The Cloak of Light

This isn't really a new project; I had it finished for Halloween of 1997. But I just got pictures, so I can finally do a web page.

Well, it's not a terrific picture, I'll admit. (Small image is a link to a larger version.)

[Me in a cloak]
The Cloak of Light

Yes, those two vertical stripes are glowing. That's the point. There are two more on the back.

Light flashes over my head

The inspiration was an ad I saw for electroluminescent striping. "Electroluminescent", of course, means "the damn stuff lights up," and I'm afraid I have no idea how it works. Except that it's electrical.

It was being sold as car decoration -- yes, even tackier than neon license-plate holders. "Californeon" was the brand name I got, and it was sold at the Pep Boys auto supply chain. You buy 16 feet of plastic strip for about $80; it comes with a small transformer; you stick the strip onto your car, attach it to the transformer, attach the transformer to your car battery, and presto. Light-up pinstriping.

I had no doubt I could do better than that.

I assemble my plans

All good things come from the Web. At least, it worked darn well for finding out how to make a cloak. I started with the SCA web page (where else?) I'm afraid I can't find the cloak-making page I used at the time, but that just means you have the fun of searching for yourself, hai?

The pattern I found was entirely trivial. You get some cloth, and cut two quarter-circles, each with a five-foot radius. (That's five feet for me, at least -- my height at the shoulder.) Sew them together along one edge, leaving six inches unsewn at the right-angle corner (so that there's a place to stick your neck.) Hem all the other edges. Put it on.

There were some details to work out, for my version. The luminescent strip is sticky on one side, but it probably wouldn't stick to cloth very well. And you can't sew it; it's got magical electroluminescent stuff sealed between two layers of plastic, and you don't want to puncture it more than necessary. So I got a lot of cheap one-inch blue ribbon (at the same fabric store I got the cloth at.) The ribbon is shiny and plasticky, so I figured I could sew it to the cloth and then stick the strip onto the ribbon.

Sixteen feet of strip makes four four-foot segments -- you can cut the stuff up, as long as you run a pair of wires to each piece. (Conveniently, the wires only have to connect to one end of each piece.) So I decided to cut a small hole in each cloak-panel, a foot from the right-angle corner. Two strips would run from each hole, one parallel to each straight edge.

[diagram of cloak pattern]

They seem to run at an funny angle, but when one actually wears the thing, the ribbons drop straight down from the shoulder. I was careful about this, because I didn't want to put any sideways or twisting stress on the strips.

Wires run from the top ends of the strips, through the holes, and down the inside of the cloak to a belt, whch holds the transformer. The transformer is intended to work off of 12V DC, of course -- a car battery -- but it uses very little current, so there's no problem using household batteries. A stack of eight C-cells will work, and can hang from a belt without much trouble.

I gather my tools

This was a bit of an adventure, because I had no sewing supplies at all. I went out to a fabric store and looked around for the cheapest sewing machine I could find. This was the "Mighty Mender", which I think was $60, marked down to $40 because of a sale. Entirely made of plastic. Nowhere near powerful. In fact, a piece of crap; but perfect for my modest needs.

The fabric store also had fabric, ribbon, and webbing straps and buckles (for the belt). Also the usual lot of necessaries such as thread, needles, straight pins, and hooks and eyes.

I went to Radio Shack for wire, battery holders, and little plug connectors to make all the wiring convenient.

(Making the sewing machine work was another adventure. The threading of the bits is not at all obvious, especially when the instructions are missing. I eventually took it to a gathering of friends and said "Help?" and Joe Naab put it all together for me.)


To my amazement, almost everything worked as planned.

I drifted off the line when cutting the fabric, so the right angles were a little acute. But this turned out not to matter much. The cloak is a bit short in back (exacerbating the shortness caused by not having the spine sewn all the way up.) But what the hell, this just means that the wingtips are excessively long and flowing, which is what a cloak is for.

Sewing turned out to be a pretty simple skill. Use lots of straight pins to hold the cloth together, and then run it through the machine. Keeping the stitching going is fiddly and tedious, but not really difficult. Keeping a straight seam is also fiddly. Practice helps. Fortunately, nobody ever looks at the stitching on a glow-in-the-dark cloak.

(Nonetheless, I do not recommend choosing a contrasting thread color so that the seams are decorative. This turns out to be a mistake. At least on one's first sewing project.)

The wiring was easy. I used speaker wire, and I just had to cut a length, solder one end into a Y-junction, and solder the other end to a plug connector. Another length of wire runs from the battery holder to the transformer -- I used a plug connector here too.

(The electrical connection to the electroluminescent strip is a flat little snap-together assembly with a sharp-toothed piece of metal inside. You put one end of the strip into it, put your wire on top of it, and snap it shut. The teeth bite through the strip into the wire, making electrical contact with both. Do not get wet.)

I made little cloth bags to hang the transformer and battery pack in. Bags are trivial; you cut a long rectangle, fold it in half, sew up two sides, and then turn it inside-out (to hide the seams.)

I managed to fold the collar into a collar-like shape, although you can't see it in the photo. The folds are held down with a couple of stitches. There's also a hook and eye holding the whole mess shut.

In practice

I have now worn the thing at two PhilCons, and two long walks on Halloween night -- plus assorted showing off.

The biggest drag is that it can not be washed. Well, it could be, if I peeled all the electroluminescent strips off the shiny blue ribbon. But it probably wouldn't stick on as well, afterward.

So I can't do anything that might get it dirty. Like sit on anything outside. Or come near dirt. Or food or drink. Or the floor.

In fact, sitting down is a problem by itself. The strips are flexible, but if they're creased too much, they can develop dark spots. And the two rear strips go down past, well, past my rear. So I can't really sit down without putting my weight on them. I refuse to do that. So I have take it off, or else sort of bundle it aside onto some chairs nearby. It's a good hall costume at a con, but only for a few hours -- then I get fed up with it.

Also, people keep stopping to talk to me. You may or may not view that as a problem. I got a lot of practice answering the same questions over and over again. (If you ever see me wearing it, you won't have to ask me those questions, because you've already read this web page. Right?)

Because I've worn it at two PhilCons, I fully expect that real costumers have already gotten hold of the stuff. I look forward to some impressive demonstrations at PhilCon '99.

You may be curious

The transformer kicks out alternating current, about 220VAC, with a bit under 1600 cycles per second. That's much faster than the 60 Hz of US house current. But the stuff does light up when connected to house current. It's dimmer, since the voltage is lower, but it's also a different color. You'd recognize it immediately; it's the dim green of those flat electroluminescent nightlights.

(Some of the nightlights, such as the "Indiglo" brand, are more blue-green. That's just the same dim green color with a blue filter on top of it. Get the "Limelight" brand instead; they have no filter, and are therefore brighter.)

(It works in reverse too. If you hook a Californeon transformer up to a nightlight, blammo, fierce blue-white light.)

(When experimenting with this stuff, do not touch the wires. 1600Hz at 220VAC gives a memorable zap.)

Here's another photo

[Confusing swirls of light]

I'm swirling the cloak in a dark room.

I must confess that this photo has borne some fakery. The swirls are real, but they're not the left and right sides of the cloak. They're two different shots of the same side, flopped and Photoshopped together. Ah me. Such is truth.

All these pictures were taken with a QuickCam Pro (USB connector), just before it shorted out and started making awful hissing and crackling sounds.

I've used the same luminescent ribbon to make an Icehouse piece stand. I've used Indiglo nightlight elements, which are the same material, to make a Flashy-Light Thing.

Last updated November 23, 2000.

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Project Clothe Myself

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