‘Feel’ the Burn!


(Photo: ©iStock/VvoeVale)

Tim Burke |

Identify clothing fibers by lighting them on fire, then paying attention to the signs

CHICAGO — The characteristics and appearance of the burnt residue of a fiber will tell you what it’s made of.

The smell can tell you as well.

This from The Complete Spotting Guide and More, an informational map so to speak, to all things ‘garments,’ written by Norman Oehlke and published by American Drycleaner:

“Take a garment that has a fiber-identification label and pull out a yarn from a seam allowance. Take an end of this yarn and place it over a flame. Blow out the flame, and let it cool a second. While this is happening, try to inhale some of the fumes and smoke that’s given off. What does it smell like?

“Now, observe the burnt end—is the ash larger than the unburned yarn? Does the bead or ember crush between your fingers, or is it hard?

“With some practice, these two procedures will give you a general idea of the type of fiber you’ve tested.”

The Spotting Guide explains that fabrics are often treated with various textile finishes at the mill, so the same kinds of fabric from different garments might have different odors when burnt. However, the type of ember left will always be the same.

The burn test will never lie. Did you inhale? Was it convincing? Now check the embers.

Silk and wool are protein fibers and burn in short jumps. They will smell like burning hair, and their ember is a crushable black bead.

Cellulose fibers such as cotton, linen, ramie and rayon have yellow flames and smell of burning wood or paper. They all have the same gray, fluffy ash or, in the case of rayon, no ash. Rayon also burns quickly.

Synthetics such as nylon, polyester and spandex (and others) just melt over flame and have a smell of burning wax or a sweet or musty smell, and can be acrid like vinegar as well. Mostly, they form a hard, uncrushable bead; spandex becomes a soft, sticky ember.

Glass and metallic do not burn, although metallic does glow. They give off no odor. The ember of glass will glow, and metallic retains its shape. These are minerals. No ember, no worry, it’s metal!

The smell can often tell the tale but when in doubt, observe the ember.

Can you identify that fiber now? Did you burn it? Smell it? Observe the ash?

Remember, burnt protein fibers smell like hair; plant fibers, wood; synthetics, sweet or waxy; and minerals don’t have an odor. When in doubt, always check the ash.

So, to ID a fiber, go burn threads and smell what you fired up; crush the ember and look closely. Now you’re the fiber-whisperer!

The Complete Spotting Guide and More is a comprehensive, practical guide to textiles and problem garments—as well as everyday items—and how to handle them, from reception at the counter through spotting, cleaning and finishing, with an emphasis on the role of the spotter. To purchase a copy, click here.

About the author

Tim Burke

American Drycleaner


Tim Burke is the editor of American Drycleaner. He can be reached at 312-361-1684 or [email protected]


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