Burn, fabric, burn! (And find out what it’s made of)

Oh yessss! I like a bit of fabric burning now and then, don’t you?!  Ummm, it’s just me isn’t it?  I can tell from the dumbfounded silence…

© Stephanie Boon, 2013. www.DawnChorusStudio.com Polyester-cotton burning

Burn test: polyester-cotton

Why oh why would you burn lovely, precious fabric?  To find out what it’s made of, of course! Huh?  Yes, seriously, you can determine the composition of fabrics with a very simple burn test. You didn’t know that?  Welcome to my world: I’ll show you how!

You might think you don’t need to know how, it tells you on the roll in the store, right?  Well, yes it might do, but if you’re like me and you love scrappy quilts (see this scrappy cushion I recently made), your fabric can come from anywhere: shirts so old the label has washed away, a half a metre picked up in a charity shop here and there, unmarked remnants from your fabric store, gifts from friends…stuff you have no idea what its made of. Sound familiar?

© Stephanie Boon, 2013. www.DawnChorusStudio.com stack of cotton and polyester cotton fabrics

Can you tell the pure cotton from the polyester-cotton?

Why does it matter?

The fabric looks good, it’s the right colour, the right pattern and will go really well with all those other lovely quilting cottons you’ve collected, so why not go right ahead and add it to the mix? Because without having some clue as to what it’s made of you won’t know how to care for your finished quilt or how that piece of fabric might affect the appearance of your quilt a few years down the line.

This little scrap might need careful hand washing or it’ll disintegrate quickly, or perhaps it will need ironing at a much lower temperature than the cottons, or maybe it has some wool content and will shrink to nothing if you put it in the machine. If it’s a poly-cotton mix you might find it ends up with lots of unsightly pilling after a bit of use – would you really want that on something you’ve spent months, maybe even years making?  If it’s for a dog basket you might not worry, but if it’s a crib quilt for a new baby, or something you hope will be cherished for years to come, it suddenly becomes important.

Knowing the fabric composition will give you confidence in the care of your quilt and how it will continue to look after use.

How do you do it?

Burn it, burn it! Ahem. I’m going to assume you’re planning to make your quilt in pure cotton fabrics, which is the usual material we use. You think the unknown fabric looks like cotton, and feels like cotton, but you’re not really sure, so to test for pure cotton, here’s what you do:

Cut a small piece of fabric a couple of inches square. Hold it with tweezers or nail scissors over a metal draining board or tin foil (have some water in the sink just in case!), then hold it over the flame of a match or a candle.

© Stephanie Boon, 2013. www.DawnChorusStudio.com Fabric burn test.

Burning a piece of pure cotton

This is what you are looking for

If it’s pure cotton it will:

  • smell of burning paper
  • burn evenly with an orange flame (see the picture above)
  • have light grey smoke
  • leave dark grey ash
  • when the ash is cool if you rub it between your fingers it will leave black marks like charcoal and crumble away to nothing very easily.
© Stephanie Boon, 2013. www.DawnChorusStudio.com Fabric burn test.

Cotton ash rubbed between the fingers leaves a charcoal-like residue

If there’s some polyester in the composition it will be very sticky as it burns (you can prod it with a cocktail stick to find out, but you can also see it ‘bubbling’/melting if you look carefully) and when you rub the ash between your fingers it won’t leave any marks. It will also burn much more quickly with a more acrid smell and darker smoke.

© Stephanie Boon, 2013. www.DawnChorusStudio.com Fabric burn test.

Ash of polyester-cotton rubbed on the fingers is much ‘cleaner’

If there’s another natural fibre in the composition like wool or silk you should notice the smell of burning hair and it will be more difficult to light. You’ll also notice that it burns itself out.

Linen will burn like cotton, but more slowly. It can be difficult to tell a linen-cotton mix from a pure cotton with the burn test, but this particular mix is acceptable to me so I don’t worry too much.  (I know the fibres will have similar laundry requirements and appearance to any pure cotton fabrics I might be using, so I don’t think there’s any need to get hung up on it.)

I learnt the burn test at school (we’ll gloss over how many years ago) and  it gives me more confidence about whether to incorporate an unlabelled fabric into a quilt or not.  My biggest hate is polyester – I just can’t stand that pilling, and if I can eliminate it I will!

Will you be giving it go?  Let me know how you get on – and be careful, I don’t want to hear any stories about burning your hair off or calling out the fire brigade because your kitchen’s on fire!

Have fun and happy burning sewing!

PS you can find more of my quilty tips in the column on the right 🙂

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8 replies
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      You can dissolve fabrics too (acetate in acetone for instance), but you probably need a whole chemistry lab for that – and most of us have a box of matches in a drawer somewhere, so I like to get burning instead, hehe!


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