Whether you’re using a dress form or a sewing pattern to make a garment or you’re planning on making drapery, a quilt, covers for your furnishing, or any other type of hand-stitched item, choosing the right type of sewing fabric, quilting fabric, or upholstery fabric is essential. It makes all the difference in the feel, the drape, and the overall durability of the finished product.
Most times, it’s easy to tell what a fabric is made, but sometimes, you just don’t know what type of fibers are used in a material. While you might think that knit, felt, flannel, or those pre-cut quilt squares you picked up or were giving as a gift are 100 percent cotton, in reality, the material may be a blend of cotton, polyester, rayon, and other synthetics. You could leave your fabric selection to chance and hope for the best, or you could investigate to determine what the mystery material is made of. While there are a lot of ways to pinpoint the fiber content of a fabric, one of the most effective methods is – believe it or not – fire.
A burn test is pretty easy to do. With a few basic tools and a safe location, you can determine what your fabric is made of.
- The material in question
- A fireproof container; you can make one by simply placing an ashtray on the bottom of a sink
- Water (if you’re doing the test in a sink, you’ll have instant access!)
- A barbecue lighter or long matches; you want to make sure that the source of fire produces a small flame
- A long pair of tongs or tweezers
Conducting the Fabric Burn Test
First, make sure that the area you’re doing the burn test in is well-ventilated. Also, ensure that the area is free of flammable materials, and that children and animals aren’t nearby. When it comes to fire, safety always needs to come first.
To conduct the burn test, use the following steps:
- Cut a tiny section of the material that you want to test; a 1 or 2 inch square, for example.
- Set the material in the fireproof container.
- Light a corner of the material.
- As the fabric burns, pay close attention to the odor and the smoke that it’s producing, as these two things will identify the fibers:
- Cotton produces a smell that’s similar to burnt paper. It also retains small embers once the larger flames have died down.
- Silk and wool produce an odor that’s reminiscent to burnt hair or feathers.
- Synthetic fabrics, like polyester, viscose, and rayon, smell like chemicals or burnt plastic when they’re burned. They also produce a dark plume of smoke.
- Assess the ashes that remain:
- Cotton = soft, fine ashes
- Wool and silk = brittle, black ashes
- Synthetics = dense lumps
A burn test is a pretty simple and accurate way to identify the content of fabric.