153: Distressing Denim

Inspired by a recent episode of Jeff Goldblum’s new show, I wanted to find out whether I could use my laser to distress denim. In the show, specialized industrial laser equipment could rapidly engrave the surface—just enough power to remove the indigo dye and leave the fabric underneath relatively undamaged. It could also fire much more power and leave holes that would get stringy and tatter with wear. I’ve never been a fan of buying brand new jeans with holes in them, but some light pattern design on the surface would be fun! I even had an outgoing pair of jeans due to some damage on the back pocket seam.

I pulled out a tried-and-true vectorization of the Super Metroid logo—because I can’t seem to get enough of it, it seems—and made a pattern. I measured a portion of one pant leg and repeated that pattern across it. I wasn’t planning on wearing these jeans, so I wasn’t too worried about making the engraving actually look good on the medium. All in the name of testing!

The material was a little difficult to flatten, so I used some cardboard as a form. It would also serve the purpose of preventing the laser from engraving through to the other side of the leg.

I started the first leg at full speed, with very light power, about 30% on a 45w source. As some time passed I ramped up the power, watching as the engraving slowly got a little darker. At full power, full speed, I could see depth in the engraving. After I was convinced I had enough engraving powers to dial in the best “indigo removal” settting, I started lowering the speed. The power of the laser eventually engraved the denim clean through and marked the cardboard inside. With plenty of different settings used across the pattern, I took some photos and then threw it in the wash! I wanted to see which parts of the engraving would hold up under some rougher wear, so I ran the pair of jeans through a dryer cycle too. The end result?

All but the lightest power was obliterated

Tatters, nearly the whole engraving! I grossly overestimated the power needed to achieve good contrast in removing the surface indigo, and all but the lightest power just ripped right away into an unrecognizable mess. I’m sure it’s fashionable in some niche somewhere, but it’s a failure in my book.

I prepared the second leg, once again using cardboard and some tricky folding to try to get the surface layer as flat as possible. This time the engraving would be at the lowest power that produced an acceptable contrast (30%) across the entire pattern.

The engraving looked great pre-wash, but I gave it the same beating the other leg took, and even the lightest engraving tattered a bit in places. After taking a look back over the photography, I could tell it was because I still couldn’t quite get the focus consistent across the entire surface. There were too many subtle variations in depth that it made the laser engrave just a little more deeply in a few spots. The end result doesn’t look too bad, but because it’s just a rectangular mask of the pattern it’s not something I’d consider wearable—doubly so when you remember the other leg’s disrepair.

With the tricky folding that needed to be done and the focus problems, I know I don’t have the bed size or the optics to engrave a design across the entire surface of the jeans. There’s potential though for some awesome smaller designs, like a single logo on a pocket or hiding right at the cuff, that could really personalize a particular pair of jeans.


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