Custom Style

Sewing that's Retro, Geek, and Chic

Swatch It Burn

Have you ever wanted to know the fabric content of some unidentified yardage?  Well, pull out a lighter, light a candle, and figure out what that mystery fabric is!

A group of us on Twitter meet every Friday at 4pm EST/3pm CST using the hashtag #FabricChat to spend an hour talking about a pre-decided topic relating to fabric and sewing. (Join us! You can tweet along or just follow silently; but either way, we’d love to have you there!)

Today the topic was fabric fiber content and burn testing, so I made a few videos on Instagram yesterday in preparation.

I was going to include a fabric burn-test chart from some of my costuming books, but Threads Magazine eerily posted a good printable chart just a couple of days ago. (Have they been following all of the Sewcialist conversations on Twitter to get ideas?)

So below are 8 short video examples of common fabrics aglow, followed by a photo of each fabric after being burned. It was a bit like science lab. =)


Smells like a campfire (leaves and paper) while burning.

Cotton fabric after being burned.


Stinks like burning hair or feathers.

Silk fabric after being burned.


More campfire smell.

Linen fabric after being burned.


Smells even worse than silk. Really strong burning hair smell.  Like Bantha fodder.

Wool fabric after being burned.


Has a slightly sweet chemical smell. It is man-made after all.

Polyester fabric after being burned.


Melts more than burns. Has a bitter chemical odor.  Attracts nosy little dogs.

Spandex fabric after being burned.

Cotton-polyester Blend

Not usually included on a burn chart, but I wanted to see how it behaved in comparison to cotton and polyester separately. Blends are usually the hardest to identify because they burn in such a variety of combinations.

I find it interesting that the cotton-poly ignited so quickly. The melting polyester seemed to hasten the cotton’s burn time. Instead of slowly burning into an afterglow as cotton does, it just shriveled up in a fast flame in the metal pan. The burned fabric became both brittle ash and hard plastic at the same time.

Cotton-polyester fabric after being burned.

So if your “cotton” fabric curls up as it burns and smells a little sweet, there’s a good chance it contains some polyester.

Wool-polyester Blend

Since I knew what it was, I decided to see how this blend burned. It was nasty smelling. Eww ick. Like Solo’s tauntaun. Probably the worst smelling of everything I burned.

The wool-poly melted on the edge and on the bottom where it was touching the flame. Definitely smelled like a wool but melted like a polyester.

Wool-polyester after being burned.

And Katie of Kadiddlehopper was able to make some videos of the fabrics I didn’t have in my stash. She filmed the following examples of acetate, rayon, acrylic and nylon burning. (Thanks so much, Katie!)


Smells like vinegar when burned. Melts and burns.

Rayon and Tencel

Both burn similar to cotton because they are semi-synthetic. They are what I call the “bologna” of fabric because they’re processed from wood pulp. Thus, they also smell like campfire.


Sputters and melts as it burns. It has a chemical smell similar to broiled fish.


Melts but doesn’t really burn. When I burned some white nylon I had at one time, I remember it not even turning black. It just melted into a hard plastic. It smells like celery or boiling green beans.

Hopefully, you found the video examples of the burn tests useful and will now be able to better identify some of those mystery fabrics in your stash.  Like that sample of uniform from that army officer of Gilder.

Burned fabrics in the cup of water I used to dispose of the scraps during the test.

Next Friday’s #FabricChat topic is “how to paint fabric” if you’d like to join in. Sadly, I will be working, but I look forward to reading the archived chat on Leila’s blog.

13 responses to “Swatch It Burn

  1. Theresa in Mérida July 20, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Great information! My inner mad scientist has always loved burn testing fabrics. I’ve never been organized enough to write down fabric contents on swatching so I have resorted to burn testing more than once. Plus I have an addiction to mystery fabrics from yard sales and resale stores.

    Something weird has happened to the print on your blog. The lettering is coming up a pale gray color and is difficult to read against the background. On my screen the words are darker at the top of the post and get progressively lighter towards the end. I like ombre as much as the next person but I don’t think you did this on purpose.

    • Brooke July 20, 2013 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks! I think we are all have a little mad scientist inside. Plus, we were always told not to play with fire, so naturally we want to, hehe.

      Yeeeahh, that font problem. It happened right when I published the post. I have reported my issue to tech support but since it was a Friday night, I doubt anyone will help me fix it until Monday. I think it’s a bug in the template code because it’s affecting more than just the new post and I didn’t change anything. Thanks for letting me know just in case! =)

      • Theresa in Mérida July 20, 2013 at 3:38 pm

        Hmmm, have you tried re-posting it? or is that not an option?

      • Brooke July 20, 2013 at 5:18 pm

        Not really an option, but since the sidebar’s affected too, I’m thinking it’s a template bug. A problem with one post shouldn’t change the sidebar or past posts like this has. Annoying, but WP staff has fixed weirder things than this in the past.

  2. Pingback: Vintage Miscellany – July 21, 2013 | The Vintage Traveler

  3. Kacie July 23, 2013 at 9:06 am

    So interesting! Thanks for the great info! I always forget to write down fiber content when I buy fabric so this will certainly come in handy.

    • Brooke July 23, 2013 at 9:15 am

      Glad you like it! =) I sometimes forget what my fabric is too. And sometimes things aren’t labelled correctly at the fabric store – I was actually surprised by a couple of swatches I was going to use for my post being something else when I burned them!

  4. Zoe August 1, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    Awesome! I bought some “silk” from a fabric shop awhile ago and thought it was behaving weirdly when I ironed it. I did a burn test and it came up positive for polyester. I had a few words with the fabric store after that!

    • Brooke August 2, 2013 at 10:00 am

      That’s awful – I hope the fabric was at least a good price when you bought it and not marked up because it was “silk”! Glad the burn test was able to help answer your questions about its weird behavior.

      Thanks for your comment! =)

  5. Calico Stretch August 21, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    Oh wow this is just fantastic info and I bet it was fun to do too….. lol. Thank you so much for posting and in such detail. You are bookmarked 🙂

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