Laser makers are promoting the idea of distressing jeans with CO2 lasers. The reason: About 5 billion pairs of jeans are produced worldwide annually, many of them manufactured to appear worn. That’s a problem because one of the most widely used methods of giving jeans that distressed look also causes silicosis among production-line workers.
Manual sand blasting is often used to make jeans look old and worn. But though manual sandblasting with silica has been banned in developed countries since the 1960s, it is widespread in contract textile shops in unregulated regions such as South East Asia and North Africa, says a group called Labour Behind the Label, an organization of trade unions, consumer organizations, and charities that strive for workers’ rights in the clothing industry.
There are other ways of getting jeans to look worn, including stone washing, chemical treatment, laser treatment, and even manual treatment using sandpaper. But laser makers say CO2 lasers can automate the production of worn jeans. Besides avoiding the possibility of silicosis among workers, lasers provide a more-controlled production process. The main obstacle seems to be poor funding among textile makers.
“Sand blasting has an advantage if you have cheap labor and you don’t worry too much about what happens to your labor force,” says Mark Richmond, product manager for industrial laser maker JK Lasers, Rugby, England. “Lasers give more precision and the potential for creating patterns on jeans, but with higher capital costs. You might use a 100-W laser that runs about $4,000, plus about twice that amount for machinery to move the laser over the jeans. For a small jeans manufacturer, that’s quite an investment.”
Lasers employed for distressing jeans are usually the same CO2 units used to cut acrylics and wood. Rather than wearing away material, lasers create the worn effect by disrupting the dye molecules and breaking them apart so they no longer give off a deep, blue color. The lasers usually mount on gantries along with a mirroring and focusing mechanism.
It looks as though the bad press about the side affects of sand-blasted jeans is starting to affect jean makers. According to Labour Behind the Label, manufacturers that include Lee and Wrangler say they are planning to stop sandblasting and will switch to alternative methods over the next year.