Because a laser can work with a very low percentage of power, you can create some cool effects on not just leather, but fabrics of all kinds. Getting a basic understanding of techniques for this will have you personalizing clothing and creating unique pieces in no time.
Step 1: Types of Fabric
Virtually any type of fabric can be used with the laser, with the exception of vinyl-based faux leather.
Remember – any PVC (which vinyl is made of) is not to be used with a laser, as it creates hydrochloric gas when cut or engraved. This will erode both the inside of the laser and your lungs, so don’t do it!
Man made fabrics, such as polyester or fleece, will melt when hit lightly with the laser, creating a darker shade of the current color. When cut, the edges will melt together and prevent the fabric from fraying.
Natural fabrics, such as cotton, will turn a lighter brown or white when hit lightly with the laser. Since these fabrics won’t melt, the edges will still fray when cut. Incredibly thin fabric, such as silk or chiffon, are not suitable for engraving, but cut very nicely.
Leather will mark darker when hit with the laser and will cut nicely.
Step 2: Preparing the Fabric
When working with fabric, you want to make sure that it lays as flat as possible in the laser. This can be accomplished with tape or magnets. Also make sure to turn on your exhaust and close the lid to see how the air flow inside the bed affects the fabric before starting the laser.
Clothing presents a different securing issue, as the various shapes and extra fabric can be tricky to secure. I always use a scrap piece of material to slip inside a shirt to help hold it flat and protect the back of the shirt in case the settings are off. Roll the sleeves of long sleeve shirts and tape them securely. Since the laser is a touchless means of engraving, you don’t need to worry about the fabric being moved by the laser, unless it is too high for the laser head to fit over the extra material. This means that you can fold the shirt to fit into the bed as needed.
When determining the location of the engraving, I like to try on the garment in front of a mirror, as the curves of the body can hide or emphasize certain areas of the garment. Using tape as markers, I then mark off the best location for the engraving, then measure for the final size after taking off the garment and laying it flat.
Step 3: Prefecting Your Laser Settings
If possible, always have a scrap piece of the same material or extra shirt to test your settings. All material is different, even from color to color, so testing your settings with every new shirt is critical.
If there is only one of a certain shirt, I like to test on the inside bottom hem of the shirt. Then you can see what the engraving will look like with the front side of the fabric in an inconspicuous area.
With man made materials, you will want to lightly hit the surface when engraving, melting it slightly without compromising the integrity of the fabric. Start with a low setting when testing, less than 10% power, and work your way up to a mark that you like. Make sure to tug the fabric so it does not rip at the engraving area.
With natural fabric, start off testing with lower settings for engraving, but be conscious of fraying, as the laser will not melt the materials, but burn a little off the top. When cutting, start very low power as well. The edges will take a slightly brownish edge, as the material is burning, but it can be minimized by low power and using a gas such as nitrogen for your air assist.
Step 4: Working With Layered Fabrics
Another great use of the laser on fabric is when working with pre-layered fabrics, such as twill, to create numbers, letters and shapes. Using different settings for the different layers, you can tell the laser to cut through just one, two, or more of the layers, and then weed off the top materials when finished to create your design. You can even tell the laser to engrave fake stitching for a neat effect.
The laser is such a versatile tool, and I hope that these techniques have given you some great ideas on working with fabric on a laser.