What kind of fabric do you have?

Posted by on Sep 2, 2014 in Lessons, Sewing, Theory | Comments Off on What kind of fabric do you have?

Once upon a time, I came across an estate sale of an elderly woman who had so much fabric she could have opened her own shop. The story, as I understood it from her son, is that she had been a dressmaker in her youth, and when she developed Alzheimer’s, she began buying fabric by the bolt before anyone knew what was happening.

My re-enactor friends and I combined our assets and left the sale with a van and two truck beds full of fabric and notions. We were then faced with a definite problem – what kind of fabric did we have?

Some was obvious, to those of us who were experienced with fabrics, but some was very confusing. After all, there are some excellent polyester weaves that feel like cotton. Unfortunately, those polyester weaves don’t breathe like cotton, so we set out to identify our fabrics.

Remember the lighter I mentioned when talking about the tools you need on hand? This is the first use for that.

See, every type of fabric burns differently. Knowing how they burn can really help you if you start off buying from the bargain rack at any fabric store (something I strongly encourage). Do the following in a well-ventilated area.

First, get a fire-proof dish and cut a small triangle from your fabric.


Hold your lighter against the smallest end until it lights.


Lay the fabric in the dish and blow the flame out carefully.


The following is a guide to help you tell what type of fabric you have.


All natural fabrics are exactly that. They are made from fibres that appear in nature. As such, they burn more like one would expect, with one exception.


Cotton burns easily. When it lights, it may flare up at first. It burns cleanly and leaves only grey ash behind. The remains may still glow as it doesn’t go out very easily. Its smoke is non-toxic and smells like burning paper.


Takes longer to ignite and goes out completely when you blow on it. It also burns cleanly and leaves grey ash behind. Its smoke is also non-toxic, but it smells more like wood or leaves.


Silk doesn’t like to burn. It curls away from the flame and burns slowly. It also self-extinguishes which means you probably don’t need to blow it out. When it cools, it leaves black beads that you can crush easily. Its ash is fine and gritty, like a powder. It doesn’t smoke much, but it smells like burning hair or meat when it does.


Wool is considered non-flammable. When you try to light it, it will sizzle and curl away from the flame. Wool doesn’t usually leave ash. Any portion exposed to flame will harden into a bead that is easily crushed into thick ash. Its smoke is dark and smells strongly of burning hair.


Synthetic fabrics are usually made from petroleum. Because of this, they tend to melt rather than burn.


Nylon burns quickly, but it shrinks as the flame touches it. It self-extinguishes, but it also tends to melt and drip. It leaves no ash, instead there will be small, grey beads that you can’t crush. This smoke is hazardous to breathe and sometimes smells like celery.


Polyester also burns quickly and shrinks as the flame touches it. However, because it’s made with both coal and petroleum, it tends to flare up. It doesn’t usually self-extinguish and leaves round, dark beads behind that are very hard. Its smoke smells sweet, but is also very hazardous to breathe.


Acrylics will flare up as soon as flame touches them. They burn quickly and sputter and spark as they melt the fabric. The fabric tends to drip as it burns. After the flame is extinguished, the fabric may continue to melt. When cool, the remnants will be dark, irregular beads that are hard and uncrushable. The smoke has a fishy smell and is hazardous to breathe.


Combination fabrics are synthetic fabrics that are made with natural fibres. Therefore, they also burn with a combination of the natural and synthetic characteristics.


Acetate is made from cellulose fibres in plant materials. It is used alone or to add a shiny finish to many different kinds of fabrics. They can flare after being lit, and can drip. There is no ash, and the beads appear brittle even though they can’t be crushed. The smoke smells of vinegar and is hazardous to breath.


Rayon is made from cellulose fibres found in trees. The newest type of rayon are made from bamboo and are highly sought after. It burns without melting and won’t have a flame unless it flares up. It can glow like cotton after the flame is extinguished, but not as long. It leaves a soft, grey ash. Its smoke smells like paper, but can be slightly hazardous to breathe.


Special thanks to FabricMart which had the website to give me the specifics of fabrics I’ve never burned before.

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