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Making Light is Easier than Making Shirts

Actually, most things are easier than making shirts. Shirts are seriously annoying creatures. However, the point of this little demo is that every sewing room needs good lighting, and good lighting is something you can make with far less skill than you need for most of sew-land. Curious yet?
Great. You’re going to need to order a couple of things from – a reel of LED lights, a 120V to 12V power transformer, and a pack or two of these neato connector-doosies. (Assuming you do not solder, which, indeed, I don’t. Yet. But I might try to learn on the next batch.) I was ordering enough to make two LED panels at once, so I got two reels of LEDs, two transformers, and three packs of the connectors.

Oh, yes, we’re going to be making a cheap-o version of those stupidly expensive, low power usage, never-burn-out-on-you LED panel lights.

Let me back up a second: I didn’t set out to be all, “Hey, wow! Look at me! I’m so down with my inner geek!” Through the mysterious workings of Murphy and his gosh-darned law, the second I finished a new worktable for the garage three of four florescent tubes that lit the garage died, rendering the workspace unworkable. Again. So what I set out to do was replace the florescents (which I hate) with some decent track lighting. But I ran into a helpful fellow at my local DIY (the one that starts with an L, not to point fingers or anything), and made the mistake of saying “yes” when he asked if he could help. He felt very strongly that I did not want track lighting, I wanted new florescent fixtures, I just didn’t know it yet.  After 20 minuts of “help” I said something along the lines of, “You win. You’re right, my plans will never work. I can’t do it. I’m going to go home and slit my wrists now.” and he said, “Is there anything else I can help you with?” I’m not even kidding.

But I was hanging out with an old friend the other day whose old friend made a ridiculously cool LED thing, so I did a little googling for LED panels and found out the were crazy expensive, but then I did a little more googling to figure out just how much of an electronics wizard one needs to be to handle the basics.

Not much, it turns out. If you have the basic skills to make a shirt (able to use measuring tape, able to use scissors, able to follow destructions, able to do fiddly small-muscle activity like ripping seams), you should be fine. ;)

You’ll need a few more things that you can pick up at an art store. Here’s the full spread of supplies and tools for the basic panel:

tools and supplies
The tools and supplies for the project. Clockwise, from top left: Scissors, connector doosies, transformer, reel of LED strip, ever-useful multi-tool, wire stripers, measuring tape, SILVER SHARPIE OF DOOM (BWAHAHAHA). Center: Wire Nuts, 14-20 guage. Beneath: 2 sheets corrugated plastic; one white, one clear. Not shown: four corks and a razor knife.

According to the directions on the outside of the static-safe bad the LEDs came in, the first step is to test them and make sure they work. This seems pretty sane to me. (Incidentally, that is the sum total of direction that came with the parts.)

business end of transformer
Unless things have changed suddenly, the transformer shipped with two intimidatingly bare wires…
wires at center of LED reel
Do not be fooled by the convenient looking plug end on the LED reel. There are two wires (one on either side) at the center of the reel. You need these.
connecting wires makes light
Fiddle both wires on the reel around to the same side. Plug in the transformer, and carefully touch the black transformer wire to the black LED wire. Do the same with the red ones.

I prefer to do this in the traditional delicate and careful “mating crickets” sort of manner. I know just enough about electronics to not want to touch the bare wires with my fingers or anything metal. (Side note: since then a 3 LED set in to my library-boss, who was far too enthused and has taken far too many years of electrical engineering – he promptly pulled out a 9 volt battery and two paper-clips, and MacGyvered the lights into glow-i-rific glory in a shockingly hands on sort of way. 12 volts apparently can’t hurt you too badly. But, seriously, I fear it when electrons all work together. They can’t be up to anything good…)

If the lights glow, everything is awesome. If they don’t, make sure you matched the wire colors and the copper parts are making fill contact. (Also, I found that jiggling the plug was a necessary step. Go figs.) If things will not glow, contact the seller – something is defective.

Ok, got light? Awesome! Let’s make an LED panel.

marking panels
My math said that I had 6 connectors available per panel, which let me make 7 strips of light. I marked their strip locations at several places across the width of the white plastic panel, because crooked lights will make me insane.
safety first!
Unreel the LED strip carefully to get to the wire end. 

Oddly, I will be wearing gloves for most of the rest of the demo due to the adhesive on the LED strips – it seems to leave little welts where I come in contact with it. Ain’t that a hoot? I work in theater and fashion, and I can’t touch tape… Oh, painful irony.

Anyhoo, the first thing to make the electric work is to free up the wire end of the LED strip. I have mine here.

Striping the wires
You will probably need to strip the ends of these wires. Mine only had about 1/4″ of copper exposed, and I would really rather have 1/2″. If you do not have a wire stripers, use a knife to carefully cut through the plastic casing on the wires.

I have the good-luck of having inherited dad’s much-used wire stripers, with grease smudges on the handle and everything. They make it look like I know what I’m doing. Har!

bring wires together
Bring the same-colored wires from the led strip and the (unplugged) transformer together…
Now twist the led wire around the transformer wire.

In a slightly more perfect world, these wires would be of comparable size and we would twist them together. Als and alack, the LED wire is thinner and easier to twist.

wire nut attached
Now twist the wire nut on. Wire nuts are threaded on the inside, and follow the normal righty-tighty-left-loosey protocol.

Repeat with the other wire. I plugged the whole thing back in to make sure it worked. It did, so I continued…

cutting the strip
The LED strips are cuttable every three LEDs, where you see the double set of circles(connectors) with the little “cut here” line through them. Measure across your panel and cut on the closest one to the edge.
soldered join in strip
Sometimes, you will want to cut the strip at a juncture that has a great mass of solder on it. Don’t cut it there. You won’t be able to get the connector on. Instead, go back and cut a three-group off the other end of your strip, so that all that ugly isn’t where you need to cut the strip.

Next you will want to loosen the end of the connector-doosey. I tried to take a picture, but it is a two-handed process. On the side that is not smooth, you need to wrestle the over-bit-with-square-hole off of the square peg. You can use your thumbnail (though I ended up bleeding under my the nail within 5 connectors, and life was all suck after that), a thin screwdriver to pry up the overbit (good option), or, according to the online destructions, you can push in the central square and it will all work out. I had no luck with this….

inserting strip into connector
In a perfect world, you can now wriggle the connector onto the end of the strip. The connector has little plastic guides that the strip should slide underneath. This one won’t go.
prying up connector contact
If you have a stuck connector that the led strip just won’t go into, use a thin screw driver (like the one on my little multi-tool) to loosen the connector *slighly*. If you loosen too much, the connector won’t connect even after the little cover is closed and you will have open the cover and push the connector back down with the tool… Annoying.
proper connection
What you want is to get both little silver leads positioned snugly over both of the circles printed on the LED strip. Also muy importante, you will see a little ‘+’ on one side of the strip and a ‘-‘ on the other. The red side of the connector goes to the plus side of the strip.

At this point, you can close the connector. I left them all open until the end, in case anything needed a little more persuasion. ;)

sticking led strip down
Now you are ready to remove the paper backing from the strip and stick it to the plastic.
trimming the paper backing near the connector
I trimmed the paper backing right near the connector. I am not sure if this is what the manufacturer intended, but I just couldn’t see sliding a self-adhesive strip into the connector as a great plan for success…

At this juncture, the process becomes lather-rinse-repeat: keep measuring strips and joining connectors onto the ends, then sticking them down. When you hit the end of the last strip, simply trim it at the most convenient “cut here” line, and you’re done.

I had originally intended to join everything and test it before sticking things down, but I found that the little connectors aren’t intended for a huge amount of jostling in their open state. *shrug*

testing the panel
Plug that bad boy in! Finding the connectors that aren’t quite connecting will be fairly easy… ;)
loose connection
Find the connector that joins a working strip to a non-working strip. Gently wiggle the ends until you get light. (This is sooooo much easier than ripping out a seam that’s not working!)
tools and supplies for adding the top plastic panel
I want to add a top panel of translucent corrugated plastic to my lights, so that I don’t see those tiny little pin-pricks of LED in such glaring detail. Since I’m a classy broad, I happen to have some wine corks lying around. Use a razor-knife (or any other single-blade-cutty-tool) to cut them in half.
glueing cork in place
I glued the corks in place with E6000, mostly because I was out of both Liquid Nails and Welder.

Whoa! Hold up, there, cowgirl! You’re GLUEING the top thing on? Isn’t that kind of permanent?!

Yep. It is. The LED strip should last a good decade, and frankly, if something goes wrong I don’t really have the skills to fix it. The only skill I have that will possibly help me is the ability to wiggle the connectors, and the sides of the panels are open for that reason. Well, ok, the sides of the panels are open because I am too lazy to make a real box. I told mom it was to throw more light across the ceiling. I’m telling you it’s so I can jiggle connectors. I am just full of excuses, aren’t I? Tee hee…

completed panels
And there you go. The panels themselves weigh almost nothing. I mounted them to the ceiling with those little 3M Command Strips. I am a huge fan of those things.
lights on ceiling
And there was LIGHT!!!!!
I felt pretty cool about that. ;)

There seems to be a 4 second delay between when I flip the switch in the garage and when the light gets around to happening. I’m not sure exactly what’s going on there – could be the transformers take a second (though they didn’t inside), could be the impossibly goofy wiring in the garage. The old florescents used to come up in a second, but flicker for 5-20 minutes before coming up to full brightness. I am not sure I am more annoyed by the four-cound before full light.

The final cost per panel worked out around 35$, including the shipping costs that I couldn’t get out of. (What do you mean, no free super-saver shipping on the LED strips? Boo!)

I will be making more. Mom and I agreed that while we have more light than we had before, would would really like the work area to be BRIGHTER THAN THE SURFACE OF THE SUN. (Note to anyone under 30: feel all superior about your ability to see black stitches on black cloth without extra light while you still can… Because you will wake up on day, and it will just be gone.  And you’ll think it’s a fluke, like maybe you just got the perfect thread match this once. But no, sweetie, it’s your eyes. It is completely unfair that around the time you’re gaining the experience to sew really well, you’re losing the basic physical facilities to do what you do. Meh. More light! More light will save us!)


  1. Jaquelinne
    Jaquelinne October 9, 2012

    Brilliant! I’m moving soon and my sewing room will be in a dark basement. I think you just saved my bacon!

    • missa
      missa October 21, 2012

      Yay! I would hate to be the only costume/led geek out there! ;)

  2. missa
    missa November 25, 2012

    Quick update: I made up a second batch of panels, but I used this power unit instead. Plugs right in to the convenient plug on the light strip, and they go on instantly. Awesome. :)

  3. Robin Wolfson
    Robin Wolfson July 14, 2021

    OMG! In my family, we’ve been using “destructions” for ”instructions” for about sixty-five years. I’ve never run into anyone else who even got the joke. My mother was an English teacher who loved to play with the language, hence “destructions.” And every year we would degradate the Christmas tree.

    • missa
      missa August 17, 2021

      LOL! I am totally degradating the tree this year! That’s awesome. :)

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