Friday, 28 September 2012

A Visit to Laboratoire Needles

I buy a lot of my fabrics from stalls, remnant bins, etc, and often have to guess at what they're made up of. It's never been a problem - no cleaning disasters so far! - but the fabrics I've used in a few recent projects have made me curious about finding out more.

Then I remembered the burn tests we did on fabrics in my 'A' Level (equivalent to High School) Fashion and Textiles classes. Basically, a burn test consisted of setting a small swatch of fabric alight, then observing how it burnt and analysing the residue or ash left behind to determine the composition of the fabric. Yup - we were allowed to set stuff on fire in the name of education!

After consulting a few websites, such as Fabric University and Fiber Images, I felt confident enough to open up Laboratoire Needles and burn stuff!

These are the basic tools you need:

Tin foil, tweezers, a jar for catching residue/extinguishing flame, and fabric swatches
I pulled a few strands from the first swatch, and holding them with the tweezers, I held them over the stove bunsen burner, then watched them smoulder, drip, spark, and go up in flame:

This is what we wear at Laboratoire Needles...

...freshly set hair, red lipstick, lots of jewellery, and no safety gear whatsoever!
And these were my findings:

The scratchy red fabric

The swatch at the top, and the results of the burn test below - hard black beads
I knew this fabric was most likely man-made, but I wasn't sure what. When it was burnt, it melted, smelled pretty strong and plastic-y, and the melted bits hardened to little black beads. According to the Fiber Images website, this is most likely Polyester.

The cheap polka dot

This one was a bit puzzling; I thought it was probably rayon or viscose, but it melted a bit like the polyester, and was a bit ashy when it cooled. Maybe a cotton polyester mix?

The jersey fabric

This one hardly burned at all, just smouldered with no ash, and it left a sort of greasy smear on the foil. According to the Fabric University, this is probably rayon.

The printed fabric

This was the only one that turned out as predicted. I assumed it was cotton; it burned like paper, and left a grey ash. So, pretty sure that's cotton!

It was getting a bit too crazy and experimental in the Lab at this point, so I closed it for the evening and went back to watching telly and drinking tea - I mean, researching future tests. But I hope that my cutting edge scientific research was of some help. The next time you buy a fabric of unknown origin and you want to know what it is, SET IT ON FIRE!


  1. I never knew you could do that with fabric! I'd seen a couple of eBay listings for rayon which said they'd done the "burn test"but I never knew what that meant. Thank you for sharing, I will be putting it to good use :o)

  2. How interesting! Didn't realise that fabrics left different residues depending on their composition!
    Liz @ Shortbread & Ginger

  3. I've never heard of a burn test, this is very interesting! I'll have to have a read at the links. And I love your 1970s approach to health and safety!

  4. Hi I just came across your blog via 'We Sew Retro' - loving it. After reading this peice about the burn test it reminded me of another one with a chart I think you will find helpful - this is the link


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