Middle School girls combine crafts and electronics

by: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE -  From left, Vanessa Tuffs, 12, and Anna Bergstrom, 13, make bandanas that sparkle with LED lights with the PDX Young Makers. Tuffs is a seventh-grader at Lakeridge Junior High School.  Marie Bjerede describes her 9-year-old daughter, Annika Lo, as a maker. She said her daughter’s favorite Christmas present each year is a giant bag of tape.

“My daughter is a maker. That’s fundamentally who she is and what she does,” Bjerede said. “If you leave her alone for a second she’ll make something from whatever materials are handy.”

So Bjerede did what most mothers would do — she encouraged her child’s hobby. Through various professional contacts in the high-tech industry, Bjerede discovered MAKE magazine — an American quarterly magazine that focuses on do-it-yourself projects involving computers, electronics, robotics, metalworking, woodworking and other disciplines. Through MAKE magazine, the mother-daughter duo discovered an entire community of makers and began attending Maker Faires.

“A Maker Faire is kind of a cross between a county fair and a consumer electronics show,” Bjerede said. “It’s really a hobby kind of show.”

The connections opened up a new world of possibilities. Soon, Lo was creating with electronics, hardware and soft circuits. In September 2012, the pair formed the PDX Young Makers.

The group is comprised of about 13 girls, ages 8 to 12, from Trillium Creek Primary, Athey Creek Middle School, Lakeridge Junior High and St. John the Apostle School. The girls and their parents work together on high- and low-tech projects, creating e-textiles and wearables.

“When we started going to Maker Faires we realized there wasn’t a lot of opportunities for a girl to get into things she cared about while using electronic materials,” Bjerede said. “A lot of opportunities to work with electronics tend to be very structured and have outcomes girls aren’t interested in. This (PDX Young Makers) focuses on fashion and design.”

Twinkle light designs

The craft room smells like hot glue. On a table top, fabric and sequins and sewing needles are spread out as far as the eye can see. This is the meeting grounds for the PDX Young Makers.

The group meets every other week at Bjerede’s home in West Linn. At any given meeting, the girls will sketch out fashion designs with pencils and markers or get straight to creating. The girls have made sparkly handbags, Halloween decorations that make noise when you squeeze them, bandanas, aprons, bracelets, dresses, holiday cards and more.

In practice, the meetings mean moms and daughters sewing together, but instead of using beads to decorate their bracelets, bags and dresses, they use light-emitting diodes that are connected to tiny coin-cell batteries using special conductive thread.

These lights may burn steady or be controlled by a microprocessor to light up in patterns or in response to a sensory input such as touch, light or temperature. The result is a lovely combination of sparkles, taffeta and twinkle lights. The work is a unique mixture of crafts and science.

“I love the idea of young people, especially girls, having the opportunity to experiment with technology on their own terms,” Bjerede said. “We are not doing this to work with electronics, we are doing this because it’s a fun thing to do.”

The result, she added, is the girls feel more comfortable not only using, but learning, new technologies.

So far, the group has participated in four Makers Faires across Oregon, California and Washington. Periodically, the group receives instruction from Shannon Henry of Polymath Design Labs. Henry teaches the girls about batteries, positive and negative charges and the array of possibilities to design with fabric and lights.

Bjerede’s daughter, Lo, said she wants to become a “designer seamstress engineer.” Two of her largest projects — she prefers to make dresses — include making a black dress which lit up constellations in the skirt and a green dress with green LED lights along the base of the skirt.

“I have a sketchbook and I just draw a bunch of things and stuff that I like,” she said. “If it has lights it just adds more to the dress and it’s not plain. It’s unique.”

She said sewing each light and battery pack into the clothing is time-consuming because it has to be done by hand using special thread. Sometimes, she said, she pokes herself with the needle, but she’s improving. While creating her dresses, Lo said she’s learning about circuits.

“I’ve learned some things along the way, but mostly it’s just really fun,” she said. “This isn’t the kind of thing we do at school.”

Aislinn McCarthy, 10, said her favorite project was creating a black skirt that had lights inside of a bow. The skirt, which took her about 10 hours to make, was part of a black cat costume she created for her dance class.

“The lights make the skirt unique and it pops out and everyone is like, ‘Who’s that?’ while watching you on the dance floor,” she said.

Most recently, she’s working on a bandana that will feature five LED lights in the shape of a cross.

Anna Bergstrom, 13, is most proud of the first project she made. Bergstrom learned to sew and made an apron with pastel blue and green flowers, piping and pleats. She even entered the apron in the Clackamas County Fair. Bergstrom has also made shirts, flower broaches and headbands with LED lights in them. The electronic projects are challenging but rewarding, she said.

“It’s not easy adding the lights; it’s very time-consuming and it’s very challenging to remember the positive and negatives,” she added, referring to the battery packs. “But it’s fun to create things that kind of come to life with the lights. It’s fun to learn about the technical engineering stuff and learn more about circuits.”

For more information about PDX Young Makers, visit

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