Laser cutting and 3D printing have been growing in popularity for years – in fact decades now. The world of fashion has always been known for embracing innovation, and so it isn’t surprising that designers have experimented with the technology – innovation, and focusing on the new has always been the driving force of fashion. As the great Karl Lagerfeld once said, “I continue to embrace the present and invent the future” – and there are few fashion designers who would not agree with that sentiment.
Today, laser cutters have become an integral tool for the fashion industry to create new and interesting products and effects – and as 3D printers have become more affordable, they are finding their place in fashion ateliers and innovative design studios too. In this post, we’re going to take a look at the way laser cutters and 3D printers are used in the fashion industry – with some incredible examples of work to take a look at along the way – and a look at how technology is helping the fashion industry to innovate and become more sustainable.
Laser cutters are incredibly useful tools to have available, which is why so many industries have chosen to buy them for their workspaces. The accuracy and flexibility that they offer is just one reason for many industries find laser cutters to be useful – and partly why the fashion industry loves them too.
What are the advantages of using laser cutters for making clothes?
When many of us think of dressmaking, we picture large tables with huge rolls of fabrics and massive pairs of scissors – but in clothes manufacturing today, that is a pretty outdated notion. Laser cutters are now commonplace in fashion design studios for a wide range of reasons.
Versatile range of materials can be cut
The versatile range of fabrics that you can cut with a laser cutter is part of the appeal for designers and manufacturers. We’ve listed some of the fabrics that are suitable for cutting with laser cutters here, but of course, these aren’t the only materials – there are plenty of other materials that can be cut with laser cutters!
EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate)
Fluffy materials (e.g. ‘teddy bear’ materials, some artificial furs)
Start-up costs are low
Lower cost laser cutters can be suitable for cutting a wide range of fabrics, which means that getting started with laser cutters can be relatively inexpensive – and budget laser cutters can be ideal.
Once the laser cutter has been purchased, there are a number of open source design packages that are suitable for designers to use, and because open source also means free of charge, finding the best package doesn’t cost anything. Learning how to use computer design packages to cut fabrics with is easy and free too, since there are thousands of tutorial videos on YouTube.
Range of techniques available
With laser marking, laser engraving and laser cutting all possible in a single machine, there are fewer additional tools required. That means less space taken up in smaller design spaces, and because the machines are controlled by a PC, finishes are highly accurate and replicable.
Smaller detailing can be achieved
As with other types of materials, the accuracy of laser cutters offers huge appeal to designers. Tiny detailing can be achieved, meaning that there is potential to create intricate designs quickly, with no need to commission materials that are expensive to produce such as lace. There is also much lower risk of making mistakes, compared with using traditional manual methods of cutting.
Higher quality finishes
Fabrics do not need to be fixed in the laser cutter, since there aren’t any forces that can accidentally alter the lay of the fabric, and when cutting the finish is incredibly precise. Not only that, but with synthetic fabrics, the edges of the material are also fused, meaning that there is little to no fraying. The process is clean and lint-free, with less clean up required than with other methods of cutting.
High working speed
Although there has been a trend towards more sustainable, ‘slower’ fashion options which places an emphasis on quality over quantity of items of late, the fact is that the world of fashion still moves quickly, and there is high demand for new designs. Using laser cutters allows more items to be made within the same amount of time.
Ideal for testing concepts
While the appeal of some fashion brands is that items are made by hand – the highly coveted Hermes bags, for example – laser cutters may be used by designers and manufacturers to test new concepts quickly before finalising a design. Whether the design is then made using traditional techniques is up to the company of course, but being able to create prototypes quickly is well worth the cost of the machine.
Laser cutting presents potential savings for fashion designers and manufacturers. The precision offered means that material costs may be lowered, since there is less need for excess fabric to be saved for seam allowances, and in the case of accessories such as leather belts, it may be possible to make more items from a single piece of material.
In addition to lower materials, running costs are lower too. The lack of friction and mechanical wear in laser cutters means that there are fewer servicing requirements – although maintenance and servicing is of course required to keep the machine running efficiently.
Reproducing items is easy
As long as the design files are available, the designs can be put back into production instantly – which is perfect if a particular design is a bestseller, or there is demand from customers to be able to buy the item in a different colour or fabric. Further, if customer feedback suggests slight alterations would be desirable – such as adjustments to the sleeves, length, or neckline – designers can easily edit the design to make variations on the original design available.
Laser cutters can produce different effects
It isn’t just cutting that lasers can do – other techniques are possible. Engraving and etching is a popular way to mark materials with laser cutters – and it is also possible to use lasers to engrave onto fabrics too.
Laser based denim fading
To create worn-in effects on denim items in years gone by, clothing manufacturers would use stone washing techniques, sand blasting, or chemical treatments such as acid washing. However, these techniques have high environmental impact, as they require lots of energy, and other resources. Pumice stones that are usually used to create the stone wash appearance have to be mined, while acid washing uses chemicals that are potentially hazardous too.
Laser based denim fading is similar to etching or engraving, in that the laser is used to decompose the dye, and the material fades only where there the beam has been on the fabric. The amount of marking that is created depends on the power density of the laser, as well as the wavelength and the pulse width of the laser beam.
The laser denim fading technique offers manufacturers the advantage that they can create many items with exactly the same effects, with a much lower impact on the environment, and at much lower cost.
Many clothing designers and manufacturers are using laser engraving to create patterns, logos, and pictures on fabrics, which means there are less chemicals required to create effects. Such laser engraved patterns also mean that a more luxurious effect can be created, in place of using more expensive fabrics like intricate lace – meaning manufacturers can either use these pieces to test the look, or create multiple items with the same look at lower costs.
Almost any design that has been created in a computer aided design (CAD) package can be transferred onto fabrics. As with so many other aspects of using a laser cutter, laser engraving offers high speed finishing, without any wear and tear of components. Not only that, because the amount of power required for laser engraving is much lower, more affordable laser cutters are able to be used for laser engraving on fabrics – lowering the cost of creating those garments even further.
Which types of laser cutters are used in the fashion industry?
Gas laser cutters are commonly used laser cutters in the fashion industry, since they are suitable for cutting organic materials, including leather, cotton, felt and hemp, and can cut many synthetic fabrics too.
What fashion items can be cut using laser cutters?
As long as the fabric is suitable to be used in the laser cutter, then almost all types of garments and accessories can be made using laser cut materials. Laser cut detailing is commonplace, with luxury fashion designers including Oscar de la Renta, Chanel and Christian Louboutin using laser cutters across their ranges – and of course, where high fashion leads, high street fashion follows.
Since laser cutters are ideal for cutting and engraving acrylics, woods, and stones, it is no surprise that designers would use them to create fashion jewellery. The ease of use, and the ability to quickly replicate designs is a huge appeal here, and accuracy means that larger pendants and intricate earrings can be made from lightweight materials such as leather.
Most other types of fashion accessories can be cut with laser cutters. Shoes, handbags, belts, and sunglasses – in fact, as long as the material is safe to be cut with a laser cutter, it can be done, and it is this versatility that holds the appeal for designers.
Challenges for the fashion industry using laser cutters
Laser cutters are brilliant, but they aren’t always the best solution – and in the fashion industry, there are plenty of potential pitfalls when it comes to using laser cutters. We spoke at length about problems that can ruin laser cutters in this post, and all of those issues apply in the fashion industry, but these are two of the biggest issues that designers face with laser cutters.
Learning how to use software packages that control laser cutters is just one challenge facing the fashion industry faces – however, the reality is that learning how to use this type of package has never been easier. Laser cutters are far from traditional ways of cutting fabrics, and so ensuring that staff can use them effectively, and safely is a big challenge too – which brings us to our next issue.
Fabrics that can’t be cut with laser cutters
As we’ve discussed before, there are some materials that shouldn’t be anywhere near the cutting bed of a laser cutter. Unfortunately, some of these materials are ones that inexperienced laser cutter users might assume are OK to cut – and with potentially dire consequences.
The main materials that are commonly used in the fashion industry are PVC, vinyl, and artificial leathers – they are often used as a vegan alternative to leather, and so there is demand from consumers for similar clothing and accessories. Unfortunately, these types of materials release poisonous chlorine gas when they’re cut with a laser, which even in small quantities will irritate the lungs, and in larger quantities can be fatal in under half an hour. Not only does it cause problems for the operator of the laser cutter, but it can damage the machine badly too, with severe damage to optics, corrosion being caused to metal parts, and potential issues for the control system.
There are a number of other materials that might be potentially used by designers in the fashion industry, but that can’t be cut in a laser cutter. These include thick polycarbonate, ABS, polypropylene foam, fibreglass, coated carbon fibre and anything with sticky glue backing – and you can find more about why you should never cut these materials in a laser cutter in this post.
While laser cutters undoubtedly present a huge number of advantages for designers and manufacturers in the fashion industry, the potential of 3D printers is becoming more widely recognised by the industry. Frequently, smaller sized accessories are being made with 3D printers, but they are also being used for creating prototypes and approving concepts before making the final products out of more expensive materials. 3D printing has been seen in the fashion industry as early as 2013, and since then fashion brands have wholeheartedly embraced the technology.
How are 3D printers used in the fashion industry?
There are several ways that 3D printers are being used in the fashion industry – and it isn’t just to create final pieces. Just as in other industries, 3D printing can be used for certain elements of a design, to create a prototype, to create specialist tools and for customisation purposes.
To create parts of a design
Although some designers are using 3D printing to create a whole design, or an entire piece of clothing – we’ll get to some of those in a moment – many are using the technology simply to create certain parts of the design, such as embellishments like buttons, buckles or straps.
In costume manufacturing for TV or movies, this means that elements of historical garments can be made almost exactly, relatively quickly and inexpensively, without the need to use and risk the original item being damaged.
3D modelling on a PC is great for creating designs, but there really isn’t any way around the fact that having a version of the design in your hands is useful. A prototype can help to establish if it is suitable, there are a few adjustments to make, or if it simply won’t work at all in practice. That’s why 3D printing is used across so many industries to create prototypes of goods prior to making their final design out of the intended material – whether that’s to create parts for manufacturing, or in the case of the fashion industry, an accessory.
As with other industries, there are plenty of opportunities in the world of fashion to use 3D printing to create new tools. Luxury brand Louis Vuitton is one of the brands that has embraced the extensive opportunities that 3D printing offers, and they are known to encourage their craftspeople to be creative – not just in their designs, but also in creating new techniques and improving production processes.
At high street level, customers aren’t able to get their hands on personalised, and customised clothing or accessories easily, or at a price that many can afford. Over the past decade or so, as ecommerce sales have risen, it has become easier to source customisable clothing using print on demand models. As 3D printers have become more affordable to manufacturers, the print on demand model has started to become a possibility for other types of products, particularly where technology can be used to provide exact measurements.
Adidas are an example of a company that is using this type of technology, in their 4DFWD programme. This enables users of the programme to customise the soles of their trainers, and increase their performance at a surprisingly affordable price.
This type of customisation also means that the fashion industry can more easily support customers with unique requirements such as disabilities with creating products that fit perfectly – especially where the customer has a unique body shape, chooses to use prosthetic limbs, or uses assistive items such as wheelchairs.
What types of products are created using 3D printers in the fashion industry?
Many outside the fashion industry believe 3D printed clothing to be futuristic and unrealistic so far, but designers are innovating heavily, and there has been some incredible 3D printed fashion designs that have hit the runway, and the red carpets. Many of these designs are haute couture – and therefore unrealistic for everyday use – but they are leading the way, and these designs will influence fashion trends as a whole. Brands that have used 3D printing include:
Louis Vuitton was one of the first brands to adopt 3D printing technology, and created what is believed to have been the world’s very first 3D printed pop-up store, in Sydney in 2016.
Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga created near-seamless jackets in his autumn/winter 2018 collection, using 3D scans of the bodies of the models which were adjusted in a CAD programme. The scans were then 3D printed, moulded and cast with foam, after which materials like tweed and velvet were bonded to create the finished product.
Fashion house Guccicreated 3D printed replicas of the model’s own heads for their autumn/winter 2018 collection show – we’ll let you make your own opinion about those as a fashion statement, but you can’t say it isn’t innovative! At the Met Gala in 2019, designer Zac Posen collaborated with GE Additive and Protolabs to create a dress that was made of 37 3D printed rose petals, and finished with car paint to create a stunning effect that took over 1,100 hours to complete. He also created a custom 3D printed bustier dress that took over 200 hours to make, as well as accessories for other attendees of the ball – and while these designs aren’t everyday wear, you can see just how special they are in this post.
Victoria’s Secret used a 3D printed snowflake costume that was embellished with Swarovski crystals – you can see the look in this short video:
3D printed accessories
If you’ve ever searched for 3D printing projects to make at home, you’ll know there are thousands of projects available to make 3D printed jewellery at home. But it isn’t just brightly coloured plastic rings and necklaces being printed – many designers are using 3D printers to create moulds for metal designs that would be difficult to make from traditional techniques. Luxury fashion brand Balenciaga is an example, using 3D printing to create accessories like earrings, and countless other brands including Kenzo, Acne Studios, Alexander McQueen, and Carolina Herrera are too.
3D printed clothes projects
While there are countless 3D printed accessory projects that are available for people to download and print at home, there are fewer 3D printed clothes projects – and that is partly because of the flexibility of 3D printed materials. But those print at home projects are starting to become available, with Danit Peleg leading the way. Her clothing line is available to download and print.
There are some designers that are using 3D printing techniques to create completely new types of fabrics, innovating for sustainability, and to create less wasteful ways of making clothing. Although it might be a while before we’re regularly printing new clothing at home the way women used to make one-off dresses ahead of weekend parties, the ability to 3D print clothes at home is almost certainly coming.
Challenges of 3D printing in fashion
While 3D printing offers some great opportunities for the fashion industry, there are still some major challenges to be overcome.
Types of fabric that can be created with 3D printing is a challenge. Although there are various types of filament on the market, almost all of them present limitations for creating comfortable clothing. 3D printed fabrics tend to be much stiffer, meaning that creating items that are the consistency of leather is easy, but replicating the look and feel of traditional fabrics like cotton is much harder.
Sustainability is a problem in 3D printing in many cases. Some materials, like ABS and PLA are recyclable, but they often end up in landfill – which definitely isn’t helpful when it comes to saving the planet. However, there are some incredible innovations in 3D printing materials, including Flam (fungal-like adhesive material) created by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), which is made from plant matter and prawn shells, and decomposes without problems for the environment.
Efficiency is also an issue for 3D printing in the fashion industry. While small accessories are easily created, larger pieces can take multiple hours to complete. Danit Peleg used 3D printers to create a collection of garments that are comfortable and wearable – but it took more than 2000 hours (more than 83 days) to print completely. However, as sustainable 3D-printed clothing entrepreneur Julia Daviy says, this type of technology is being improved all the time – and so before long, 3D printing larger garments and accessories is likely to be a lot quicker.
Consumer acceptance is also a problem for the industry, which means there is a lot to be done when it comes to educating people. Many people don’t believe that 3D printed clothing can be good for the environment – especially in comparison with traditional fabrics like cotton. In reality, it has been shown to be the complete opposite. Products from the 2020 Morphogenesis bag collection were shown to have used 92% less CO2, 98% less waste, and 99% water usage in the production cycle than an average leather bag.
Learning the software for a new technology always presents an issue, and although there may be advantages to using 3D printed materials, designers may be reluctant to learn the processes – despite the demand from customers.
Predictions for the future of laser cutting & 3D printing in the fashion industry
While we don’t have a crystal ball, there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to laser cutting and 3D printing in the fashion industry. That’s partly because it presents opportunities for improved sustainability, but also for customers to get exactly what they want, or need, when they want it.
The evolution of technology means that the main improvement we expect to see for both laser cutters and 3D printers in the coming years is linked with speed – certainly for 3D printers, but also for laser cutters.
More sustainable fashion
We’ve already discussed the exciting work that Julia Daviy is doing creating 3D printed fashion designs, and there are lots of other innovations in making fashion more sustainable. Textiles are a huge part of the waste problem worldwide, and there is much to be done in making clothing manufacturing more environmentally friendly.
Technology is certain to be the future of sustainable fashion. Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder and CEO of the revolutionary fashion business Ministry of Supply confirms that 3D printing is part of the future of sustainable fashion with this statement: “With 3D-printed knitwear, only the required fabric is used. This results in approximately 30% less material waste”. Their Infinityº Programme allows customers to recycle items at the end of their life without any environmental impact – and it is likely that many more businesses will take this approach in the future.
To reduce supply chain issues. Being able to create accessories on demand will mean that as long as a retailer has the raw materials in stock, and has access to the design files, they can fulfil the order for the customer.This means the customer receives their order much quicker than if the retailer needed to order the item in.
Reducing waste. with so many customers now shopping more thoughtfully, being able to make use of recycled filament may be desirable for environmentally conscious brands to create new items without using virgin plastics.
To create tools and parts. This is already taking place in many businesses (as we mentioned with Louis Vuitton earlier) but this is likely to become even more valuable for fashion businesses.
For customers to create their own designs and to customise items. Bespoke items are always in demand, and 3D printing means that access to this type of product is much easier. This means that customers who want one-off pieces can access them, whether that is for luxury fashion reasons, or for practical reasons such as customers that have disabilities.
With so many uses for laser cutting and 3D printing, it makes sense that different industries will see how they can make use of the technology and use it to their advantage – and the fashion industry really is no different. Many of our customers think of laser cutters and 3D printing as being for use with harder materials, but the versatility that these machines provide means that there is a lot to be gained in other industries too – and most definitely in the fashion industry. Find out more about getting started with laser cutters here, and with 3D printers here, and for sales advice and help, call us on 0333 900 8700.