Designer melds tech, fashion in crafty electronics

ByUsa Today
February 09, 2009, 5:09 PM

NEW YORK -- With her carefully styled blond hair, expertly applied makeup and fashionable blue dress, nothing about Alison Lewis even hints at the word "nerd" at a Manhattan party for her first book.

But ask her about circuits or light-emitting diodes and you'll see that she is equally familiar with switches and soldering irons as with swatches and seams.

Her book, Switch Craft: Battery-Powered Crafts to Make and Sew, brims with instructions for projects that combine technology with clothing and accessories. For instance, there's a music-blaring bag, a pillow with a cellphone headset, an illuminated skirt and wriggling squids for cats to play with.

Lewis, who is 34 and lives in Philadelphia, wants to communicate that technology doesn't need to be complicated or unfriendly. In fact, it can be approachable and stylish enough to tote or wear around town.

This idea of adorning clothing with wires and LED lights might sound incongruous. But electronics have seeped deeply into our lives. You might care as much about remembering your cellphone and MP3 player as your wallet and keys when you leave the house. And if you're already toting these gadgets with you, why not integrate their functions with your hat or bag?

Lewis' work also speaks to the popularity of crafting — the hand-fashioning of everything from afghans to zombie dolls — and do-it-yourself electronics. Both have swelled over the past few years, helped by publications like O'Reilly Media Inc.'s Make and Craft magazines and websites like handmade marketplace and online crafting community Craftster.

Besides Lewis' book, which is the culmination of 2½ years of work with artist and designer Fang-Yu Lin, she hosts a Web video show called "Switch" that integrates fashion and technology. And she has co-taught a fashion technology class at Parsons The New School for Design in New York.

But "Switch Craft" could bring her widest audience thus far, buoyed by a mini-flurry of similar fare released in the past year. This includes the book Fashioning Technology: A DIY Intro to Smart Crafting by designer and friend Syuzi Pakhchyan, and a book that explores the intersection of clothing and technology by Lewis' co-teacher at Parsons, Sabine Seymour.

"This is going to change the way people craft," Lewis says.

She sought to make "Switch Craft" more approachable than other books. Nothing in it requires any computer programming, and several projects can be made with a modicum of craftiness and minimal tech know-how. Some, like a hat with a pouch for an iPod Shuffle, require no tech skills at all.

Pakhchyan, a media designer who lives in Los Angeles, thinks that making technology accessible to a general audience is Lewis' strength.

"She's basically giving people the first step and opening their mind to it," Pakhchyan says.

With the help of a sewing machine, I tried making one of Lewis' simpler projects: A foil-lined cover intended to protect your passport's radio frequency identification chip from nearby snoops who might be scanning for personal data.

After a few hours and some ripped-out seams, I had a pretty cute red-and-white patterned cover. I'm not sure how well it will protect a passport, though — I tested it by slipping an RFID-laden key card inside and was still able to open doors around the office.

But even if that project ends up being more paranoia chic than protective, it felt good to make something that appealed to both the nerdy and crafty sides of my brain. I'm less intimidated now by the idea of a light-up skirt.

Lewis' own trajectory toward the intersection of geekery and style began during her childhood in Arlington, Texas, when Lewis' mother made some clothes for her and taught her to sew. Lewis made her own fashion creations, and remembers trying to dress like people in magazines — sometimes to ill effect.

"Trust me, it's not good to show up in junior high wearing white jeans with multicolored skinny stripes and little pink pumps and my hat," she says, smiling.

Lewis graduated from college with an art degree, as her penchant for painting briefly took center stage. Eventually, she became a website designer. But she wanted to work in a more tactile medium and enrolled in Parsons in 2002 to earn a master's in a field known as communication design and technology. There, she took a class that taught her some geek basics, such as how to build a simple circuit.

"I kind of cried through the whole thing," Lewis jokes, describing an early project in which she would move the arms of a Barbie doll that was wired to a computer, and various female images would flash on a screen.

The interactivity made her feel like she was giving life to something. "And it felt like, 'Wow, why didn't anybody teach me how to do this before?"' she says.

From the start, Lewis incorporated colors, textures and soft imagery like dandelions into her projects — unafraid to make gadgets plush or pink to counteract the coldness she sees in technology.

As a result, many of the projects in "Switch Craft" figure to appeal more to women, such as stuffed key chains embedded with magnets and LEDs so they "kiss" and light up when they get close.

Yet Lewis is careful to characterize the book as not just an electronics guide for girls.

"I feel like if you just say, 'Hey girls, here's an electronics book,' most girls that are already into electronics are the ones picking it up. I want them to pick it up, but I also want a larger, broader audience," she says.

Indeed, there are several projects that might appeal to guys with geek tendencies and a sense of style — like a laptop bag that lights up when it discovers a Wi-Fi hot spot.

In any case, if you're having trouble getting your boom box bag or jiggling cat toy to work despite meticulously following Lewis' instructions, don't despair. It's not hard to seek retribution on the author — the book includes a plan for making a wriggling voodoo doll.

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