Your Essential Guide to the Fabric Burn Test

One of the most practical ways to identify fabrics and their fiber compositions is by doing a fabric burn test. It’s (usually) a test you’ll do in any fiber class in fashion school. But in case you didn’t, here’s exactly how to do it! 

Because whether you’re a student or already working in the industry as an in-house or freelance fashion designer, the ability to identify different fabrics is a MUST. 

Let’s begin!

Why am I qualified to write about this stuff? In my 15 years of experience in the fashion industry, I’ve journeyed from being an in-house designer, starting my own brand (yep!), to growing my freelance career to $100,000+. Now, with all the knowledge I’ve learned along the way, I want to help fashion designers (and PDs, TDs, etc.) like you make it in the industry.

Table Of Contents

What is a Fabric Burn Test?

A fabric burn test is a method used to figure out what a fabric is made of by seeing how it reacts to fire or heat. By observing things like how a fabric burns, what kind of smell it gives off, and the residue it leaves behind, you can tell what type of fiber a fabric is made out of.

Why Do We Need A Fabric Burn Test?

There are several reasons to conduct a fabric burn test:

  • Confirmation of Fabric Type: Fabric burn tests are crucial for identifying the type of fabric, whether it is natural, semi-synthetic, or synthetic. By understanding fabric composition, designers, manufacturers, and customers who are sewing their own clothes can make more informed choices with their fabric options.
  • Care and Maintenance: Knowing your fabric’s fiber content helps determine how the fabric should be cared for and maintained. For example, fabrics with specific burning characteristics may require special handling, such as avoiding high-temperature washing or ironing. Knowing this ensures that textiles are treated appropriately to extend their lifespan, reducing the possibility of damage. This info also comes in handy when you need to create care labels.

True Story: I’ve requested 100% cotton fabric for a sustainable brand I’ve worked with before, and despite the fabric supplier reassuring me that it was pure cotton, the fabric burn test said otherwise. Be extra careful, and always do a burn test if you’re suspicious about the composition (or the supplier! Yikes!).

Now you’re clued up on what a fabric burn test is, let’s learn how to do it right.

Tools Needed for a Fabric Burn Test

The tools you need to conduct a fabric burn test are pretty simple. Here’s your must-have list:

  • A small piece of fabric: This can be as small as a 1″ x 1″ scrap from the fabric you’re testing.
  • Tweezers: You’ll use these to hold the fabric while it burns. A stainless steel pair works perfectly because it won’t melt under heat.
  • A candle or lighter: Any flame to ignite the fabric.
  • An old ceramic plate or metal tray: The burning needs to happen on a non-flammable surface for safety.
  • Water: In case you need to put out the fire. It pays to be safe!

This basic setup is all you need. 

Step-by-Step Guide to Conducting a Fabric Burn Test

fabric burn test steps

1. Prepare Your Sample Piece

Select a small piece of your fabric—around 1 inch square will do just fine. If you want to do this test for fun but don’t want to cut up your clothes, buy small pieces of yardage at the fabric store or some second hand garments from the thrift store!

2. Conduct the Burn Test

Holding your fabric sample with tweezers, light one corner on fire using a match or lighter. Let the fabric piece burn completely, and drop the fabric on your plate/tray if necessary.

3. Take Note of the Results

Take note of the following results during and after burning:

  • Watch how it burns: Some fabrics melt while others burn like paper. Also, certain fabrics will continue burning despite being pulled away from the flame source while other fabrics – mostly with natural fibers, will self-extinguish.
  • Smell the smoke: Take a whiff of the smoke by wafting it toward your face with your hand (DO NOT SMELL DIRECTLY). Certain materials produce distinct smells during the burn test – cotton smells like burning paper, wool and silk may smell like burning hair, synthetic fibers often have a chemical smell.
  • Examine the ash: The residue left behind can also be a good clue. For example, natural fibers tend to leave soft ash while synthetic materials often leave hard plastic-like beads.

Pro Tip: A quick cheat sheet on identifying whether a fabric is made of natural or synthetic fiber is by its residue. Natural fibers tend to give off either ash or a residue that can be easily crushed while synthetic fabrics will leave a hard dark bead.

Fabric Burn Test Chart

I conducted a fabric burn test on a couple of the most commonly used fabrics in garments and here’s a chart of the results.

FabricFiber TypeBurning CharacteristicsSmellResiduePhoto
CottonNatural (Plant)Steady burn with clear flame and afterglowSmells like burning paper or woodLeaves very little ash
LinenNatural (Plant)Steady burn (but less rapid than cotton)Smells like burning paper or woodLeaves ash
SilkNatural (Animal)Burns slowly and self extinguishesSmells like burning hairBrittle residue that can be crushed
WoolNatural (Animal)Burns slowly and self extinguishesSmells like burning hairLarge, brittle beads that can be crushed
TencelMan-made (Wood)Steady burn with yellow flameSmells like burning woodLeaves gray ash
AcetateSyntheticBurns rapidly while meltingMay smell like vinegarHard, dark bead that can’t be crushed
NylonSyntheticStops burning, meltsMay smell like plastic or celeryHard, dark bead that can’t be crushed
PolyesterSyntheticBurns slowly while shrinking from flameMay smell like sweet chemicalHard, dark bead that can’t be crushed
AcrylicSyntheticBurns rapidly while meltingMay smell like chemicalHard, black bead that can’t be crushed

Identifying Fabrics Through the Fabric Burn Test

Running a fabric burn test is no biggie, really. What’s more important is what you make out of it.

Understanding your fabrics empowers you in many ways. For designers, it can mean designing garments that align perfectly with their desired look and feel. For consumers buying fabric to sew their own clothes, knowing the fabric helps with their purchasing decisions and clothing care.

So, next time you’re taking on a new project, or maybe you just have a ton of scraps lying around in your fabric stash to play with – you can start experimenting and use this article as your guide!


Heads Up: We use cookies to customize your experience and track how you interact with our site to serve you better.    OK     more info