Laser Engraving Secrets - Fabric

August 2018

My favorite laser-cutting techniques are those that don't look laser cut.

Laser engraved fabric is one of those techniques.

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When I set up my studio I envisioned hanging a laser cut fabric piece created by an artist client over the laser cutter. Three years have gone by and the wall is still bare, so I'm going to take things into my own hands and share with you how I created this laser engraved tapestry.

In this newsletter I'm sharing my secrets for laser engraving fabric. The results are so so fine most people can't imagine how these pieces are made. I'll take you through the process of preparing the file all the way to engraving the tapestry. 

Step 1: The Image

For this piece I'm going to use a drawing from my sketchbook. To turn it into a laser-ready file I first need to scan the image at a high resolution (300 dpi or higher) and load it into PhotoShop.

 Original sketch

Original sketch

For this type of engraving the image needs to be black & white. When I say black & white I mean it. The image needs to be pure black and the non-image area (paper) pure white. No gray!

First turn the image to Grayscale. Now it's time to  play with Curves. On the left is the original image. See how "gray" it is? On the right is the image after adjusting the Curves.

 Scanned image (left). Image after adjusting Curves (right).

Scanned image (left). Image after adjusting Curves (right).

If you don't know what Curves is have no fear. Skip down to the laser cutting part and hold tight. I'm in the process of making an instructional video for this process. I'll let you know when it comes out.

Step 2: Image Trace

Next I bring my image into Illustrator and use Image Trace to turn the .JPEG/.TIFF into a vector.

Wahala, with the click of a button it's a vector the laser cutter can read!

It's magic, with a catch. Image Trace uses an algorithm to translated the image into a vector and as with any translation program it isn't always perfect.

Since want to engrave this image at 45" x 30" I go in and hand correct all the wonky parts.

Step 3: Preparing the material

I'm using a heavy weight 100% cotton twill from Cali Fabrics. You want a non-stretch fabric with fibers that are thick enough that the dye hasn't fully penetrated and can withstand having it's top layer shaved off without falling apart.

As with any laser engraving it is important that the material is flat, so I get out the iron. I also adhered interfacing to the back to give it extra stability and lightly tack it down to a board with spray adhesive.

Step 4: Step Test

If you've been reading my newsletters you know how much I love step tests and figuring out the optimal setting for a material. Always test your materials!

I've used two different types of Robert Kaufman twill for laser engraving and while they're was only a slight difference in their weights, the laser engraving settings were very different.

Step 5: Laser Engraving

The time has finally arrived to do the engraving. Now I get to sit back and watch the laser do it thing. It's a big image ... it takes a long time.

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Step 6: Mounting

Once the engraving is done it is time to mount the panels. For this piece I stretched the fabric on painting stretcher bars but it's a delicate job because the engraved fabric can start to break apart when it is stretched over a sharp edge.

The best mounting method is glueing the fabric to a braced board before engraving. Wrap the fabric around the board as you would with a stretcher bar and staple on the back. This give a clean that doesn't require framing.

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Sarah Pike. The Fallen, laser engraved fabric, 30" x 45".