot or two from the duster cannister to help with the cooling.

    (Pardon the messy work table. And yes, that is a small hand weight. They work great for holding fabric in place. As you attach the lights, things may get slippery, and a weight is useful. And yes, the alligator clips punched holes in the tubing. I just did this for the pictures.)

    Then I double-checked that the ends of the fiber optic bundle were even, and then slipped the end of the bundle through the tubing and held it tight against the light as I shrank the tubing with a lighter. This has to be done with care, but it's worth the time it takes. When I was finished, I sealed the other end with more hot glue.

    Hey, I told you it wasn't pretty! After everything dried I tugged on the fibers to test the connections. At this point I could shove a stray fiber back in and hit it with some more hot glue.

    And here it is!

    For those who prefer their pictures moving:

    Next is distressing the fiber optics and finishing the overskirt.

  • It's A Light Belt!

    Julie Barrett03/30/2021 at 18:34 0 comments

    This step gets me to the top of the "hump" in the project!

    I ended up ordering a snap setter attachment - and compatible snaps - for my bench press grommet setter, and boy, did that move things along! I had a couple of missteps, but they will not be seen.

    My first task was to add snaps to the belt. 

    Those white bits are chalk marks. 

    Next, I put the lights back in place and marked off where I would insert grommets into the belt. It turned out to be one grommet for every two lights. I can always add more grommets and snaps if I need to, but there's no use in adding more unless it's necessary.

    Here's a video of the lights in action. The belt is a bit saggy because the dress form has collapsed a bit from my measurements. The main thing is that it fits me. 

    My next job is to get the fiber optic/tulle "fabric" in place.

  • The Lighting!

    Julie Barrett03/28/2021 at 19:00 0 comments

    I've pinned the belt into position and placed the lights. It works!

    Next, I tried it on (ouch! The pins!) just to make sure everything was where it ought to be.  I have a dress form padded out to approximate my figure, but you know the old saying about measuring twice and cutting once? I tried it on once before the lights were in place, and once after, just to be sure.

    The silver power bank you can sort of see at the top is the current (pardon the pun) power source.  It's 2600 mAH, and so far in every test it has exceeded my expectations as far as the length of time it will provide power to the lights.

    I  spent yesterday working with the CircuitPython program that runs the lights. I'm far better at sewing than I am at programming. My husband is a software engineer, but I've been determined to go as far as I can with this on my own. This means I've borked the software several times (yes, I have backups!), but it's all a learning experience, right?

    I do have one other method of mounting the lights that I want to test before I finally put everything in place. I've been waffling between the two methods, but I'm not sure the second will hold the weight. I guess I won't know for certain until I test it. (UPDATE: It didn't work out.)

    I leave you with a picture of The Boss performing quality control tests on the lighting. I can assure you that she has tested the fiber optic strands many times and found them wiggly and amusing.

  • Progress!

    Julie Barrett03/24/2021 at 21:18 0 comments

    At this point I have the fiber optic fabric woven and I've almost finished the lace overlays for the dress. The "base" of the dress is something I picked up at a thrift store. $3 for the win! I wanted something strong enough to be able to hold the weight of the lights, Circuit Playground, and a battery without sagging. I didn't think the under dress in the Butterick pattern would be up to holding the weight. And hey, one less thing to have to construct!

    The lace skirt will help diffuse the fiber optics. I originally planned to leave the lace skirt overlay off, but once I saw the fiber optics behind the lace  I knew I had to have it. It will also add a more finished look to the outfit, which is important.

    I made a swatch of fiber optic fabric for testing purposes using a Gemma with the Neopixel strand test to drive the light. As you can see, I've just pinned the lace into place on top of the dress to get an idea of how it would look. 

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Mike Szczys wrote 03/29/2021 at 15:02 point

Cool project! I've done some fiber optic projects before and found that making the interface between the optics and the LEDs to be a bit fiddly. Looking forward to seeing how you do that, please post details when you get that far :-D

  Are you sure? yes | no

Julie Barrett wrote 03/30/2021 at 19:00 point

Thanks! I'm just about to that point now.

  Are you sure? yes | no

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