Fabric Detective-Part 1: When Should You Burn Your Fabric?


Old sewing stashes are some of the most exciting finds you can come across as a fabric collector…a vast array of different lengths of diverse textiles that will thrill the soul! Whether you’ve inherited your grandmother’s fabric closet, found a juicy collection at a yard sale, or just found your own shopping bag from that trip to the fabric store a year ago (Oops! Hey, it happens…) coming across a find like that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So once you’ve acquired this amazing treasure, how can you figure out what exactly you’ve gotten your hands on? Cotton or polyester? Lawn or batiste? And not to mention the laces! It can be quite a daunting task! But don’t panic, that sewing stash really is a gift and not a curse! In our new “Sewing Detective” blog series we will walk you through some easy ways to identify different fabrics and laces.

So when should you just set the whole pile of fabric on fire? The answer to that is: NEVER!! Back away from the sewing stash with that open flame! While you don’t want to torch your fabric, there is something useful you can find out about your fabric with a cautious use of fire.


If you are ever unsure about what your fabric is composed of-cotton, polyester, or silk to name a few-you can cut a small sample and run it through the flame of a match. The way the fabric burns and smells will answer your question.

*CAUTION: These fabric burning tests should be done in a well-ventilated area with a metal container for catching the burning textiles (DO NOT use plastic). Keep water nearby or inside your metal catch bucket!*

Let’s start our tests with burning some cotton. When you light a cotton scrap on fire the flame may flare up momentarily. It will smell like burning paper and even after the flame is extinguished it will continue to glow. The ash left by the burning fabric will be very fine and will crumble easily.

Moving on to silk. I know it may hurt your heart to burn a piece of silk, but if you cut a tiny scrap and designate it for educational purposes then it’s a bit easier. Silk burns slowly and curls away from the flame (so be careful of your hands!). The flame is self extinguishing and leaves a dark, gritty ash. The burned edge may have a dark bead which is easily crushed and the ash will be dark and gritty. One of the most distinguishing features of burning silk is the distinct smell of burning hair. Strange but true.

Let’s try some wool next. Like silk, wool tends to curl away from the flame and has a dark bead and ash. It gives off a bit of dark smoke and it also smells like burning hair (or feathers, really).


We will finish this round of burn tests with some polyester. This textile burns quickly when it is set on fire and may flare up. The burnt edge of the fabric will have hardened beads from the melted chemical materials in the fabric and there will be a slight chemical smell. The fumes are hazardous (hence the well ventilated area) and the fabric leaves no ash. After the flame the fabric continues to burn slowly and may not self-extinguish so it may be a good idea to drop it in your metal bucket of water.


So there you have a few tips on fabric identification! Now you have another good reason to snatch up any vintage fabric stashes you can find…and please send up some pictures! We enjoy a good stash too.


We are proud to report that no fingers were burned in the making of this blog post 🙂


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