Jul 18, 2011

Sewing meets science — AND FIRE!

I finally finished my first real pair of sailor shorts from the pattern I drafted. We tried to take some pics yesterday in Central Park, near Harlem Meer where we spent the afternoon watching this awesome bluegrass band called the Ebony Hillbillies. But Lucy kept photobombing me and it was just too hot so I lost patience with the whole thing. I'll blog them later. Today I am lighting things on fire.

I bought the fabric for these shorts at Metro Textile Corp on 37th St. I love the guy who runs it, but sometimes I think he tells me what I want to hear. For example: 

Me: Is this 100% cotton?
Him: Yes.
Me: Hmmm.

Anyway, this fabric is allegedly 100% cotton. But I wore them all day in the humidity and while they felt pretty cool like cotton, they weren't very creased by the time I took them off at night, which is what I would expect. Maybe they're a blend? I decided this was the perfect opportunity to tell you about how to test your fabric (and the truthfulness of your fabric guy).

Much of the time, you can tell just by looking what type of fabric you have on hand (or you can ask, but you may not always get the truth).

But you can also burn a little piece to verify its contents. Sounds fun, right? I like burning stuff. I always have. Don't tell my husband.

I first read about the fabric burn test in a sewing book. Then I found this handy flow chart, which makes it much easier to perform your own experiments. All you do is cut a small piece of the questionable fabric, light it carefully and then watch it burn. Does it self-extinguish or burn freely? What does it smell like as it burns? (The smell of burning meat equals acrylic. Ew!). And, finally, what does the ash look like? (Or, if it's synthetic, what does the little melted bead look like?) All these questions are important factors in determining what type of fabric your mystery swatch is.

Small triangle of fabric


Soft blackish-grey ash
My test results were thus:
-fabric lit and burned
-smell of burning paper
-a blackish grey ash left over

So consulting the handy dandy chart.....it's definitely cotton. But it may be mercerized cotton (because the ash was somewhat blacker than plain old cotton). Mercerized cotton is treated with sodium hydroxide to make it stronger, smoother and shinier. So my fabric guys is honest — or lucky.


  1. How long have been lighting fabric on fire while I'm away? I am pretty sure that's how the Triangle Shirtwaist fire started. Some 14 year old worker was like, "Is this cotton? Let me check."


  2. I love lighting things on fire. Remember last summer when we had cockroaches running through our apartment and I said I wanted to burn the whole building down and start over. I totally meant that.

  3. You know you can tell a water bug from a cockroach by how long it burns.

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