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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.

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