Over 2 billion tee shirts are sold around the world every year. Most people are familiar with the processes for creating these shirts, whether they be screen printed tee shirts, embroidered tee shirts, and heat pressed tee shirts. To briefly summarize:
-Screen printed tee shirts have a design printed in ink.
-Embroidered tee shirts have a design stitched in thread.
-Heat pressed tee shirts have a design printed or stitched onto a plastic substrate that is melted onto the tee shirt. The plastic substrate with the printing or stitching is commonly referred to as an iron-on or applique.
There is a relatively new process for creating custom designed tee shirts. A laser engraved tee shirt is made with a laser to etch a design into the fabric of the shirt.
While some descriptions of this process refer to the laser “burning” the design into the fabric, the process is somewhat more complicated than that. With some fabrics, such as fleece and micro-fiber, the laser slightly melts the fabric, making it darker. With dyed fabrics, the laser destroys the dye molecules, similar to sun bleaching or sun fading, making the fabric lighter.
Here are four decisions that must be made when designing a laser engraved tee shirt:
While any fabric can be used to produce laser engraved tee shirts, anecdotal evidence suggests that synthetics and synthetic blends produce better results than natural fibers. Synthetics and synthetic blends tolerate the heat from the laser better, allowing creators to etch the design without worrying about burning holes in the fabric. When lasers are used to etch natural fibers, such as cotton, some fine-tuning is required to apply enough energy to etch the fabric, but not so much that the fabric is damaged or catches on fire.
When creating the design for a laser engraved tee shirt, the fabric you choose may determine the intricacy of the design that you can etch onto the material. In some cases, a laser can cut more intricate designs than screen printing, embroidery, or heat transfers. With tightly woven fabric, such as high thread count cotton and moisture-wicking synthetics, the intricacies of a design may appear as clear or clearer on laser etched tee shirts than screen printed, embroidered, or heat pressed tee shirts. However, low thread count fabrics and textured fabrics, such as fleece, may produce a fuzzy-looking design that loses intricate details.
Moreover, because lasers use heat to etch the design, designs that have large solid areas may need to be converted to outlines so that the accumulated heat does not damage the fabric. Designs that require large solid areas may be better suited for screen printing, embroidering, or heat pressing.
The laser etching machine used to produce the shirt may limit the size of the design. While this is not always a limitation for certain designs, laser etching is often better for smaller designs than larger designs. Moreover, because of the way the machine holds the fabric taut during laser etching, smaller designs are less likely to appear warped than large designs when the fabric is removed from the machine.
The choice of shirt color is more important when laser etching than screen printing, embroidering, or heat pressing a design onto a shirt. The reason is that the laser etching does not actually add a color to the fabric. Rather, the laser etching alters the color that is already there. As mentioned above, this occurs either by causing the color of the fabric to fade under the intense energy of the laser or causing the color of the fabric to darken by slightly melting it. The color contrast produced between the fabric and the etching will vary greatly depending on the color of the fabric. Many manufacturers can provide samples showing how different color fabrics react to laser etching.
Laser engraved tee shirts can provide an effect that is very different from printed, embroidered, or heat pressed tee shirts. Before creating a laser engraved tee shirt, you should consider the type and color of fabric you wish to use as well as the intricacy and size of your design, all of which influence the final product.