Burning Fabric

Why would anyone want to burn fabric?

Perhaps a better question is: have you ever wondered if a fabric you want to use in a quilt is 100% cotton? There is an easy test to check. Many of you may already know this, but I’m hoping some of you will find this helpful.

Recently I was cleaning out the cupboard where I keep my quilt backing pieces and non-cotton fabrics. I found a piece of black and white polka dot fabric and wondered why it wasn’t in with the rest of my stash.

Perhaps it was a polyester blend. Nothing on the selvedge showed fiber content, so I grabbed a book of matches, cut off a corner of the yardage, and went outside.

I lit the pointy end with a match and watched it burn. I waited for it to cool, then I picked it up and when I rubbed it between my fingers, the residue was a soft ash.

This is the case for natural fibers such as cotton, rayon, linen, silk, etc.

For the sake of comparison I cut a triangle from a fabric I knew was a polyester.

The results? It melted.

You can see the light reflecting in the “plastic-like” burned semi-circle on the fabric, and the small black piece was stuck to the cement. Man made fabrics like polyester and nylon melt rather than ash.

The next day I pulled out some beautiful scraps I wanted to use in my next challenge quilt.

They were given to me by a woman I stayed with when I taught for a quilt guild in Eau Claire, WI. She told me there was a men’s necktie factory nearby and they sold their scraps by the pound. She then gifted me with a bag full.

Before I attempted to make them into appliqué shapes, I thought I’d better check to see if they were silk or polyester, because ties can be made from either. I’m happy to say they all passed the burn test and are silk:

The interesting thing was the ash was not as soft as the cotton fabric and it had a bit of a gritty feel when I rubbed it between my fingers. I guess I’ve never burned silk before because I was a little surprised by this.

Do any of you use this test for your fabrics? Any other thoughts you’d like to share  🙂 ?

7 Opinions

  • Carol said:

    Yes, works well..

  • Laurie Neubauer said:

    Thanks Chris for this information. Never thought of doing this. Very interesting.
    What happens to fabric claiming to be non-flammable? Have quilts ever been made out of them?

  • Geraldine Sharp said:

    I burn test fabric often on aluminum foil on the kitchen counter. It might be my luck to have too much fire outside.

  • Pat said:

    A test I try is snipping 2” into fabric . If it rips easily its cotton . If it stops in its tracks it is a blend. I recently noticed if the salvage edge has small pin holes in it that is most likely cotton. It the edge is looking more like eye lash that is a blend. Very disappointing when purchasing for a quilt project.


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