The Techie Ugly Christmas Sweater Project: Part 1


by Mark Schreiber -

Ugly sweaters seem to be pretty hip these days.  

Wal-Mart sells them, Target sells them.  There‘s even a shop in my town where you can “uglify” your very own Christmas sweater.  And yes, we have an ugly sweater contest at our school (that I plan on winning by the way). Last year I made a pretty nifty one and this year I made final unit out of this idea.  Yep, my advanced engineering class is pushing toward the completion of some pretty sophisticated ugly sweaters.  Some blink, some play music, some might even look like the Grizwolds house.  One has car horns on it and yet another, a Christmas trivia tree!

One might ask, “Why would you do such a project?” and I might answer with a Christmas quote like, “Bah humbug!”  I mean do you all know that, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer, is signing loud for all to hear.”?

The truth is that this has been an amazing project.  Students, driven by the desire to create something amazing, have learned a ton.  Makey Makey, Soundplant, Scratch programming, more Arduino lines of code than I can count, flashy LED, e-textiles, laser cutting, soldering, I could go on and on.  The room is abuzz with excitement -the warm smells of gingerbread being cut on the laser cutter fill the air. Kids helping each other, sound bites of various Chirstmas music and movie clips playing in the background, and students helping each other troubleshoot their projects.

All I can say is that well... it’s a wonderful life, really wonderful.

So, how can you create your own interactive techno ugly Christmas sweater?  Well, here are my recommendations for a simple but effective techno sweater (part 2 will show you how to make it even more like the Griswolds but let's start with the basics).

  1. Get a really ugly sweater.
  2. Get a laptop that you can carry with you (if you want to go completely mobile).
  3. Get a Makey Makey and some conductive ornaments, or other conductive bling for your sweater.
  4. Download Soundplant or use Scratch (to map keyboard keys to soundclips, songs and such). -see resource section below.
  5. Layout your sweater and glue down conductive elements to the front.
  6. Turn your sweater inside out and mount your Makey Makey to the inside, run wires to each conductive element on the front of your sweater.  -Just duct tape them to the inside since this is probably temporary.
  7. Link your favorite audio clips or songs to the A, S, D, F, W, SPACE, and arrow keys in SoundPlant or on Scratch.
  8. Connect yourself to the Makey Makey ground (I used a gator clip running down my sleeve to my wedding ring but you could also connect to a metal bracelet, watch, etc.)
  9. Test you sweater.  It should play clips or music when you touch your various conductive elements on the sweater!
  10. Go mobile!  Just make sure your computer doesn’t go to sleep when the lid is shut, keep it attached to the Makey Makey with SoundPlant or Scratch open and then put it in a Christmas gift bag.  Run the USB cord up inside your sweater, add some gift tissue around the top and you are ready to go.
  11. Have a fun time!
  12. If you want to add twinkle, try adding some LEDs, or some blinky LEDs with a LilyPad or Gemma.  Cotton balls make nice snow and diffuse the light very well while hiding your LEDs a bit. 
  13. Look at my next blog post on how to make your sweater beat the Griswold’s house with your Arduino timed light display!  Oh ya, it’s going to be fun!

Resource links:

  • Makey Makey plus Soundplant- This combo is the one-two punch of an awesome interactive ugly sweater.  If you really want to go crazy, put in 2 Makey Makeys (just have to reprogram the keyboard map on one of them).
  • If you are using a Mac you might want to download NoSleep too.  This way you can close the Mac, and still have it run Soundplant.  
  • Add some basic twinkle- check out Adafruit's Gemma or SparkFun's LilyPads. 
  • Want a working fireplace?  Download the Digital Dudz app for mulitple Christmas sweater movies that can play on your phone.


Heather Pang's picture

Sounds like an amazing project. Can we see video of the finished projects?