What I learnt while designing GlowStitch LEDs

A project log for GlowStitch LED Strips

LED strips for soft circuits, paper circuits and more!

stephSteph 11/08/2023 at 22:054 Comments

This blog is a peek into the success, failures and learnings while developing GlowStitch, machine sewable LED strips. My iterative design process for this product have spanned several years and I’ve evolved my skills and the product with it over time. Here’s what I’ve learned – enjoy.

These are crowdfunding now!  Check out the campaign page.

A history of prototypes, samples and test jigs for GlowStitch LEDs.

GlowStitch LEDs were borne out of a frustration with the way we do wearable technology. Wearable Tech is one of my passion areas, and is often an underdeveloped space due to needing a rare skills pairing of textiles and electronics. I’ve always been interested in making and teaching in this space, especially the idea that you can add some magic to something you can wear. Get a chance to be creative and learn some great technical skills too. However, the current tools in this space are limited. The Lilypad range has been a staple in this space for years, offering a huge variety of tools and capabilities, if you have the patience to stitch by hand with conductive thread.

Lilypad Electronics Range - A wearable tech staple.

Unfortunately, I do not have the patience. I’ve taught many workshops with Lilypad range parts and while hand stitching is a great skill, it can also be tedious and very tricky for younger learners. I found it to be prohibitively time consuming for the scale of projects I wanted to make. I needed something that was machine sewable.

And so, back in 2020, I created my first set of GlowStitch prototypes. I went through the process of trying a range of different flex PCBs, and to my delight, found a type that worked fantastic. I created my first project, a bag that lit up when you closed the snap fastener. After running many workshops with paper circuits and copper tape, it was a delight to start using conductive fabric tape instead too. It held strong, didn’t crack or break and had great conductivity. I could use meters of it and still power an LED strip right at the end! The possibilities were starting to grow.

First set of GlowStitch samples on the sewing machine.

I also realised I could use these LEDs for not just wearable tech, but a whole range of crafting projects. You can paint over them, do paper circuits, add them to pop up books, put them in cosplay props, add them to artworks, a whole range things that work best with ultra-thin parts.

A painting with GlowStitch LEDs.

I started to make my first run of samples, and posted online asking “Would anyone like to receive a free sample of machine sewable LEDs in exchange for feedback and project pictures?”. I received over a hundred messages and whittled the list down to 30 people to receive samples. My first learning was that this was a waste of time.

While customer validation is an important step, only 4 out of the 30 got back to me with feedback. Some got lost in the mail, others came back to me as returned to sender. Some people I lost contact with as they deleted their twitter accounts. Most just wanted something for free and didn’t respond back to my messages. Next time, I would ask only trusted friends, give due dates for feedback and even consider paying a product tester for thoughtful feedback. From there, I gave more samples to local friends and experts and gathered a whole range of great feedback which fed into the product. At this stage, I started to grow my two pages of instructions out to be much bigger.

My final instructions, after three iterations and lots of feedback.

My audience for this product is hobbyists, educators, students, kids and crafters. I needed to cater to these audiences and have empathy with their usage of my product. What if they’d never done electronics before? What kinds of things do they need to know? My instructions evolved to include tips to work with conductive tape, circuit building diagrams, troubleshooting, definitions and example projects. I continued to refine these to have clear and colourful vector diagrams, always paired with bite sized text for easy reading.

While doing all of this, I work a full time role managing a Library Makerspace. I meet with this demographic daily, and often meet people who do not want to pick up a project with too much complexity. If something looks too hard, it probably is. I’ve purposely designed GlowStitch LEDs as an easy entryway to electronics: No coding and no soldering. Just tape, LEDs and batteries. Keep it simple.

The final LEDs and battery holders.

After posting it online, I was introduced to the idea of crowdfunding the project through Crowd Supply. A website that specialises in launching electronics products, Crowd Supply helps you along the way and covers backer fulfilment, posting the orders directly to customers on your behalf. I am grateful for signing up for this as they started me off with a whole range of great information, and are good to bounce ideas off. In these first set of conversations, I settled on a brand name: GlowStitch LEDs.

One of the disappointing bits of information they included was the presence of a 25% tariff to ship things from China to the USA, a legacy from Trump era leadership. I had not realised this would be a problem as I’ve always shipped from China to my home country in Australia. For about six months, I researched and reached out to alternative factories across Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan to try and avoid the tariff. I ordered samples and found all the factories I contacted to have an inferior product or poor communication skills. I wasted a lot of time and money doing this (flex PCBs are expensive in small batches!!) and decided to go with Elecrow factory in China as my manufacturer. I’ve been super impressed with the quality of service and they also allow sale of products through their own great online store. If you can sell through the factory, there’s no shipping or duty cost which is ideal.

At this point I was excited with how much potential the project had. I could have classroom packs, basic kits, and dev kits. I could have all kinds of LED colours, power supplies, strip sizes… the variation possibilities went on. The myriad of things to make was dizzying, and I had trouble settling on what was the right product to start with. I also explored making USB C power supplies for a few months, LED rings and a large sheet that contained a bit of everything with beautiful artwork. While it was fun, it was not needed and a waste of time. I should have narrowed my focus and used minimum viable product thinking: What is the most minimal product that I can make, giving the most value to the user?

Large GlowStitch sheet with a bit of everything. The problem: Too pretty to cut up!

I also went into detail doing product tests: What happens if they go in the washing machine? How many stitches can they take before breaking? How many flexes before breaking? I created a range of experiments, test swatches and even turned my 3D printer into a 3 point bend tester before I was satisfied that the product was good enough. Of course, flex PCBs aren’t ‘rugged’ by any stretch of the imagination, but the product is fit for the scope advertised. You can find blogs on all these tests on my Hackaday project page.

My 3D printer as a 3 point bend testing machine. GlowStitch LEDs last approx. 40,000 flex cycles while machine sewn, which took 16 hrs of bending to test at the speed in the gif above.

I settled on colour cycling LED strips as they were rare on the market right now, a great way to add a rainbow of colours to a project without doing any coding. I also created single LED white strips, which are perfect for adding stars. Pair them both for a starry, twinkling result. I also created a tape compatible AAA battery holder and coin cell battery holder. Currently, in Australia, we have new coin cell battery product safety legislation. Coin cell batteries are a swallowing hazard and can easily kill a young child if swallowed. I designed my coin cell battery to have a screw at the base so the battery can only be extracted with a tool. I debated removing this battery option entirely for safety reasons, but decided to keep it in as it’s too convenient for projects that require small sizes.

Coin cell battery holder with a screw, a safety feature.

For such a simple product, I didn’t realise there would be so many regulations. For starters, buying barcodes and the steps to mark your product with CE / UKCA to sell to European countries. It used to just be CE marking, but with Brexit came UKCA. I evolved my instructions again, this time to include multilingual instructions at the start to include English, German, French, Italian and Spanish : The minimum requirements for CE / UKCA. This forced me to make my instructions the most minimum, which was great. The customer doesn’t need to know about parallel or in-series circuits first, all they need to know is to connect all the positives and all the negatives. That’s it! You can also create wordless, diagram instructions which can also meet this requirement, which I will do for the sold separately parts of GlowStitch.

Some of the parts that I’m most proud of with my product are the instructions and ease of use. I also designed test points on the LED sheets that make it super easy to light up, just place the battery holder on top. Adding test points is also a great way to avoid 'separate PCB' fees from the factory as it's now all one circuit.

Look mum, no alligator clips! Test the sheet by placing the battery on the test points.

The product is also open source – While this will likely result in clones on the market, it’s the best way to keep things moving and grow this space. I’m not aspiring to become a CEO or have employees, I just want to help people build great stuff. You can design your own modules with the files on my Github and grow the ecosystem of these parts if you wish. This product is registered with the Open Source Hardware Association certification process too.

One of my favourite projects I’ve made with GlowStitch LEDs has been this rainbow fish pencil case. Inspired by the rainbow fish children’s book, it’s made with 3D printed scales on fabric which diffuse the light to make the scales sparkle. It’s a real piece of magic.

The rainbow fish pencil case: GlowStitch LEDs below 3D printed fabric scales. Thanks to mum, the sewing expert, for putting this together so well.

If you’re interested in the product dev space, my final piece of advice is to learn a good vector software. It’s a core skill that I used in just about every aspect of this project, from designing the circuit boards and instructions to the product packaging. Even if you’re not traditionally “creative” you can still lay the key information down and send the file to a designer who can breathe some style into it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my roller coaster of learnings, many of which came down to the MVP (minimum viable product) mantra, ‘keep it simple’. If you’re interested in following what’s next for GlowStitch, you can sign up for updates on my pre-launch campaign page.

I’m going to launch the campaign in the next month, and I’d really appreciate any shares if you found this blog helpful. I've put so much time, love and effort in this product and am delighted to finally launch.

The final GlowStitch Kit.

These are crowdfunding now!  Check out the campaign page.


Marian Minar wrote 11/09/2023 at 07:27 point

Thank for your story. I copied your story to my daughter who likes painting for inspiration.

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Steph wrote 11/09/2023 at 09:25 point

Thanks so much Marian, cheers!! 

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Alice Chan_Elecrow wrote 11/09/2023 at 02:02 point

Amazing project and look forward to seeing its launch  soon!

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Steph wrote 11/09/2023 at 03:33 point

Thanks so much Alice!!

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