Friday, January 27, 2012

Project Update: The Electric Blanket is DONE!

Mrs. Parenteau and her merry band of 3rd grade scientists/sewers have finally finished their electric blanket project! The final result is a quilt containing approximately 45 squares that light up. Currently hanging in the Science hallway, it's fun to watch students interact with it by pressing the different switches to light up the quilt. This was a challenging project for the kids and we are proud of their hard work and perseverance with the e-textile materials - especially the conductive thread. To learn more about the first steps of the project, see my earlier blog post.

We know...we need to hang it better. Also, I will be embroidering "Massachusetts" in the black area on the bottom. At some point.
After finishing the project, we took a look back to see what we'd do differently next time and what we were smart about. Here's a short list.
  1. SMART: Colleen had a great numbering system for each quilt square so it was easier to piece together after the squares were done. We recommend making a paper grid labeled with numbers/initials/class section and also putting a corresponding label on each fabric square.
    The grid. We also kept a spreadsheet of who had what square, etc.
  2. SMART: With so many little pieces to keep track of, we needed an organization system. When they were ready to sew, each child got a strip of tape holding the electric components. At the end of class, each section had their own place in the room to store their materials. Happily, we didn't lose many little pieces.
    DO DIFFERENT: That said, we probably should have done the sewing one component at a time per class period. "Today we will sew on the negative end of the battery holder to the 'S' side of the switch" and only hand out those components.
    Lunch trays make a very good component holder. We bought our materials from Sparkfun: coin battery holders and Lilypad LED lights and button switches.
  3. SMART: Colleen created a worksheet where kids wrote about how electrons moved through their  sewn circuit. Through their writing, she could gage their understanding of circuits and electricity. On the same worksheet, the students sketched their quilt square.
    DO DIFFERENT: We should have had kids draw a clearer diagram of their circuit including the polarity of each component in their drawing. At first we didn't think it would make a big difference which way the switch and LED light faced, but actually there was a very specific way the components needed to be laid out and stitched in order for the light to turn on.
    Our schematic on the left marked with colored dots to show polarity. The students each drew a diagram of their square to let us know they understood how they were making a circuit. 
  4. DO DIFFERENT: Some of the kids thought the battery holder ruined the "design" of their square and wanted to sew it on the backside of their square. While we appreciated their design sensibility, it made it impossible to quilt in a traditional way. There would be no way to replace a dead battery with a sewn backing on it. Next battery holders on the back.
    Connecting the squares. Note a few battery holders on the back.
  5. SMART: We pre-threaded all the needles - Brilliant! The conductive thread split very easily and was almost impossible to thread (and re-thread) in our needles, even with needle threaders. Since the eyes of the battery holders were very small, we needed to have thin needles to fit through them. The first batch of needles we purchased were thin, but also had VERY SMALL little eyes, which were impossible to thread. Beeswax helped the most. However, we ended up splurging on new thin needles with big eyes. Great move for our sanity.
  6. SMART: Towards the end of the sewing portion, we worked with kids in very small groups (sometimes one-to-one) to make sure they were connecting the components in the right way, not getting knots in their thread, and generally staying positive. That was a luxury, but we definitely saw a change in the quality of the sewing when we did that.
The kids are really proud of their work and like to hear the older kids wonder, "How'd they do that?" Take a look. Better yet, come see it in person!


  1. Absolutely gorgeous! What a stunning project! If you would be willing to share it here: that would be awesome.

  2. This is great! I appreciate the reflections on what went well and what you'd do differently. Working with high schoolers we find that marking polarity is a big issue. It's not intuitive if one doesn't understand circuits, but it's so important for the drawings. Love the group project that everyone could contribute to. :)

  3. THANK YOU for documenting this like you have. I absolutely love this project! Inspirational!