Saturday, November 18, 2006

Concerning the fiber content of a fabric

The information we most want to know about a fabric is the fiber content; knowing this is to know a fabric's characteristics and advantages and disadvantages.

There are a number of tests, some along the lines of folklore (dampening and creasing a fabric to see how it behaves) and some more scientific (exposing a fabric to certain chemicals and examining it under a microscope), but by far the most accessible test is burning.

One web offering, Ditzy Prints Fiber Burn Chart is a great resource. You should know that burning fibers takes practice, and you must start with a little caution. You should burn over a sink or bucket so that if you get what seems like a fabric inferno you can ditch! Most necessary is a tweezers to hold the little fabric swatch, and a lighter. If you burn matches of any sort you will pick up the scent of burning paper or wood, throwing you off for discerning the burning fabric's odor.

If you are really serious about learning how a fiber burns, I recommend taking known fabric samples and examining how they smell and behave while burning, and look, feel and smell once burned.

Many fabrics are blends and will have characteristics of more than one fiber when burned. If you are lucky, the fibers are distinct in the fabric, so that you can separate the weft from the warp and discover the content of each fiber.

One giveaway is acetate, which is the only fiber that dissolves when dampened with acetone (i.e. nail polish remover).

To do a burn test, do your best to find as big a swatch as possible without damaging or conspicuous loss to a garment. Even a few threads are "readable" once you get good at this, but a piece of about 1" X 1/4" is a minimum necessity if you are just getting started. Hold one end of the fabric with the tweezers and expose the other end to the flame of a lighter. Notice if the fabric readily burns or takes some effort to light. Also, note if the fire burns out or continues until all the fabric is burned. Smell the burning fabric.

Then, once the fire is out, notice whether the remains are black or grey, and feel to decide if is harder (bead-like) or soft (ash-like). On the fiber burn chart all these elements will help you narrow the choices.

Your senses also will help determine a fabric's fiber content without burning, given a chance to learn. With experience a silk, wool, rayon, polyester or acetate are discernible just by look and feel...but the details of their look and feel are so much harder to describe online.

I wish everyone who cared to learn about fabrics could have a mentor lead them. From what little I know, a knowledgeable person and a guided experience with fabrics makes a very complex project so much easier and memorable. If you have a chance, be taught first hand!

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