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Lasers Create Fashions to Dye For

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Brent D. Johnson

The garment industry has traditionally been a labor-intensive business that has profited relatively little from advances in photonics technology. However, a novel application of a CO2 laser is making an impression with clothing manufacturers such as Polo Jean Co., Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, to name a few.

A CO2 laser is making an impression on the pocket of a pair of denim jeans.
Levi Strauss & Co. is using the laser to make "tattoos" on denim at the company's flagship store at Union Square in San Francisco. The Levi's Store has a special customization area where the wide-scanning 40-W CO2 laser system has worked alongside embroidering machines, riveting devices and air abrasion systems for sanding and finishing denim.

Jeans manipulation

Customers simply pick out a pair of jeans, select a pattern, and the machine creates the design. The process produces abrasions and whiskers on the fabric that make the material look old and worn. The company previously performed this process with a sandblasting technique, which degraded the denim.

The laser, called DenimLase 2004, is from Icon Laser Technologies. It has a 64-in. scan field that produces intricate designs on cloth. Icon had experimented with doubled and fundamental YAG lasers, but it found that the CO2 works particularly well with denim. The dye molecules in denim vaporize at a lower temperature than in cotton, so the designs can be made without weakening the material. In addition, YAG lasers interact only with sulfur-based dyes, and the most common dye in clothing is indigo.

Karen Burbano, customization and merchandising director for Levi's, said that the device also serves as entertainment. "Guys are fascinated by the process," she said. People enjoy watching the laser at work as the image suddenly appears before their eyes. Depending on the power of the laser, smoke or flames may also add to the show. The result is a faded indigo.

Names and flames

Most customers choose from stock designs, but they can use their own images, which can be converted by PhotoShop into the system's Prolase software format. Among the most popular artwork are flames along the hem of the jeans and names. Other sought-after designs include Buddhas, dragons and flowers.

The laser system also works on leather, giving it an embossed appearance.

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2002
Accent on ApplicationsApplicationslasers

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