So...what kind of fabric is this? Part 1: The Burn Test
I ask this question to myself A LOT.
What sort of fabric is this? How do I take care of it? What can I do with it?
Part of working with vintage fabrics is knowing what a fabric is and what it is made of. This is a learning process. It never ends. The first thing I do after bringing a fabric home is to determine the fabric content, or at least narrow it down. These posts just explain abbreviated versions of the tests I use. There are numerous online posts, videos and flow charts describing these tests.
Please keep in mind that other observations are important when determining fabric content. Cost, feel, smell, damage (mold, insect damage), age and "sound" can all help you determine what your fabric is. If you purchased some yardage of a "silk" like fabric for a dirt cheap price you could have gotten an awesome deal but you probably just purchased polyester or rayon. Some Japanese sythetics are VERY difficult to differentiate from silk. Yes, I have been fooled!
I primarily use the "burn test" and the "bleach test". This post will discuss the "burn test". I am not going to discuss every fabric out there but will talk about the ones that I deal with the most: silk, wool, linen, cotton, rayon and polyester. This test is perfect for determining if the fabric has silk or wool in it. Even if the fabric is only a percentage of silk or wool you WILL smell it. Burning silk and wool has the same smell as burning hair and if you have ever burnt hair you will know that burning hair smells bad...really bad.
If you have never burnt your hair (by mistake that is) then consider yourself lucky and start thinking of some explanation on why you stunk up the house because your children and significant other will want to know why you subjected them to such an aweful scent.
: All fabrics burn differently, smell differently when burning and create different ashes.
Perform the test by snipping off a small triangular piece of fabric. Hold the fabric with tweezers over a dish. Light the pointy end of the triangular fabric snippet on fire using a lighter. Do not use a match as this will cover up the smell of the fabric burning. After the fabric starts on fire, place it in the dish.
Did the fabric :
a) : Most likely cotton or rayon
b) : most likely silk, wool or fire retardent synthetic
c) : most likely synthetic fabric such as acetate, nylon
Does the fabric smell like :
a) : Most likely cotton or rayon
b) : Wool and/or silk
c) : synthetic
Is the ash:
a) : cotton, linen, rayon
b) : wool and silk
Synthetic fabrics also tend to curl away from the flame, rather than igniting right away.
This test can be used in conjuntion with other tests to help determine the approximate makeup of a fabric. I say approximate because it can be very difficult to determine blends or what sort of synthetic a fabric is. It is also very difficult to determine the difference between cotton, rayon and linen blends.
I have also been fooled by fabrics that really do not burn like I expect them to. I have had a silk kimono fabric that would not burn like silk. I was told it was silk and could smell the silk when I burnt it but because of the way the silk was woven it burned much like a synthetic would and did not self-extinguish. I moved onto a bleach test which did confirm the kimono was silk.
Experience is really the key to determining the fabric you have. When you visit any fabric store touch the fabrics and try to determine the makeup of them. Feel silk and other fine fabrics and compare them to synthetics. These "practice" sessions come in use when you are digging around in a good will store or garage sale and find yardage of beautiful fabric for a cheap price. In most cases it is not silk or wool but you will be sure to find silk or other fine fabrics that are marked dirt cheap at some point and you want to be able to recognize and snatch up that deal when you do!