How Fabric Displays Work

Electroluminescent Fabric Displays
Jay Maynard -- the Tron guy -- constructed his costume with EL wire.
Jay Maynard -- the Tron guy -- constructed his costume with EL wire.
Photo courtesy Jay Maynard

If wearing a furry display or heat-sensitive clothing doesn't seem appealing, you might want to look into electroluminescent fabric displays. Electroluminescent substances give off light after being exposed to electricity. For fabric displays, designers use electroluminescent wire (EL wire) to create amazing, vibrant effects.

EL wires have several layers:

  • The core layer is a copper wire that acts as a conductor in the EL wire's alternating current (AC) power system.
  • On top of the copper is a coating of electroluminescent phosphor. This is the material that will emit light after encountering an AC electric field.
  • The next layer consists of two wires wrapped around the phosphor. These wires complete the second half of a circuit, the first half consisting of the copper conductor.
  • Last comes a pair of plastic sheaths, which protects both the phosphor material (moisture can ruin some phosphors) and the user from electric shocks.

EL wire needs a high voltage -- around 100 volts -- to glow brightly. Lower voltages result only in a dull glow. Some EL wires can produce a range of light wavelengths depending on the frequency of applied power. offers an "aqua" EL wire with a color that varies from deep green to deep blue as the user alters the power frequency from 60 hertz (Hz) to 6 Hz. Also, because EL wire needs an AC power system, any outfit that has EL wire will need a battery pack and an inverter -- a device that converts direct current (DC) power to AC power. To learn more about AC and DC power, read our article on How Electricity Works.

Because the core of EL wire is copper, it's flexible but holds its shape. You can bend EL wire into all sorts of designs. When it's turned off, EL wire looks like a colorful plastic tube, but when the power comes on, EL wire looks like thin strands of neon lights. An outfit with EL wire could have several different strands emitting different colors, and might even include a sequencer -- a special circuit board -- connected to the power source that manages each strand's power supply. By alternating power to various strands, the wire can appear to be animated as different strands flash on and off.

Clothes with EL wire require careful maintenance and cleaning procedures. If the wire is permanently affixed to the clothing, the wearer will need to carefully wash it by hand and let it dry on a flat surface, or rely on spot cleaning. Throwing electroluminescent clothes into the washing machine is a good way to ruin a special outfit, and could even damage other clothes or the washing machine itself if the plastic tubing around the copper core tears.

Electroluminescent clothes are bright and vibrant, and with the right equipment they can display lights in patterns and sequences, but they're still fairly static -- you're limited by the shapes into which you've bent the EL wire.

In the next section, we'll learn about LED fabric displays and how they give you more options to express yourself through clothing.