Burn Test – CAUTION. WARNING. BE CAREFUL!
This should only be done by skilled burners! Make sure there is a bucket of water nearby and that you burn in a metal bucket or non-plastic sink.
What it is & how to do it:
To identify fabric that is unknown, a simple burn test can be
done to determine if the fabric is a natural fiber, manmade fiber,
or a blend of natural and manmade fibers. The burn test is used by
many fabric stores and designers and takes practice to determine the
exact fiber content. However, an inexperienced person can still determine
the difference between many fibers to “narrow” the choices down to natural
or manmade fibers. This elimination process will give information
necessary to decide the care of the fabric.
It’s important to do a burn test in a well ventilated area to avoid inhaling potentially toxic fumes. At minimum, open some windows, or better yet, do the test outside on a calm day and avoid inhaling the fumes from the burning fibers.
• Pre-wash the mystery fabric to remove
any finishes that may affect the burn
characteristics. Cut fabric swatches for
testing approximately 2″ square.
• Use long tweezers to hold the swatches
• Use a non-flammable container to place
under the burning swatch—a large
ashtray or glass dish will work, as will a
metal baking pan.
• Use a lighter, an unscented candle or a
fireplace starter to create a small flame.
• Keep water nearby in the event of a
flare-up, or do the testing near a sink.
• If you have long hair, tie it back out of
the way of the flame.
WARNING: All fibers will burn! Asbestos treated fibers are, for the most
part fire proof. The burning test should be done with caution. Use a small piece
of fabric only. Hold the fabric with tweezers, not your fingers. Burn over a metal dish with
soda in the bottom or even water in the bottom of the dish. Some fabrics will ignite and melt.
The result is burning drips which can adhere to fabric
or skin and cause a serious burn.
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. Cotton fibers ignite as the flame draws near.
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.
Man Made Fibers
(Synthetic fibers curl away from the heat and tend to “melt.” Hard lumps are the remains of melted synthetic fibers.)
Acetate is made from cellulose (wood fibers), technically cellulose
acetate. Acetate burns readily with a flickering flame that cannot be
easily extinguished. The burning cellulose drips and leaves a hard ash.
The smell is similar to burning wood chips.
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 ash is hard. The smell is acrid or harsh.
Nylon is a polyamide made from petroleum. Nylon melts
and then burns rapidly if the flame remains on the melted
fiber. If you can keep the flame on the
melting nylon, it smells like burning plastic.
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.
Rayon is a regenerated cellulose fiber which is almost pure cellulose.
Rayon burns rapidly and leaves only a slight ash.
The burning smell is close to burning leaves.
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.
Several chemicals usually found in the home can help further identify fabrics. As in the burn test, caution should be used. Reactions between some of the fibers and household chemicals are rapid and could cause damage to surrounding surfaces.
Acetate is dissolved by acetone, an ingredient in nail polish remover and Super Glue. Caution should be used when wearing acetate or an acetate blend fabric and using any acetone containing product.
Fiber-Etch, a liquid used in embroidery or cutwork embroidery, dissolves any plant fiber including cotton, linen, and rayon. Since this product removes plant fibers, it is also useful to determine fabric content. With blends of plant fiber fabrics, the blended fibers will remain. For example, a cotton/polyester fabric will, when this product is applied to a small area, remove the cotton fiber and leave the polyester fiber.
turns to powder
|flame will self extinguish
if flame source is removed
|SILK||burns slowly||burning hair
turns to powder
|burns more easily than wool
but will self extinguish is flame
|COTTON||yellow to orange color
|grayish, fluffy||slow burning ember|
|LINEN||yellow to orange color
|similar to cotton||takes longer to ignite than cotton but otherwise very similar|
|RAYON||fast orange flame||burning paper
|almost no ash||ember will continue to glow after flame source removed|
|POLYESTER||orange flame, sputtery||sweet or fruity smell||hard shiny black bead||black smoke|
|ACETATE||burns and melts,sizzly||acidic or vinegary||hard black bead||will continue to burn after flame source removed|
|NYLON||burns slowly and melts, bluse base and orange tip, no smoke||burning celery||hard grayish or brownish bead||self extinguish if flame source removed|
|ACRYLIC||burns and melts, white-orange tip, no smoke||acrid||black hard crust||will continue to burn after flame source removed|
Fiber Burn Chart
I know this isn’t the normal Fashion History segment, but it’s a helpful technique for the most part plus it’s fun to experiment with burn testing, fiber Etching, and dying using tomato soup or anything really. BE SAFE & Have fun!