EL Wire Computer Bag

EL wire bag going from lighted room and unlit, to lighted room and lit, to dark room while lit, to unlit room while lit

A couple of years ago, I made a skirt with an EL wire trim. It was relatively easy to do, and has always gotten good feedback when I've gone out and about wearing it. I really like it, but it isn't exactly practical outside Skrillex concerts.

I got a Buran laptop bag from Chrome sometime last year, and one of my favorite things about it has been the full, flat front that I can attach patches to. When I started thinking about EL wire again, I looked at the trim on the front flap and found it's basically one big piece that loops around the front, then in the inside. It's perfect for adding EL wire.

I took a bunch of pictures to explain how I did it. This project wasn't tough, but there were a few spots that were tricky. I burned myself on the solder iron once (breaking an impressive burn-free record), poked myself a bunch and my fingers hurt from pushing a needle through all the layers of fabric, vinyl and the rubbery weatherproof material of my bag.

This requires soldering, machine and hand sewing through some heavy fabric (I recommend a good pair of pliers for pulling the needle through), some strong thread, heavy duty sharp needles, and some pins you wont mind bending.

EL Wire Edging

EL Wire raw material
Both times I've ordered EL wire, I've gotten it from CoolNeon.com. They're out of California, so shipping is fast and they're really good about including everything you need to get your EL wire glowing. There are two things you'll need to order:

  • Angel Hair EL Wire This is the thinnest EL wire I can find. You'll see they warn it's more fragile since it's missing an acrylic layer - we'll be adding a layer of vinyl that should make it a bit more durable
  • Peacock Driver - Batteries are a DC source of power and EL wire needs an AC source. The driver will take care of that conversion for us. The peacock driver is perfect for my needs, since my projects have under 15 ft of EL wire and I want all the electrical components to be small. The peacock driver just is on and stays on unless you unplug the battery but if you want something fancier, check out their other drivers.
  • (Optional) Bigger battery pack - The connector off the driver will look like it's for a 9 volt battery. If you want to power it brighter and for longer periods of time, you can get a battery cage that will hold several AAs. You can order this off Cool Neon but I've seen them for sale at Radioshack too.

When you get everything in, you have a bit of soldering to do. The Adafruit tutorial is very good. Be mindful that having to solder onto copper is a pain because copper absorbs heat. That's the part where I burned myself :(

At the end where it says to use a heat gun to shrink the shrink tube - you can just use a hairdryer on high and held right up to the tube. It totally works, just rotate it.

Working EL wire

Next up is getting the EL wire in a trim. Most fabric stores will sell clear vinyl - usually in the outdoor fabric or upholstery section and mine was like $4/yd. How much you'll need depends on how wide the roll is, but I can tell you I got a really wide roll and got 2 yards of it and only ended up using less than a foot of it. So if you know me IRL and are doing this, please let me give you some vinyl.

Cutting the vinyl
Cut the vinyl into strips, I used the ultra standardized "whatever the size my hardwood floor panels are" measurement which is about 2 inches.

Sewing it to make trim
Fold the vinyl back on itself with the EL wire inside, then sew as close to the EL wire as you can. I've used several different kinds of sewing machine feet for this and thought each was great, so just play around with whatever different feet you have and use whatever works the best. I don't really pin this in place as I work, I just stop to adjust everything ever 6 inches or so - make sure the vinyl is roughly even and that the EL wire is pushed as close to the edge as it can be.

Finished trim
When you get done sewing, you can trim the non-EL wire side if you want to make the two pieces even.

This trim is great - you can put it on anything you can attach it to and it should be pretty durable. The skirt I trimmed with it has been shoved in suitcases, gone to a Skrillex concert, to Europe and is still hanging in there. The only down side is I would be very careful washing it. I'm not too worried about rain on my bag since everything is either inside a compartment or wrapped in vinyl, but you'd definitely want to hand wash any garments you put it on, and keep exposed electronics dry.

Adding The Trim to the Bag

This part is pretty self explanatory, but I'm going to post a few things that were especially difficult.

Where the power goes
Firstly, I knew I wanted the battery and driver parts to be out of the way inside the zipper compartment in the front. I decided to start the EL wire past the second seam from the front pockets. I pulled up the stitching in the inner seam and ran the power cable inside, then ran the soldered/shrink tube part up between the first and second seams (this is all on the left side of the bag). I did all the sewing for this by hand because I didn't want to stitch through the liner of the bag.

One of the big problems I ran into here is when I took out the stitches on the trim of the bag, the inside liner was really frayed and it was hard to get it to stay where it needed to be when I sewed the trim with the EL wire and everything back in place. My solution was to use my solder iron to melt the frayed edge to be a solid edge (this is all acrylic fabric) and then sew the liner to the bag before re-attaching the trim. This is hard to explain and I didn't really take any pictures of it - but the lesson is that acrylic fabric that's fraying can be melted to stop it from fraying, and if you have layers of the bag that aren't staying in place, sew them to one thing before you sew the whole thing together.

bag, EL Wire half attached

I'd use a seam ripper to remove the stitches on the trim, pinned the EL wire so the trim was flush with it, pinned the trim/EL wire into place on the bag, then got to sewing. I hand sewed up the sides of the bag until I was past the seam that attaches the front of the bag to the side, then machine sewed the front, then hand sewed the other side back down to the same seam.

I didn't machine sew the sides because those seams are so hard to sew - sometimes you'll be sewing the trim and realize you haven't been attaching it to the bag, just sewing the trim together. Just be sure to keep checking your work so you don't have to pull stitches out. That last seam you have to hand sew is a doozy - the Chrome people reinforced that with some really thick stuff, so at this point I was using my seam ripper handle to push the needle through, and a pair of pliers to pull it out the other side.

machine sewing the bag
The machine sewing part went a lot faster - the only part you have to wrestle a bit with are the corners. The bend is gradual, but the trim just wants to go straight, so you have to pin everything and do the corners slowly. I don't have an industrial sewing machine and I didn't break anything, so besides heavy duty needles and thread, you shouldn't need a special machine.

Finished

So, after that, you should have a bag that lights up! If you have any questions/comments, you can let me know on twitter @gelicia