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Laser Cutting in the Textiles Industry

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

We all wear many pieces of clothing. But how do you cut intricate designs in fabric? What kind of equipment is used? In this lesson, explore laser cutting in the textile industry.

Why Cut Fabrics?

You wear clothing every day. Some of your favorite shirts, hats, or accessories might have small parts, decorations, and designs cut into them. But have you ever thought about how your clothes are made? Did you know that, today, lasers are being used in the textile industry?

Laser cutting in the textiles industry has been growing in popularity over the last two decades or so. It's a process that uses lasers, or high-energy beams of light, to cut patterns and designs from fabric. To understand why cutting fabric is important, think about a shirt or blouse for a moment. It has at least two sides: a front and a back. It probably has sleeves, might have a collar, and may also use different fabric for cuffs. Well, all those pieces need to be cut before the garment can be assembled.

At one time, all fabric was cut with sharp blades. Patterns would be chalked onto a surface and cut with scissors. Later, electric cutting machines replaced people with scissors, and the process became more efficient. But tools still came into contact with the fabric. Sharp blades became dull and needed sharpening or they might damage the fabric. Some mechanical processes used powerful vacuum systems to hold many layers of fabric in place while they were being cut, which could distort or pull on the fabric. For high-quality garments, each piece needed to be cut by hand.

In general, cutting textiles was a long and time-consuming process. The process of laser-cutting textiles replaced sharp blades with beams of light. It makes the process more efficient.

How does Laser Cutting Work?

To laser-cut fabric, a designer first creates a pattern. Today, many patterns are created using CAD or computer-aided design software. When the design is finished, it's transferred to a machine that will do the cutting. This machine might connect to another software system called CAM, or computer-aided manufacturing. These systems organize and control the whole process of manufacturing fabric. They can take a design and immediately transfer it to the laser machine for cutting.

Several kinds of lasers are used to cut fabric. Most textile cutting tends to be done with a CO2 laser, a gas laser that creates infrared light. This is a different laser than those used to cut hard materials like wood or metal. A machine guides the laser, which then cuts pieces of fabric by melting or vaporizing it along lines corresponding to the design. In large laser-cutting machines, the fabric is laid flat and the laser does the cutting from a mount above the fabric. No pressure is put on the fabric because only the laser beam comes into contact with it.

Lasers are used on many kinds of fabrics, including silk, nylon, polyester, cotton, and leather. They're especially good for synthetic or man-made fabrics. These materials are more plastic-like. When the laser cuts them, it melts their edges, perfectly sealing them with no frayed threads. The only type of materials that can't be cut with lasers are some vinyls, especially those made with PVC (polyvinyl chloride a type of plastic). They give off a harmful gas when the heat of the laser touches them.

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