When you want to make intricate cuts and patterns in your fabric, laser cutting is the way to go.
Laser cutters offer high precision and repeatability that's almost impossible to do manually.
However, the results you get from a laser cutter can vary depending on the fabric used.
This article discusses everything you need to know about laser cutting and engraving different fabrics and expert tips on getting great results.
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Laser Cutting Fabrics- How to get Great Results
Laser cutting uses a high-energy laser to heat the material in order to burn, melt or vaporize the fabric and perform the required cut.
Holding the delicate fabric when performing intricate cuts with a pair of scissors is one of the most challenging tasks in traditional fabric cutting.
Laser cutters eliminate the complexity of holding the fabrics as it requires you to ensure that the fabric is laying flat on the worktable of the laser cutter.
When laser cutting light-weight fabrics, it is required to use magnets or tape to hold the workpiece flat and still on the work table.
Fabrics are generally thin and less dense when compared to other materials like wood, plastics, and metals, making them easy to process under a laser.
Therefore, a low laser power with high cutting speed is recommended for laser cutting fibers.
However, the optimal process parameters for laser cutting fabrics depend upon the laser cutter setup and vary from one fabric to another.
There are various factors that affect the quality of cut and good process control is necessary for best results.
Type of Laser to use for Fabric Cutting
Laser cutting of fabrics is generally achieved by using a CO2 laser.
The wavelength of a CO2 laser (9.5 - 10.6 µm) is readily absorbed by both natural and synthetic fabrics, making it the ideal laser for cutting fabrics.
On the other hand, diode lasers, especially blue diode lasers, can provide similar performance with finer cuts and at a much lower power option.
These low-powered diode lasers perform well when cutting thin fabrics, particularly synthetic fabrics, that melt and vaporize almost instantly when processed under a laser.
As the thickness of the material increases, the ability of a diode laser to perform clean cuts in a single pass decreases.
Furthermore, the wavelength of diode lasers is not suitable for cutting transparent material.
As a result, diode lasers fail to make clean cuts in see-through fabrics like linings and nets.
The wavelength of fiber lasers (1.06 µm) is not readily absorbed by fabrics and is therefore not recommended for laser cutting of fabrics.
Laser Power for Cutting Fabric
The low-density and high laser-energy absorption characteristics enable the low-powered lasers to perform through cuts on a variety of fabrics.
A 40W CO2 laser is capable of laser cutting almost every fabric with ease.
Diode lasers with a power rating of around 10W can also be used to perform through cuts on various fabrics.
The optimal power setting varies from one fabric to another.
Laser cutting at a power setting lower than the optimal power will result in an incomplete cut, whereas setting the power too high will overburn the fabric.
Overburning of the fabric produces charred edges and affects the precision by increasing the kerf width.
However, maintaining a balance between the power and speed of the process enables to utilize the high laser power to reduce the cycle time.
Cutting Speed for Fabric
The optimal cutting speed for laser cutting fabric is mainly dependent upon two variables: type of fabric and laser power.
By the rule of thumb, the higher the laser power, the higher can be the cutting speed for the process.
During laser cutting, the dwelling time of the laser at a particular point on the fabric determines the amount of heat generated at that particular point.
For cutting thick fabrics, more heat is required to burn and vaporize the material, and therefore longer dwelling time is desirable.
The cutting speed inversely affects the dwelling time of the laser, which means the slower the cutting speed, the higher is the dwelling time of the laser at a particular point.
Furthermore, increasing the power of the laser increases the rate of heat energy absorbed by the fabric, resulting in quick melting and vaporization of the material.
This enables the use of higher power lasers to achieve faster cutting speeds and thereby increase the productivity of the process.
Generally, when cutting fabrics like thin denim, a 40W CO2 laser can achieve a cutting speed of around 8 inches/sec (200mm/sec).
Work Holding for Fabric
When laser cutting fabric, the laser slides through the material like a hot knife.
Even a small movement of the material can ruin the entire job, especially when performing intricate cuts.
Therefore it is extremely important to hold the fabric in place throughout the entire cutting process.
Some of the easy yet efficient ways of holding the fabric in place are taping the fabric to the table or using powerful magnets that hold the fabric along its edges.
When laser engraving or cutting garments, it is recommended to stuff the garment to achieve the best results.
For example, when laser cutting/engraving a T-shirt, the ideal way is to put the T-shirt over a plyboard that stretches it evenly and ensures that it lies flat under the laser without any wrinkles.
Air assist uses high-pressure air that blows parallel to the laser to protect the focusing lens and the work material from overheating.
When working with fabrics, it is recommended to use a high-pressure air assist.
The compressed air forces the fabric against the work table and straightens any bumps or creases in the fabric, thereby preventing irregular or deformed cutting lines.
Furthermore, laser cutting of fabrics generates smoke which can not only stain the fabric but also affects the performance by acting as an unwanted medium between the laser and the workpiece.
The laser collides with the smoke particles and loses some of its energy, thereby reducing the amount of heat supplied to the fabric.
High-pressure air assist will blow the smoke away from the cutting area and facilitate in producing a clean cut with a good surface finish.
Laser cutting of fabrics, especially natural fabrics, produces heavy smoke with an unpleasant odor.
The smoke affects the overall performance and quality of the cut made in fabrics.
Furthermore, the unpleasant odor creates unease for the operator and gets trapped in the fabric, and it can take days before the odor slowly fades away from the fabric.
Therefore, it is recommended to have a good exhaust system to dispose of the smoke away from the cutting area and minimize the effect of unpleasant odors.
What Fabrics Can be Laser Cut?
Although a laser cutter can be used to cut most fabrics, some synthetic fabrics can contain vinyl content which is not suitable for laser cutting.
This is due to the fact that laser cutting vinyl produces harmful fumes that can be toxic for the operator and damage the laser cutter.
Depending upon the composition of the material, a laser either burns or melts the material to produce the desired cut.
Generally, all synthetic fabrics melt when processed under a laser, whereas the natural fabrics undergo burning to achieve the desired cut.
|Material||Laser Cutting||Laser Engraving|
|Cotton||Fraying edges||Bleached appearance|
|Silk||Not recommended for intricate designs||Not recommended|
|Polyester||Sealed edges||Not recommended|
|Microsuede||Sealed edges||Excellent dark contrast|
|Velvet||Sealed edges||Good contrast|
|Denim||Desirable fraying edges||Excellent bleached appearance|
|Felt||Sealed edges||Dark contrast|
|Fleece||Sealed edges||Dark contrast|
|Microfiber||Sealed edges with occasional frays||Dark contrast|
Effect of laser cutting and engraving on various fabrics
Cotton is a plant-based natural fabric that is soft and has a fluffy feel.
It is a popular fabric in the clothing industry and is most commonly used to make T-shirts.
Being a natural fiber, cotton burns when processed under a laser, and good process control is necessary to avoid burning the edges.
Edge burns generally occur due to high laser power or slow cutting speed and result in a brown or yellowish coloring along the cut edge.
With optimal settings and good process control, laser cutting can be used to cut intricate designs on cotton.
Laser engraving cotton produces a mark with a bleached appearance, and therefore, to achieve better contrast, it is recommended to use dark color cotton for engraving.
Using a cotton-polyester blend instead of pure cotton minimizes the fraying of the material when cut under a laser.
The synthetic polyester melts and stops the fraying of cotton, thereby producing a finished edge.
Generally, a 40W CO2 laser with a power setting of around 30 - 35% and a cutting speed of 150mm/sec is recommended for cutting pure cotton.
A crafty tip for engraving cotton is to dampen the fabric to prevent excessive heat from breaking the fibers.
Silk is another natural fabric generally obtained from plant-based or animal-based protein fibers.
It is a luxurious fabric known for its soft feel and shimmering appearance.
A laser cutter can be used to cut intricate designs on silk with sealed edges and occasional frays.
However, the delicacy and thinness of silk is not suitable for intricate designs and is prone to tearing easily.
Furthermore, laser engraving of silk is not recommended as it removes the layers of already thin material, reducing the strength of the silk and rendering it prone to tearing.
Polyester is a synthetic fabric that is lightweight and soft.
It is more durable than cotton, and its quick-drying characteristics make it ideal for sports and gym wear accessories.
Polyester reacts very well to the laser and produces a sealed edge with no fraying when laser cut.
It is an extremely thin material that can be engraved but is generally not recommended as the engraved design is prone to cracking and tearing.
Microsuede is a soft material made from 100% polyester.
When cut by a laser, it produces excellent results with sealed edges and is generally used as an alternative to leather and polyester.
Laser engraving microsuede produces high contrast engraving with a good surface finish and is considered one of the best fabrics to be processed under a laser.
Velvet is a man-made fabric consisting of natural fibers like silk, cotton, wool, or synthetic fibers.
It is a luxurious fabric with a soft texture and feel.
Laser cutting natural velvet produces a clean cut with very little fraying, whereas laser cutting synthetic velvet produces a sealed edge with no fraying.
The soft furry texture of velvet makes it ideal for engraving as the laser removes the furry fibers from the fabric, revealing a low-contrast engraving with good depth.
Denim is a durable fabric made up of cotton or cotton blend.
It is popularly used in the clothing and accessories industry for making jeans, jackets, shorts, skirts, bags, etc.
Laser cutting denim produces a precise cut with fraying along the cut edge.
Unlike cotton applications, fraying in denim is generally desirable and mostly used to make ripped jeans.
Laser engraving denim produces a good contrast pattern with a bleached appearance.
Using a 40W CO2 laser at a power setting of around 35 - 40% and a speed of 5 ips (120mm/sec) produces excellent engraving results on denim.
Similar to cotton, it is recommended to spray the fabric with water to dampen it and prevent overburning of the fibers.
Black and white denims generally don't process well under a laser, but blue denim engraves with a white contrast.
Furthermore, it is recommended to defocus the laser (Z-offset) to produce a darker engraving.
Felt is a man-made fabric consisting of natural wool or fur blended with synthetic fibers.
It is an inexpensive alternative to wool and is used in various applications like hats, clothes, furniture, etc.
Being a synthetic material, all felts melt under a laser and produce clean cuts with sealed edges.
However, polyester felt is recommended for laser engraving as it produces a darker engraving with high contrast.
When laser cutting felt, a laser power of around 25 - 30W with a moderate cutting speed and a frequency of 1000 - 3000 Hz produces a clean cut with no burns.
Fleece is a synthetic insulating fabric generally made from polyester or some other synthetic fibers.
It is a lightweight and comfortable fabric that can be laser cut with settings similar to felt.
When laser engraving fleece, it is recommended to set a z-offset of around 1-5mm with a maximum engraving resolution of 500 dpi.
Furthermore, setting the grayscale level of the engraving graphic to around 70 - 80% will improve the strength of the engraved design by removing less material.
Microfiber is a synthetic fabric made of polyester or polyamide fibers.
It is a soft material commonly used in making water absorbing cloth used for cleaning purposes.
Laser cutting microfiber produces a clean cut with heat seal edges.
Setting a Z-offset of around 2mm is recommended for laser engraving microfiber with dark contrast.
Applications of Laser Processing Fabrics
Laser cutters are extremely precise machines that can perform intricate cuts at high speed and offer repeatability of around ±0.002 (0.05mm).
This makes laser cutters ideal for mass production of items as well as small-size customization businesses.
The ability to control the process parameters of the laser cutter enables it to be used for cutting, engraving, and marking a variety of fabrics.
This gives rise to various opportunities for lasers to be used in the garment industry and small-scale businesses that offer personalization of clothing and accessories.
Laser Cutting Intricate Designs
Laser cutting is a non-contact process, which means no mechanical forces are exerted on the delicate fabric even while cutting the most intricate designs.
Furthermore, the computer control of the laser eliminates any human errors that could lead to unwanted cuts and can produce exactly the same cuts every single time.
Due to this reason, laser cutters are gaining popularity in fashion industries where designers make precisely cut apparel with intricate patterns.
For a small-scale business, you can use a laser to cut intricate patterns and make customized laces for dresses or other decorative items like table clothes.
You can also use laser cutters for making customized leather bracelets and other jewelry items.
Laser Engraving Fabrics
The ability to engrave intricate patterns tops the list of applications of lasers in the fabric industry.
Laser engraving is used by the designers to print any desirable pattern on the fabric with high speed and precision.
It is also used by artists to engrave photographs and paintings on canvas.
Most fabrics are generally thin, and performing aggressive engraving will weaken the fabric.
A lower engraving resolution of 250 - 350 dpi is recommended for producing good quality engraving while maintaining the structural integrity of thin fabrics.
However, thick fabrics like felt and fleece can maintain their structural integrity even when engraved at a maximum resolution of 500 dpi.
Increasing the laser power produces darker engraving with excellent visual quality but weakens the fabric to the degree that washing or pulling such a fabric will tear it apart.
Synthetic fabrics like felts, microfibers, polystyrene, etc., produce excellent engraving results with dark contrast.
Whereas laser engraving natural fabrics produce a light contrast with a bleached appearance.
When engraving light colors, it is recommended to defocus the laser (z-offset) to achieve a darker contrast at the cost of detail.
Furthermore, laser engraving is also used to perform after-market modification and customize the garments/accessories with personalized patterns.
After-market modification is an excellent business idea for small size businesses.
It is a low-investment business idea where you can put your laser cutter to work and showcase your designing skills by making unique, profitable projects.
However, it is recommended to practice your skills and make test runs on various fabrics before stepping into the business.
Fade Patterns on Denim
Denim jackets and jeans with unique fade patterns are very popular in the fashion industry.
Laser engraving allows you to customize denim clothing/accessories with unique fade patterns.
Wetting the fabric before engraving prevents the risk of overheating.
Although the engraved pattern on the wet fabric might appear dull, its contrast improves as the fabric dries.
Furthermore, you can also use a laser to make cuts with fraying edges and add a rugged look to denim jeans.
It should be noted that laser engraving denim does not necessarily involve material removal.
The pattern can be engraved using a low-powered laser by vaporizing the dye from the fabric.
Therefore, laser engraving on denim can be achieved even by low-powered diode lasers like Ortur Laser Master 2.
When using Ortur Laser Master 2 or other similar diode lasers, it is recommended to engrave denim at full power and a high engraving speed of around 400 ipm (10,000 mm/min).
Logo printing is one of the most common and versatile applications of laser engraving fabrics.
Laser engraving can be used to print logos on company T-shirts, uniforms, event costumes, personalized clothing, handbags, etc.
The ability to laser engrave logos on various types of fabrics makes it a versatile application that can be turned into a profitable business.
Furthermore, having good logo designing skills can help you make extra profit by providing the complete service of designing and printing the logo.
Processing synthetic fabrics under a laser results in the melting of the fabric.
This property can be used to create a permanent welded joint in synthetic fabrics by using a laser.
Joining the ends of a garment by laser welding produces a comparatively less bulky seam than a traditional stitched seam.
Although a welded seam is less durable than a stitched seam, its sleek look makes it highly popular in designer clothing.
It is recommended to use a moderate laser power for seam welding, which is high enough to melt the fabric but not too high to vaporize it.
Heat Transfer Material
Heat transfer material consists of a thin film with a heat-activated adhesive on the back that bonds with the fabric permanently on the application of heat and pressure.
A laser can be used to cut out intricate patterns on the heat transfer material and then apply that pattern to the desired fabric.
As laser engraving thin fabrics like cotton weaken their structural integrity, heat transfer material offers an excellent alternative.
It can be used to print the desired pattern on t-shirts and other soft materials without affecting the structural integrity of the fabric.
However, some heat transfer materials contain vinyl content, and it is recommended to check the contents of the material before processing it under the laser.
Best Laser Cutters for Fabrics
Trotec Speedy 100- Best Overall Laser Cutter for Fabrics
The Trotec Speedy 100 offers a work area of 27” x 13.5” with a footprint of 40” x 31” x 40”.
Its high engraving speed of 110 ips provides quick processing, which makes it suitable for jobs that involve mass production of laser cut/engraved fabrics.
Trotec Speedy 100 offers various laser options like 30W - 60W CO2 laser, 20W - 30W fiber laser, or a flexx laser that offers both fiber and CO2 laser in one machine.
Depending upon your requirement, you can either select a CO2 laser module or the Flexx module if your application involves laser processing metals.
The laser in the Trotec Speedy operates inside a closed enclosure, making it safe to use even on busy shop floors.
Trotec also provides large format laser cutting machines under their SP series, which are ideal for working on large size fabrics like curtains and table cloth.
Furthermore, they also provide three more laser engravers under the Speedy series that offer a relatively larger work area than Speedy 100.
|Model||Work Area||Laser Power (W)|
|Speedy 100||27” x 13.5”||30-60|
|Speedy 300||31” x 17”||30-120|
|Speedy 360||35” x 24”||60-120|
|Speedy 400||43” x 27.5”||60-120|
Different models of the Trotec Speedy series
The Glowforge Plus offers a work area of 19.5” x 11” and has a footprint of 38″ x 20.75″ x 8.25″.
Its 40W CO2 laser makes it ideal for cutting and engraving various fabrics and can process fabrics as thick as 0.03".
Glowforge Plus offers an inbuilt air assist that facilitates making clean cuts in fabrics.
Its inbuilt cameras and user-friendly interface make it easy to use even for beginners.
All these features combined with its high precision of 0.001 inches, enables you to cut intricate designs on various fabrics.
Overall, it is a medium-range desktop laser cutter that is ideal for small size fabric businesses.
High precision with Air-assist
Easy-to-use with built-in Cameras
With a footprint of 21.2” x 19.68” x 5.9” and a large work area of 15.5" x 17", Ortur Laser Master 2 is an excellent laser cutter for DIY enthusiasts.
It offers low-powered diode lasers with power ratings of 1.6W - 6.5W at a budget-friendly price point.
With a maximum engraving speed of 120 ipm, it can be used for engraving various fabrics with a quick cycle time.
Furthermore, the low power and high engraving speed of Laser Master 2 enables to engrave photographs on fabrics without overburning them.
Laser Master 2 is an open frame laser cutter that makes it easy to place over long fabrics.
A more detailed review of this laser engraver can be found here - Ortur Laser Master 2 Review
Laser cutting has revolutionized the fabric industry by providing designers with the opportunity to expand their creativity and make extremely intricate designs.
When performing test runs on material for the first time, it is always recommended to start with the lowest power and fastest speed and slowly work your way up until you find the best results.
With a good laser cutter at hand and with a bit of practice, laser cutting/engraving fabrics can easily be turned into a profitable business venture.
It is recommended that large-scale businesses use galvo lasers as they provide faster-marking speed and more efficient production compared to budget lasers.
Laser Cutting and Engraving other Materials
Check out these guides on laser cutting some popular materials.
|Material||Link to Guide|
|Paper||Laser Cutting Paper|
|Acrylic||Laser Cutting and Engraving Acrylic|
|Aluminum||Laser Cutting and Engraving Aluminum|
|Leather||Laser Cutting and Engraving Leather|
|Plastic||Laser Cutting and Engraving Plastic|
|Polypropylene||Laser cutting polypropylene|
|Brass||Laser Engraving Brass|
|Foam||Laser Cutting Foam|
|Plywood||Laser Cutting Plywood|
|Glass||Laser Cutting Glass|
|Vinyl||Laser Cutting Vinyl|
Laser Cutting Guides for other Materials
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Can we use a diode laser to cut denim?
Yes, you can use a diode laser to cut denim. However, diode lasers are low-powered lasers that produce better results for engraving and can be occasionally used for cutting denim in multiple passes.
Is there any fabric that can't be cut by a laser?
Yes, some fabrics contain vinyl content and cannot be cut by a laser. One such example is "PVC clothing", often known as "vinyl clothing". These garments are made of PVC material and are recognized by their glossy appearance.
Can we use a laser cutter to cut a stack of fabrics?
No, laser cutter cannot be used to cut a stack of fabrics. It is perhaps the only limitation of laser cutting when compared to traditional knife cutters. Laser cutting multiple layers of fabric produces poor edge quality with burn marks and can even cause a fire. Furthermore, when cutting multiple layers of synthetic fabrics, laser cutting can weld the layers of fabrics along their cut edge.