The mysterious fabric burning test

Every time I start talking to mu friends at a thrift store or fabric shop about a "burning test" they look at me like I´m mad. Well as much as I think madness is very close to genious, I have to dissappoint you and crarify. A simple burn test can be done to determine a fabrics fiber content. The burn test is used by many fabric stores and designers but an inexperienced person can also determine the difference between many fibers to "narrow" the choices down to natural or man made fibers. You have no idea how often I´ve come across fabrics and clothes that are being sold as silk or genuine leather, but are more like genuine fakes. Some fakes are so good that even an experienced designer wold mistake them for the real thing. But the fiber burning test does not lie.

How it´s done. Take a small sample strip or just few threads of the fabric. Go outside or to a sink (some fibres burn in a flash so be prepared). I usually just go out. Take a lighter and burn the sample. After the flame is out, you can determine the fiber content by smelling the burn residue and seeing how it looks after burning.

I found a Fiber burning chart to help your analysis. This one you´re able to save to your computer and print out with you when you go fabric shopping! Or use this Fabric Content Chart.


COTTON is a plant fiber. When ignited it burns with a steady flame and smells like burning leaves. The ash left is easily crumbled. Small samples of burning cotton can be blown out as you would a candle.

LINEN is also a plant fiber but different from cotton in that the individual plant fibers which make up the yarn are long where cotton fibers are short. Linen takes longer to ignite. The fabric closest to the ash is very brittle. Linen is easily extinguished by blowing on it as you would a candle.

SILK is a protein fiber and usually burns readily, not necessarily with a steady flame, and smells like burning hair. The ash is easily crumbled. Silk samples are not as easily extinguished as cotton or linen.

WOOL is also a protein fiber but is harder to ignite than silk as the individual "hair" fibers are shorter than silk and the weave of the fabrics is generally looser than with silk. The flame is steady but more difficult to keep burning. The smell of burning wool is like burning hair.


ACRYLIC technically acrylonitrile is made from natural gas and petroleum. Acrylics burn readily due to the fiber content and the lofty, air filled pockets. A match or cigarette dropped on an acrylic blanket can ignite the fabric which will burn rapidly unless extinguished. The burning residue is a hard clump. The smell is acrid or harsh.

POLYESTER is a polymer produced from coal, air, water, and petroleum products. Polyester melts and burns at the same time, the melting, burning ash can bond quickly to any surface it drips on including skin. The smoke from polyester is black with a sweetish smell. The extinguished ash is hard.

FABRIC BLENDS consist of two or more fibers and, ideally, are supposed to take on the characteristics of each fiber in the blend. The burning test can be used but the fabric content will be an assumption.

Information source:
Pictures by Show and Tell.

Outi Les Pyy

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1 comment:

  1. I did some fabric burning in a sewing class once and it was kind of fun! I've never seen that chart though, which is helpful.