How to Laser Cut Fabric for Applique and Quilting

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While browsing a recent quilt show, I noticed many precut quilt packs boasted they were laser cut.

I immediately had questions. Was laser cutting better than other methods? Should I cut my fabric with my laser instead of by hand or with my Cricut? I mean, I usually only cut wood and acrylic and occasionally engrave with my laser. 

So, as a hobbyist, I tried laser cutting my own fabric. I spent hours fine-tuning settings, learning what I could and could not cut, and creating some future project fabric pieces. 

So, here’s everything you need to know about laser cutting fabric! I’ve included tutorials for cutting backed and unbacked fabric, with examples of quilt blocks and embroidered applique. 

how to laser cut fabric with xtool

Not All Lasers Cut All Fabrics

Thanks to wavelengths and physics, a commercial CO2 laser is a better laser for cutting fabric. However, I own a blue diode laser–my XTool S1 is much less expensive and more suited for me as a hobbyist–and it still can cut most fabric without issues. 

However, white and transparent blanks (like chiffon or thin, see-through, light-colored cotton) aren’t ideal, and even with every hack I could think of, I couldn’t get my diode laser to cut white broadcloth without burning. 

However, I can get it to engrave almost anything, which is a win.

Pros of Laser Cutting Fabric

When deciding if I should start cutting more of my textiles with lasers, I put together a pros and cons list. 

First, there is no contact with a sticky mat or blade (as with a Cricut or other fabric cutting device), meaning:

  • There is less fabric movement, distortion, and fraying, which is especially great when cutting stretch fabric like fleece. 
  • You can cut multiple layers of fabric at once; layers won’t shift because the laser doesn’t make mechanical contact with them. 
  • You’ll have more success with intricate designs, although there is a limit because lasers have focus limitations. 

Also, laser cuts are more precise and accurate, especially compared to humans who have to move and raise fabric to cut it with scissors. 

Lastly, you get a much cleaner cut at the fabric edges, and some fabric types become sealed on the edges from the laser heat. Woohoo, no need to neaten fabric edges anymore!

Cons of Using a Laser

However, it’s not a perfect setup.

  • The smell isn’t great, even when vented appropriately.
  • It takes more trial and error to get the right settings, which means more time and wasted material upfront. 
  • Whew, lasers are expensive. Much more expensive than scissors, for sure!
  • Fabric has to be secured well, or it will blow around inside the laser bed. 

Fabrics To Cut or Engrave and Those Not To (Safety First!)

The four types of fabric I’ve cut so far are denim, felt, fleece, and quilting cotton. 

However, per xTool, many, many natural and synthetic materials can be cut; other examples include linen, satin, polyester, and nylon. (I’m now envisioning doing embroidery cutwork with laser-cut linen napkins.)

However, avoid cutting vinyl-based fabric, as laser-cut PVC can release dangerous fumes. As a general rule, don’t cut anything with a coating that you’re unsure of, and wash fabric before cutting to remove chemicals.

If you want to engrave, you can also make some pretty cool lighter or darker patterns on fabric! Examples of fabric perfect for engraving include t-shirt knits, denim, fleece, leather, and even quilting cotton. 

Prepping Fabric Correctly

lay fabric flat

Fabric needs to be laid flat. If your fabric sinks into your honeycomb or doesn’t sit flat on the laser base, put a piece of wood or thick cardstock underneath. 

Fabric must also be free of wrinkles, so give it a good pressing to remove them. 

Lastly, fabric must be secure. You can use masking tape, painter’s tape, small weights, or the magnets that come with your honeycomb panel to hold the fabric in place. Once the ventilation airflow in an enclosed laser starts, lightweight pieces of cut fabric start taking flight. This is why I secure as much as possible and also use my Air Assist on max. 

Design File Know-How

You need a vector format for your design, such as SVG, DXF, or XCS if you use XTool Creative Space like I do. 

quilt block in eq8 provides a template

If I want to cut a quilt block, I use Electric Quilt 8 to generate a cutting template.

use inkstitch

Then, I export the PDF template into Inkscape and convert it to SVG format. I can then upload this to my XTool Design Center. 

If I cut applique for an embroidery design, I use my embroidery software Hatch 3 Digitizer to create an SVG from my embroidery design file. Many embroidery applique designs already include an SVG file if purchased. 

A Material Test Is a Great Starting Point

Fabrics come in different materials, thicknesses, colors, etc., and the settings you use for one type of fabric won’t be the same across the board. 

materials test array

Thus, it’s crucial to do a test cut. Create an array of small shapes using various speeds and powers. 

It’s super important to adjust laser focus and height before starting, so don’t forget this–burned fabric smells horrible!

the only fully clean cut

Finding the perfect balance of power and speed is necessary:

  • Power too low or speed too fast: fabric doesn’t cut well and must be separated by hand, which causes fraying or distortion at the edges. 
  • Power too high or speed too slow: fabric can get burn marks (not an issue for quilt pieces with a seam allowance, but this is not ideal for applique.)

The settings that worked best for quilting cotton for my 20W diode laser, for example, were as follows:

  • 90% power
  • 238 mm/s speed
  • 1 pass

I also use my Air Assist at max to decrease charring on the fabric edges during cutting. 

Here’s my laser-cut quilt block fabric above, ready to be stitched in all its curved glory after using my tested settings. 

Cutting Backed Fabric for Applique

If you use backing on your applique fabric, you may need to adjust settings from your unbacked Materials test to accommodate the added thickness and fabric composition change.

Also, I contacted ThermoWeb (maker of HeatNBond) and Warm Company (maker of Steam-a-Seam), and both confirmed that laser cutting their fusible backings does not produce toxic fumes. (Safety–check!)

adding backing for applique

So, if you want to cut backed fabric, simply iron the exposed fusible’s side to the back of your fabric, keeping the paper on. 

setting the fabric in the honeycomb

Place your fabric right side up in your laser. 

Then, cut with your tested settings. I’ve found that backed fabric is much heavier with the paper backing, so it doesn’t require as much to weigh it down as thinner, lighter fabric does. 

When you’re done cutting, you can remove the backing and apply as directed by packing instructions.

 

Like lasers and fabric crafts? You may enjoy reading about making custom acrylic buttons, cutting wooden buttons with a laser, crafting a wood barn quilt, or engraving sewing scissors!

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