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fabric-ident-msg - 12/30/04


Identifying unknown fabric with various tests. The burn test.


NOTE: See also the files: cotton-msg, silk-msg, linen-msg, cotton-art, color-a-fab-bib, textiles-msg, velvet-msg, washing-msg.





This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.


This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


I have done a limited amount of editing. Messages having to do with separate topics were sometimes split into different files and sometimes extraneous information was removed. For instance, the message IDs were removed to save space and remove clutter.


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Please respect the time and efforts of those who have written these messages. The copyright status of these messages is unclear at this time. If information is published from these messages, please give credit to the originator(s).


Thank you,

    Mark S. Harris                  AKA:  THLord Stefan li Rous

                                          Stefan at florilegium.org



From: rorice at nickel.ucs.indiana.edu (rosalyn rice)

Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

Subject: Re: Fabric Flame Test

Date: 4 Jan 1996 22:43:37 GMT

Organization: Indiana University, Bloomington


robert alexander jr <lars at jax-inter.net> wrote:

>Would someone be kind enough to post instructions for the "flame Test"


      First pull out a few threads from the edge of the fabric then

burn them using a lighter or some other flame source that doesn't produce

much smell of its own.


      Petroleum-based synthetics burn brightly and quickly, produce a

black, sooty smoke and smell like burning plastic. The burnt end of the

thread has a shiny, hard nub on the end.


      Cottons, linens, ramie and rayon (all cellulose-based fabrics)

burn brightly and quickly but less so than synthetics. They produce much

less smoke than synthetics. The smoke smells like burning paper or wood

(it's all cellulose fiber, so are you surprised?)


      Wool burns less brightly and quickly than cottons or synthetics,

and the burning fabric burns with a sort of a "sizzling" sound. Wool also

tends to self-extinguish. Not much smoke is produced, but the smoke

smells like burnt hair (surprise). The burnt thread will leave a very

small, round "button" on the end that is easily broken off. It looks

exactly like the burnt end of a hair.


      Silk tends to burn brightly and quickly. It doesn't produce much

smoke and the smoke smells like, well, burnt silk (not quite a burnt hair

smell, but not quite a burnt paper smell either). The ends of the burnt

ends of the threads don't have a button on the end.


      Blends will combine behaviors. Mostly what you're looking for is

the presence of synthetics in materials that are mostly wook, cotton or

silk. In that case, what you're looking for is the black smoke, the smell

of plastic, and the hard, glassy burnt end.


      To determine real silk from synthetic silk, brush your fingers

across the surface. Real silk will "catch" against the small rough places

on your hands. Artificial silk won't catch and might have a "greasy"


      Raw silk has a distinctive smell, it will smell like horses

if you get it wet.





Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

Subject: Re: Fabric Flame Test

From: una at bregeuf.stonemarche.org (Honour Horne-Jaruk)

Date: Fri, 05 Jan 96 01:16:05 EST


lars at jax-inter.net (robert alexander jr) writes:

> Would someone be kind enough to post instructions for the "flame Test"

> used to determine the various types of fabrics?


> Signyjo Ottarsdottir

> signyjo at jax-inter.net    

      Respected friend:

      Check out pre-1960 high school Home Economics texts- they sometimes

even include pictures- or write to Re-creating History magazine, PO box 4277,

Santa Clara, Ca. 95056. For 3.95 & 1.00 S&H (US funds) you can get a copy of

Vol. 1 issue 2, which has the article "Self-destruct garb and how to avoid

making it". It has the info you need, and lots of other applicable tips...

"If a 1'x 5' scrap burns your hand before you can drop it, don't use it. You

have better ways to waste time than by sewing a folding crematory."


                                Honour, known societally as

                                Alizaunde, Demoiselle de Bregeuf; or

                                Una Wicca (That Pict)



From: afn03234 at freenet3.freenet.ufl.edu (Ronald L. Charlotte)

Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

Subject: Re: Fabric Flame Test

Date: 6 Jan 1996 11:01:55 GMT


lars at jax-inter.net (robert alexander jr) wrote:

> Would someone be kind enough to post instructions for the "flame Test"

> used to determine the various types of fabrics?




Fiber         Reaction to Flame


Cellulose fibers               Burns quickly with a bright flame.

cotton, linen, rayon           Continues to glow after flame is removed.

                               Smells like burning paper. Leaves a soft,

                               grey ash.


Protein fibers                 Burns slowly, sizzles.

silk, wool                     Curls away from the flame.

                               Self-extinguishing after flame is removed

                               Smells like burning hair or feathers.

                               Leaves a crushable, grey ash.


Acetate*                       Burns and melts in flame.

                               Burns and melts after flame is removed.

                               May smell like vinegar when burning.

                               Leaves a hard, brittle, black bead.


Nylon                          Shrinks away from flame.

                               Burns slowly and melts.

                               Self-extinguishing when removed from


                               Smells like celery when burning.

                               Leaves a hard, grey bead.


Polyester                      Shrinks away from flame.

                               Burns slowly.

                               Gives off black smoke.

                               Usually self-extinguishing when removed

                               from flame.

                               Smells slightly sweet when burning.

                               Leaves a hard, black bead.


Acrylics                       Burns and melts in flame.

                               Burns and melts after flame is removed.

                               Leaves a hard, brittle, black bead.


     * Acetate will break down in acetone (nail polish remover)


SOURCE: The Costumer's Handbook, R. Ingham & L. Covey

(ISBN 0 13 181263 7)


Hope that this helps, Sis.


     al Thaalibi ---- An Crosaire, Trimaris

     Ron Charlotte -- Gainesville, FL

     afn03234 at afn.org



From: boris at magick.net (Sam Crowell)

Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

Subject: Re: Fabric Flame Test

Date: Thu, 11 Jan 1996 20:34:02 GMT


lars at jax-inter.net (robert alexander jr) wrote:

>Would someone be kind enough to post instructions for the "flame Test"

>used to determine the various types of fabrics?


>Signyjo Ottarsdottir

>signyjo at jax-inter.net    


This might be helpful.


silk and wools smell like burned hair, since wool is quite akin to

hair, and silk is an animal produced fiber as well.


rayon smells like wood smoke, but very mild.  some are inclined to say

it smells like brown paper being burned, since both are primarily



The ash can be very useful to indentify content as well. Blends with

synthetics in them will form hard little spheres, or produce ash with

a "gritty" feel to it.


The surest way is to obtain samples of fabrics with known fabric

content.  I use a small swatch of the fabric  held in forceps over a

metal pan.  I burn the fabric with a lighter, so as not to introduce

any odor from a match.  Watch the way the fabric burns as well, pure

wools will tend to almost extinguish themselves.  Nylons melt, bubble,

and flow.  Cottons produce a very light grey (almost white ash) which,

when rubbed betweent he fingers, virtually disappears. After trying

the flame test on a series of known content fabrics, make a few notes,

you will be more knowledgeable regarding fabric content than 70% of

the people in the fabric stores.


      I am well known in the local fabric stores since my wife and I often

shop together, but she is the one asking me questions about fabrics.

But I still don't understand why it seems that no matter how many

times you hand wash wool in a bathtub, you always seem to get sand out

of it!!!


Darien Tevarson



From: Sam Crowell <boris at magick.net>

To: Mark.S Harris

Date: Sat, 13 Jan 96

Subject: Re: Fabric Flame Test


>How do you use the burn-test in a store? Ask them for a piece and

>take it outside and burn it? Buy a sample and take it home and come

>back later? Know fabric well enough that your judgement is usually

>good enough to buy it and take it home to test?


Most stores will be more than happy to provide a small swatch.  Some will

get irate if thye find you cutting your own swatches, so it is best to ask

for them to do the cutting for you.  In a rush I have taken the swatch

outside, used small forceps or locking tweezers, and burn tested fabric

samples outside (if there is no wind).  I have also done this using great

care while in my car.  Either way it is good to have a metal pan to burn

test over.  An old aluminum pie-plate it great, and one of a small (pot pie)

size should work fine.  When in doubt about possible synthetics use caution,

since some synthetics will burn and run like molten plastic (since plastic

is what some of them are)  If a burning drop of this stuff gets on you, it

will keep trying to burn.  Best to smother it quickly, and apply ice or cold

packs as quickly a possible.  I do some smithing work, and I would rather

get a hot metal burn than a molten plastic one.


If there are other people in your area who have selections of know fiber

fabrics, they might do a demo of burn testing for you, or even for a group

of interested people.  Experience is probably the best tool for developing

good fabric content judgement, but unfortunately that is something one

cannot communicate.  Hope this helps.  I would be willing to do some burn

testing to remind myself of certain characteristics and e-mail the info to you.


Darien Tevarson

Sam & Deidre Crowell



Date: Fri, 30 May 1997 08:35:34 -0700

From: Lady Catherine Mcgire <lcatherinemc at hotmail.com>

To: sca-arts at raven.cc.ukans.edu

Subject: Re: linen?


kate wrote:

> I have some mystery fabric that I have no idea where/when it

> came from. A friend suggested it may be linen.  So I did a burn

> test on a piece about 2" square and got an ash so fine and white-it

> was like a spider's web.


> Anyone have any ideas as to what this might be? It's about 45"

> wide, white, and translucent. The only silk gauze that I have in the

> house is off-white and still in its storage bag.


> Ailith


> Ailith Mackintosh

> Marche of Alderford

> Barony of the Middle Marches

> Midrealm


what you have is a linen blend.  Could be 50/50 lined cotton, or more

likely  50% linen 30% cotton and 20% synthic silk (will not melt,

vaporises).  This type of fabric is used in  lite-weight high scale

women's summer suits mostly found on the east coast or in Europe.  Linen

and cotton (being imported from Egypt in the form of undyed and some

dyed yarns as early as the 13th century) were spun usually in z twist

and used to give stability to the "fine clothes of ninor Nobles to help

the garments last longer without wearing.

                                 Lady Catherine Malvern McGuire



Date: Fri, 15 Aug 1997 11:52:09 -0700

From: Brett and Karen Williams <brettwi at ix.netcom.com>

To: sca-arts at raven.cc.ukans.edu

Subject: Re: fabric identification (was weaving)


Marisa Herzog wrote:

> <snip>

> >display of cotton poly blends. Jill and I were able to correctly

> >identify the proportion of cotton to polyester by touching the stuff.Our

> disbelieving spouses then checked the ends of the bolts where the

> identification tags were...and we were right.

> <snip>


> Do people have any tricks to identifying fabric?  I am fairly good at telling

> fabric by touch.  My sister claims to be able to tell (even proportions) by

> smell, she will iron a small corner- and smell that if she is not sure at

> first- so far she has been 100%.  I will be doing some newby costume 101, and

> would appreciate any tips so that I can send them out to get fabric and not

> worry about them all bringing back polyester instead of wool and such.

> -brid

> (remembering being new to sewing for SCA, and overwhelmed by the fabric store-

> which is now hell and paradise)


Oh, how true, how true! To paraphrase a famous movie, 'Aaaah, I love the

smell of formaldehyde in the morning!" Formaldehyde, a carcinogen, is a

common ingredient in fabric sizing, used to keep fabric from crushing

and wrinkling in transit from mill to fabric store. The fabric

industry's rationale for sizing is, who would want to buy a wrinkled



I'm a wuss. I cannot think of a way to really tell someone how to

identify a fabric by touch without pulling a bolt and demonstrating the

hand by having the 'student' lay on hands. I will try, though. Please,

any more ideas out there?


There are a few generalities that will help. Silk has this weird kind of

faintly sticky warmth reflected back to the hand-- the key word here is

reflection. If you take a blouse weight poly 'silky' fabric and a

similar silk together for a comparison, that's a good way to learn the

feel of silk. Poly will feel cold to the touch initially, silk won't.

Polyester added to cotton will make blended fabric a little stiffer than

a 100% cotton; the poly is present to lessen wrinkling (hah!). Ramie and

linen are silky and cool to the touch compared to cotton (which is of

course affected by the thread coarseness-- nubbly linen types are

popular for suit weights), and they are going to be nearly identical to

the hand-- I haven't seen a whole lot of ramie. Rayon velvets and cotton

velvets/velveteen are easily distinguished by sight-- the rayon has a

deep, bright jewel-like glow in the nap; cotton velvet/velveteen pile is

denser and less subject to crushing. Wool-- well, wool feels kinda like

baby hair. Poly lurking in or masquerading as wool doesn't. And that

one's where I'm really at a loss to put the feeling into words.


I personally dislike sewing with man-mades and hate wearing most of them

(ewwww, acetate! Ewwww, petroleum derivatives! I agree with Drucilla's

assessment!). Rayon is a manmade, but it's made from wood (cellulose),

so at least it has a faint whiff of nature. Wool and rayon challis are

identical thread and weave structures, but they're going to have a

subtle difference in hand due to the basic physical differences in the

fiber themselves.


The skill of fabric identification by touch, IMHO, is really most useful

in assigning a particular cloth to a particular type of garment. When

one is thinking of a particular finished project-- let's say, a linen

undertunic-- the hand of the cloth on the bolt is going to be the

helpful characteristic to determine a suitable weight. A lot of people

have a good idea of what clothes feel like on the body-- the trick is to

project the feeling of the fabric 'hand' on the bolt to that of a mental

garment, and also to be able to project the feel of the garment once

sizing has been washed out (sizing is most common on cottons, cotton

blends and linen blends). I am not good enough to identify different

mills who produce the same type of cloth-- I lack extended experience in

a fabric store. I can wander into store and find something that I love

the hand, then mentally design a garment appropriate to its hand.

This is financially dangerous... ;) Better to have an idea of what one

wants as a garment BEFORE going to the store.


If all else fails, check the end of the bolt. Truth in advertising laws

require fabric stores to label each bolt with its point of origin,

composition and care instructions. In the case of Chinese imported

linen, though, there's a slender chance that what you're actually

getting is Asian nettlecloth-- an entirely different nettle than the

plant in Europe. If the bolt label has fallen off, check its immediate

neighbors for something texturally *identical* though perhaps a

different color, and if that pans out, take the entire bolt to someone

in the store with fabric experience (no insult intended, but this is

reliably the manager and assistant manager-- you takes your chances with

the staff!) and ask their opinion. Or, if really in doubt, ask for a

small sample and take it home for a burn test.


Burn testing is good for identifying composition, but it won't tell you

proportions in the case of a blend. I would think that a ramie and linen

would almost be indistinguishable by burn, unless one is already really

familiar with the smell of those two fibers. I don't do burn testing

unless I receive a cotton or cotton blend fabric as a gift; when living

in an apartment, we had what my husband called The Closet From Hell,

which I'm sure the architect thought was a linen closet. Contained

therein were all of my fabric prizes, neatly rolled and stacked. The

Closet From Hell seemed to be an 'aging cellar' for my fabric-- for

example, I once bought 12 yards of amber cotton velveteen. After washing

the stuff, it went into the closet and didn't reappear for another two

years, which seemed to be the usual aging period. Also, the Closet knew

who was opening the door-- if anyone other than myself opened it, at

least two shelves' worth of fabric would promptly fall out on their

head. My husband once accused me of having a sentient singularity in

there-- it obviously contained more fabric than could possibly be held

in that square footage, and it only loved the one who fed it! So far, I

have been able to remember the fabric type and blend proportion from the

bolt when originally purchased. The point being here-- if you can't

trust yourself to remember what you bought a couple of years ago and

added to your stash, fold a piece of paper inside with a penciled



I hope this helps, Brid!





Date: Tue, 19 Aug 1997 08:41:10 -0400 (EDT)From: Carol at Small Churl Books <scbooks at neca.com>To: sca-arts at raven.cc.ukans.eduSubject: Re: fabric identification >Do people have any tricks to identifying fabric? I am fairly good at telling>fabric by touch.There is a discount cloth chain in our area, and I prowl there looking forlinen and linen blends, and good cottons. When I hit a bolt that feels orlooks good, I wrinkle test it.  (Because these are fabrics that areleft-overs from clothing and upholstery manufacturers, rewound on bolts bythe chain, the labels are often doubtful.)First, a fast stealth test.  Make a little fold in the fabric, and pinch ithard.  If it doesn't wrinkle, it's synthetic.  Forget it.If it looks promising, take a bottom corner, scrunch up a handfull, andpress it hard in your fist.Pure linen makes a deep, strong, (and often fairly wide) wrinkle. Linenblends of linen-cotton and linen-rayon and linen-cotton-rayon can be hard totell from linen, but often do not wrinkle quite as well.Pure cotton makes a sharp, distinct wrinkle.  The wrinkles are usually narrower.If I find something I like, I do a simple burn test by pulling one or twothreads off the end of the fabric where it is cut, fold them over and twistthem, and use the cigar lighter in my car.  While I cannot always tell purelinen from 75% linen, 25% cotton, it is easy to rule out poly and othersynthetics that melt into a lump of plastic. For ordinary garb purposes, alinen blend which is mostly linen works just fine. Rayon is made of cottonshort fibers and wood fibers, not petroleum, and is okay in a blend.Lady Carllein



From: "Lynn Carpenter" <lynn_carpenter at hotmail.com>

To: mark_harris at risc.sps.mot.com

Subject: Testing Linen vs. Cotton

Date: Tue, 18 Nov 1997 18:19:32 PST


I asked on the bobbin lace/tatting mailing list how to tell cotton from

linen, and this is the reply I received:


>If he wants to test *cloth* rather than *thread*... cotton will scorch

>much faster than linen, at lower temperature


(I should have thought of this, having ironed many a linen tablecloth

for my mother.  Cotton will iron flat with a steam iron:  linen wants

lots of water and a heavy, hot iron to iron out flat.  There's a reason

the linen setting on an iron is usually the hottest one!)


>Both linen and cotton threads smell similiar when burnt (both being of

>plant origin), so that old stand-by (the flame test) is no good. Linen is

>slightly tacky to touch when damp but only through the first few washings.  

>Linen will also dry up crisper then cotton but, again, only through the first

>few washings. Linen will crease easily and the creases will *stay* longer

>without ironing; wrinkled cotton looks just wrinkled, "wrinkled" linen has

>style... :)


Of course, this is little help before you've actually bought them, since

you can't pick them up and iron them at the sale!





Subject: Re: [Ansteorra] fabric burn chart

Date: Tue, 3 Jul 2001 06:41:48 -0500

From: "Robert Gonzalez" <robgonz0 at yahoo.com>

To: <ansteorra at ansteorra.org>


| Does anyone know where I can get a fabric burn chart? We have several

bolts of mystery cloth at the house and we would like to try to identify


| Jovian



here is one though it's fairly simple.

Basically if you the fabric leaves a white ash it's a natural fabric like

cotton or linen. If it leaves black blobs it's got a synthetic in it.





Date: Mon, 05 May 2003 17:56:21 -0400

From: Cynthia Virtue <cvirtue at thibault.org>

Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

Subject: Re: Pennsic and staying cool


Dorothy J Heydt wrote:

> So is knowing how to do a flame test.  (This supposes, of course,

> that you have the opportunity to get a little swatch and take it

> home and flame-test it and come back again.)


A friend recommends traveling with some aluminum foil and matches (or

lighter.)  You then request the store to snip you a scrap, take it

outside, use a corner of the foil to wrap around the scrap in the

fashion of an incense holder, with the rest of the foil as the ashtray,

and light it.  Instant results.


For those not familiar with fabric burn tests, a google search will turn

up a lot of details.


Cynthia Virtue and/or

Cynthia du Pré Argent


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org