Laser Tag

Using lasers can offer varied embellishment styles, textures and dimensions in appliqué.

By Ed Balady, Contributing Writer

Because the fabric is laid down in the hoop and does not have to be moved, it’s possible to do multiple layers in a production friendly manner with an embroidery laser.

March 18, 2015

One of the most untapped technologies in the decorated apparel industry is the embroidery laser. Although it’s been available for 20 years, decorators only recently have begun to scratch the surface of all its possibilities. For shops that offer embroidery, it incrementally expands the opportunities to create unique, innovative apparel that your competitors will be hard pressed to provide.

While the multihead laser bridge machine — starting at $150,000 — may be cost-prohibitive for small shops, singlehead lasers, with their $25,000-$40,000 price tag, are affordable. For a decorator who enjoys the creative process and is willing to spend time doing some research, development and experimentation, the rewards can be great.

If you have been wondering what an embroidery laser can be used for, the following is a rundown of some of the cool, unique looks it can create and some details on how they are done.

In its simplest definition, a multilayer appliqué is anything done with more than one piece of fabric. However, when done with an embroidery laser, multilayer appliqués can be created in a production-friendly way that takes them into another dimension.

One example is layering fabrics on top of each other. You might use a piece of felt for the base layer, put fleece on top, and then add a piece of T-shirt jersey. If this is done for a letter or word, it now raises up off the top of the garment, adding texture and dimension. Combining contrasting colors and textures enables the decorator to create endless new looks for a classic school initial or name.

The other multilayer technique involves using multiple pieces that do not overlap but fit together like a puzzle. This not only allows for a bigger design, but also one that uses much fewer stitches while adding more colors.

Most multilayer appliqués stop at three pieces, but with the advent of the embroidery laser, some designers have used as many as four or five pieces to create complex, beautiful designs.

When running a multilayer appliqué using a laser embroidery machine, layers still are done one at a time, but because of the speed at which the laser cuts, production is accomplished three, four or more times faster than traditional methods.

Once the hooped garment is loaded onto the machine, the first fabric swatch is laid in the hoop. Laser lights can assist in ensuring it is positioned correctly. The embroidery head sews it down and then the laser cuts it out. The excess fabric is weeded and the process begins again until all the layers have been completed.

It’s been a long time since the distressed look, also referred to as retro or vintage, took the decorated apparel market by storm, and it looks like it’s here to stay. Laser embroidery machines are ideal for creating and continuing to innovate this popular look.

With many retail brands offering distressed appliqué apparel, decorators now can create similar looks, but on a custom level — and it can be priced accordingly.

Another reason for the popularity of the distressed trend is softer fabrics. Traditional appliqué is done using stiff polyester twill, which can create a board-like feel if it’s used for a full-front-chest design. Distressed designs typically are created using felt, cotton twill, fleece or T-shirt jersey, which are softer and more comfortable to wear. The softness of these fabrics makes them difficult to handle using traditional appliqué methods because they have to be cut in one place, and then transported and positioned inside the embroidery hoop. Without some type of backing or support, they cannot easily be moved and placed.

However, with the embroidery laser, the uncut fabric simply is placed in the hoop and isn’t moved again until it has been sewn down and cut, opening the door to many new fabrics that were never before production friendly.

Distressed designs can be created in two forms. In one, the edges of the fabric are not sewn down, which causes them to fray or curl up. The second technique is to literally cut chunks or slices out of the letter or shape to make it look ripped, ragged or worn.

The first technique will look different depending on the fabric type that is used. Knits are favored for the frayed or curled-edge look.

Here’s a rundown of the most popular fabrics and their looks.

T-Shirt Jersey: This is the most oft-used fabric type for the curled-edge look. You literally can take any reject or misprinted T-shirt in your shop, cut out a square big enough for your design and sew it down. It’s a great way to recycle an otherwise unsellable shirt and turn it into something for which you can charge a high margin. After washing, the edges will curl even more.

Cotton Twill: Also known as chino twill, this fabric is made of 100% cotton, and is dense, tightly woven and needs a lot of power to cut neatly. The technique used for cotton twill is not meant to cut completely through the fabric, but just enough so that it still can be pulled away. The pulling action tugs at the fabric edges, creating a frayed look. In fact, cotton twill frays the best of any fabric.

Fleece: Both 100% cotton and 50/50 fleece work equally well for distressing. Fleece falls in between felt and cotton twill in terms of laser power needed to cut it. One distinction with fleece is the face does not look the same as the other side. So there’s an opportunity to get two different looks from fleece, depending on which side is facing up.

To create the distressed look with this fabric, use a little less power than is needed for a clean cut. With the laser not cutting completely through, when excess fabric is pulled away, it creates a ragged, uneven edge. To further distress it, brush the edges.

Another advantage of fleece is its thickness. It can lift letters or shapes off the garment, creating a more dimensional look.

Felt: To get an uneven or ragged edge, felt often is used. Because felt is a nonwoven material — it is made by condensing and pressing long fibers like acrylic or wool together — it will not fray or unravel as woven knit fabric does. It requires the most power to cut through. It naturally has uneven edges, and this can be further enhanced by using the laser software to create a vector cutting line to take “bites” out of it. Little nicks or chunks are removed from the outside edges, creating that ragged-edge look.

This is another technique that, until the embroidery laser came along, was not production friendly. To create this look, the appliqué fabric is placed inside the garment. The laser then cuts out a shape or letter from the garment itself, allowing the inside fabric to peek through. It can be done cleanly with the edge neatly sewn down or it can be sewn down, leaving the edge raw if a distressed look is desired.

Depending on which garment fabric is to be cut, a distressed look can be created either by decreasing the power so it does not cut cleanly (which creates fraying when pulled away) or the cutline can be digitized to be uneven, creating a ragged edge.     

One difference in the reverse appliqué production process versus those discussed earlier is that the appliqué fabric must be inserted and hooped with the garment. It is not laid on top inside the hoop. In most cases, a stabilizer is not required for the inside appliqué fabric.

Once the garment and appliqué fabric are hooped, the embroidery machine sews the outline of the shape and the laser cuts it out. If the edge is to be distressed, it’s done. If it’s not, the embroidery machine then sews a border along the edge. Another desirable look is to use only a running or bean (triple) stitch without a border stitch covering the raw edge.

Reverse appliqué most often is used to create large, front-chest designs, but some other innovations have appeared. One example is using the laser to create slits, but not actually cutting out a hole. So when the garment is worn — depending on the wearer’s movement — these slits pop open, revealing the appliqué fabric underneath.

And the raw edges look distressed over time.

Another variation is to only partially cut the outline of the shape. For example, only cut the top half of a heart shape so it flops down, revealing the appliqué fabric underneath. In this case, the piece would not even have to be weeded. It’s just an open flap that, when washed, would look distressed.

This particular technique is one of the latest innovations in the use of embroidery lasers, and it promises to make a significant impact in garment embellishment. It currently is being used in floral designs to create loose petals.

For reverse appliqué, you generally can choose a soft fabric — such as a T-shirt knit, cotton quilt material or patterned fabric — that easily can be cut by the laser. Cotton twill also works well.

For a sexier look, lace, netting or sheer fabrics, like organza, also are used. Bling-like fabrics that have glitter or are iridescent also can make a design look flashier.

The unique properties of an embroidery laser also make it possible to do more complex and fine-line cutting than ever before. Tree branches, a soccer ball net, snowflakes and delicate flowers are just some of the many examples that this technique has been used to create.

The fashion industry has made the best use of this technique today by creating intricate patterns of flowers, as well as abstract and irregular lines, to create designer looks. Using fabrics of different textures and thickness also enables designers to create a wide range of different effects.

As an example of how the laser has made this technique production friendly, one fashion house had been creating intricately cut floral shapes manually. Thus, it took the staff two to three days to complete one piece. This same type of design now can be done in two to three hours using an embroidery laser.

Intricate cutting also is being used in the fashion world to create borders on the bottoms of skirts. A reverse appliqué fabric is sewn on the inside and an intricate pattern is cut through the skirt, revealing the fabric underneath. Similarly, a neon color may be used inside a black skirt with an intricately cut pattern along the hem. In leather skirts and pants, decorative edges are added that simply remain as holes with no fabric underneath.

When doing intricate cutting, you want to stick to fabrics that cut easily. A fool-proof test of how easy a fabric cuts is to use fabric shears. If the scissors cut through it easily, so will the laser.

Of all the processes made possible with a laser embroidery machine, etching is the most profitable. It requires no consumable. Neither fabric, thread nor stabilizer is used. Because it is lightly removing the top layer of fibers from a garment, it is lightning fast to do.

One of the most popular uses of etching is for performancewear. Screen printing or embroidering on a moisture-wicking garment interferes with the fabric’s performance properties, but etching does not.

Polyester fleece is a fabric type that etches extremely well, creating a slightly darker area where the etching is done. Cotton twill and denim also work well, as does leather. When shiny fabrics are etched, it creates a matte look that can be a nice contrast to the shiny fabric.

Etching is not limited to garments. While a pair of slippers can be difficult to screen print or embroider, they can easily be etched. There is no contact between the slipper and the laser, so it will not get damaged during the production process. It can be a great way to decorate products that don’t lend themselves to other types of embellishment.

These are just some of the main techniques currently being used with an embroidery laser. As the technology continues to improve and grow, expect to see many new innovations with this versatile equipment. If you want to be leading the pack vs. following it, do your own research on how this equipment can help catapult you ahead of your competitors.

Ed Balady is president of BITO USA, Deer Park, N.Y., a distributor of the Proel line of embroidery and standalone lasers, as well as Millennium digitizing software. He also is co-owner of Proel TSI, the manufacturer of the Proel line. For more information or to comment on this article, email him at ebalady@bitousa.com or visit bitousa.com.