Laser engravers are used to decorate everything from wine bottles to leather objects, but they also can be used to decorate or cut fabric.
Laser engraving on fabric has grown in popularity the past few years as companies realize its potential. Now, retailers can sell jeans with intricate cutouts or logos lasered into them. They also can burn logos into fleece outerwear or profile-cut intricate two-ply twill appliques for sports uniforms.
Lasers can be used on cotton, silk, felt, lace, synthetic and technical textiles, aramid, polyester and fleece. They even can be used to cut especially strong materials, such as Kevlar, according to experts.
“The real advantage to using laser with textiles is basically anytime they are cutting those fabrics, it will get a sealed edge with the laser because the laser is just heat blasting through the material,” says industry veteran Josh Stephens.
Lasers are used for direct engraving or cutting. For direct engraving, the chosen material is placed in the laser and the laser engraves on it. With profile cutting, where you are doing sports uniforms or applique, the laser cuts out a design on material that has heat-activated adhesive on it.
To engrave on fabric, the laser can be dialed in for depth to get contrast or a light etch that bleaches the color out of the fabric.
“Typically on fabrics I’ll usually run 250 dpi or 333 dpi anytime we’re engraving and basically dpi for the laser is like lines per inch. The reason we use a low dpi is so the laser heat gets spread out so it is not blasting through the material,” Stephens says. “Lower resolution basically spaces out all of the lines and we still get a nice image at the end.”
If a client uses a lower resolution for engraving, it can be advantageous to have a bigger lens like a 2.5-inch lens or 4-inch lens on the laser. This helps when you are using a lower dpi. The spot size will be bigger and hide overlap in the lines, he adds.
When it comes to fleece and flock, it is harder to get a bit of depth so the contrast is noticeable.
“Those materials don’t change color. We are just removing material. With twill, denim, all sorts of other fabrics, polyester, you’ll typically get a color change,” he says. If the fabric is red, the laser will bleach out the design so that it looks like an off white against the red.
With laser cutting, the major advantage is the sealed edge, but it also provides a fairly quick cut.
“You can optimize speed on the laser system, power adjust to speed, but the frequency, how many pulses per second the laser will fire, that is typically a hertz measurement. You will want that to be a low setting, like 1,000 hertz,” Stephens says.
The laser can kiss cut as well. For sports emblems, you can stack multiple layers of twill, in different colors, on top of each other and adhere them together. Then, you can dial in settings to cut through only the top layer. With a separate setting, you can dial it in for two layers and not the third and the last setting will cut through all three layers, he says.
“Lasers and textiles are really becoming super popular within the last two or three years,” says Amy Dallman, marketing communications specialist for Epilog Laser in Golden, Colo. She says that the industry has seen an influx of laser-friendly heat transfer material, which can be cut into words or different graphics and then put on T-shirts with a heat press.
“If you have a huge run to do, 50 guys, this might not be time effective for you, but if you have a special promotion, doing 10 shirts or five shirts for a bowling team, this is a fast and effective way to make custom T-shirts,” she says.
The whole process of laser engraving fabric is “just a lot of fun,” Dallman says. Epilog has lasered designs on canvas shoes. The company has a client that uses its laser to cut intricate patterns into leather shoes.
Another client makes steam punk clothing, like bowler hats and leather cuffs, wallets and purses with their laser engraver.
“It’s really cool. With cotton and denim, when you laser engrave it, it actually produces a bleached effect, where a lot of our things will produce a darker mark,” Dallman says.
Epilog’s machines go up to 1,000 dpi on its entry-level systems and 1,200 dpi on its larger more expensive laser systems.
“For fabric, we recommend using low dpi, around 300 for your sturdier fabrics like denim, cotton or canvas, or 150 dpi for something like fleece,” Dallman says. “The dpi has an impact because the more dots per inch you are engraving, the more area you are covering. If you reduce that, it reduces the chances of burning through the fabric.”
Clients are constantly asking how to laser engrave on new materials, like satin.
“We test a lot of materials at Epilog but we haven’t tested everything under the sun. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and see how it works,” she says.
Most of the laser engraving on textiles is for specialty gifts, Dallman adds. “We are not seeing a ton of it in the signage arena.”
Mike Fruciano, an industry consultant on laser and UV printing for Fruciano Consulting, says that print, cut, sew is becoming very popular, where the image of a shirt that has a complete wrap graphic on it is printed out onto transfer paper then sublimated onto a roll of polyester material using a heat press. Once it is printed, the different pieces of the shirt are cut out and sewn together. The laser can be used to cut out the design.
“It is emerging technology,” Fruciano says. “They do a lot of cutting by hand. I have been contacted by customers wanting to automate that process with a laser.”
Wide-format sublimation printing is very popular currently, which means many clients are trying to find the swiftest way to do print, cut, sew.
There are new printers coming out that allow a business to print directly on a 50-inch roll of fabric.
“That’s a whole new technology emerging,” he says. The process is great for low-volume, custom garments.
Dallman says that the same laser can be used on fabric, acrylic, plastic, wood or treated metal.
“The only difference between fabric and engraving acrylic would be the settings you use,” she says. “I think that it is easy once you get your settings dialed in. Engraving on fabric is easy and fun and you can do very customized things on the fly.”
Shops that are looking to expand their product line and profit potential should consider engraving on fabric, she adds.