Sunday, August 12, 2012

Mystery Fabrics and the Burn Test

I've spent the last couple of weeks organizing and labeling my fabric stash. As you can imagine, a lot of my fabrics are mystery fabrics that I can no longer tell what the fibre content is. I've spent some time doing some tests and I've checked my information in some sewing manuals too. 

The following test results give good indications but not scientific proof, and the blends were particularly tricky to determine. Nevertheless, the tests, along with your hands (you can feel cotton and know it is cotton) and experience will give you an idea of what your fabric's contents are.

I performed these tests from swatches that I collected at the fabric store yesterday. I put each swatch into a tin and lit the swatch with a match. I made notes while watching the fabric burn. Then I washed the tin, and performed the same test for the next fabric. 

Curls away from the flame and burns slowly. It may extinguish itself and takes some time to start burning. It smells like burnt hair. It leaves a little, blackened bead when extinguished.

(Yes, I burned a swatch of silk!) Curls away from the flame and melts slightly. Burns slowly. Smells like burnt hair. Leaves a soft, black ash when extinguished.

Ignites immediately on contact with the flame.Burns quickly and leaves an afterglow when extinguished. Leaves a light grey ash. Smells like burning paper.

Ignites immediately on contact with the flame.Burns quickly and leaves an afterglow when extinguished. Leaves a light grey ash. Smells like burning paper. VERY SIMILAR TO LINEN

I tried three cotton blends (cotton/ polyester; cotton/rayon; cotton/acrylic). Each had different characteristics. All made a chemical smoke smell that was very off-putting. All burned easily and very quickly. The cotton/polyester and cotton/rayon melted while the 
cotton/acrylic sputtered and spit hot beads before being consumed completely by the flame.

Burns without flame or melting. It seemed to smolder and burn quickly across the fabric.Leaves a light residue. Smells like burning paper.

Burns and melts quickly. This would stick to your skin if you were wearing a garment made of nylon if it caught fire. It leaves a hard, grey ball. Smells like celery.

Flames and burns quickly. Melts into a brittle, black bead. Smells like vinegar.

Flames and burns rapidly. Flame sputtered in tin jar. (I thought it would jump to another surface if wearing a garment made of acrylic and it caught fire.) Melts into a long black plastic-looking pile.

Yes, I tested Spandex too. It burns and melts easily. Leaves a soft, sticky residue. Unmistakable chemical smell.

Pulls away from the flame. Melts into a hard grey/brown plastic-looking ball. It smells of plastic. Gives off smoke.


  1. It may not be a good idea to sniff these fabrics when they burn, especially the artificial ones. There's no telling what chemicals are in the smoke.

  2. I really have to do this, but I really don't wanna. I also want samples of all my fabrics in a binder so I can "shop" without hanging out in the fabric closet. Good for you for getting it done.

    1. Oh I love the idea of having swatches in a binder...I might do that.

  3. Linen and cotton behave similarly? I wonder if all plant-based fibres do?

    1. It may be that plant-based fibres burn similarly. I only tried linen and cotton though.

  4. Those results are interesting...polyester and acrylic are usually not the best choices for children's wear and your test seems to bear that out.

  5. I remember doing this at school in needlework, but the distance of years has made me forget if we actually did it or were told, it could have been either!

  6. Sometimes the musty smell only fades rather than disappears altogether. I hope one of these ideas helps: wash with vingar, wash with bleach, wash with oxyclean. Good luck!



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