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A Burning Desire: conducting a flame test on fabrics

January 2, 2014 by rosie

After a ridiculous hiatus (involving moving house and all the associated trauma), I’ve finally set up the sewing room. It was the last room in the house to be sorted. This is mainly because we’ve downsized and now my fabric stash and associated sewing paraphernalia is more overwhelming than ever before, and finding a way to make it all fit proved challenging.

Moving house did remind me just how much sewing stuff I have – whether it be fabric or patterns. It makes me feel a little guilty – I really should stop buying both, as I already have years’ worth to keep me going, and so much of it has been left untouched for so long.

I’ve promised my husband that I’ll try really hard to reduce my fabric stash this year. And I’ve promised myself that this year, there will be more sewing action than in 2013.

One of the first things I did once we’d settled into our new house was something I’ve been hankering to do for a while, but wasn’t exactly sure how to go about it. I did a burn test on various pieces of “mystery” fabrics.  It was like those science experiments we did back in high school – I felt I should have donned a lab coat and plastic goggles, and written out my ‘hypothesis’, ‘method’ and ‘conclusion’ in my notebooks.

Instead, I convinced my husband to help me out, and we set fire to various strips of  ‘unsub’ fabric – mainly pieces I had thrifted or inherited over the years –  on a baking tray over the kitchen table to see if we could determine the fibre content. I used this website as my reference point.

I must say, I was pleasantly surprised by how much the process revealed about the fibres. While there are obvious limitations to the exercise – such as not being able to identify the exact make-up of blends, or the precise type of fibre – it soon became evident which of the fabrics were made of natural fibres and which weren’t.  There are several clues – the way the fabric burns (or melts, if it’s some disgusting plastic chemical), they way it smells, and the residue/ashes the fabric leaves behind.

Let’s just say that, as a result of the burn test, many pieces of fabric were swiftly thrown out or donated to the local charity – after inhaling the sickening chemical smell and watching the samples drip and melt into a congealed blob, there was no way I wanted to be wearing any of those pieces! Sadly, there was one great 1960’s piece I’d been given that I’d been holding onto for years because of the colours – even though I had my suspicions, I was secretly hoping it would prove to be all natural, but a burn test quickly revealed that this was certainly not the case.

There were a few pleasant surprises too, and, ultimately, I managed to whittle down my fabric stash just a little bit more!

If you have a mystery piece in your stash, I highly recommend the flame test as a quick way of determining the basic properties of the fabric. A word of waring – just make sure you do this in a well ventilated area – the aromas of burning synthetic are strong, unpleasant, toxic and tend to linger.

 

 

 


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