CHALLENGE: I am having some
difficulty in identifying fabrics and fibers I am using for a vintage
window treatment. I have purchased a large quantity of material
from an antique store, and I would like to create a beautiful window
treatment for my client. Could you please offer some tips and suggestions
for identifying fabrics—if that is possible?
SOLUTION: It sounds as if your
vintage fabric will be beautiful in your client’s home. The
older the fabric, it seems, the more charm it has!
Fabric identification is a science, and it can be best accomplished
through “burn tests.” In fact, this is how professionals
attain this information. Warning: All fibers will burn. Only a skilled
burner should do a burn test. All fiber tests should be conducted
in the proper area by a skilled professional. Make sure the burn
is conducted in a metal bucket or a non-plastic sink. Some of the
ways fibers are identified are as follows:
• Cotton is a plant fiber. When ignited, it burns with a steady
flame and smells like burning leaves. The ash that is left crumbles
easily. Small samples burn out as a small burning wick from a candle
• Linen also is a plant fiber. It is different from cotton,
though. Linen takes longer to ignite than cotton because the fibers
that make up the yarn are longer. The fabric that is close to the
ash is very brittle. If it is linen, it will extinguish easily and
you can blow it out as you would a candle.
• Silk burns readily as it is a protein fiber. It sometimes
has a steady flame and sometimes it flickers. Most notably, it smells
like burning hair. The ash that’s left crumbles easily. It
does not extinguish as easily as cotton and linen.
• Wool is also a protein fiber, but it is harder to ignite
than silk. The weave is looser than silk so once it’s going
it can burn steadily, although it often is more difficult to keep
burning. Like silk, it also smells like burning hair.
• Rayon is regenerated and almost pure cellulose (wood fibers).
It burns rapidly and leaves only a slight ash. The smell is close
to burning leaves.
• Polyester is a polymer produced from coal, water, air and
petroleum products. It melts and burns at the same time. The burning
ash can bond quickly to any surface, including skin. The smoke is
black with a sweetish smell. The extinguished ash is hard.
• Acetate also is made from cellulose. It burns readily with
a flickering flame that cannot be easily extinguished. The smell
is similar to burning wood chips.
• Nylon is made from petroleum. It melts and then burns rapidly
if the flame remains held to the melted fiber. It smells like burning
• Acrylic is made from natural gas and petroleum. It has air-filled
pockets and burns rapidly. If a match or cigarette is dropped onto
acrylic it will ignite the fabric and burn rapidly. The smell is
Older fabrics pose problems—they are more prone to breaking
down. I would suggest paying the additional cost to have your vintage
fabric flame-proofed for the extra safety that provides. If you
cannot find a company in your area that will flameproof it, check
with your local drapery workroom; someone there may be able to refer
you to a company that will treat the fabric so it is not as quick
Editor’s note: This is a continuing series of articles
written by Sharon L. Anderson that will answer some of the many
questions we receive at Draperies & Window Coverings as well
as questions Anderson has encountered in her own business. If you
have a question you would like Anderson to address, please send
c/o Draperies & Window Coverings
1724 E. Grand Ave.
Lindenhurst, IL 60046
Fax: (847) 356-9013
L. Anderson has more than 20 years experience in the residential and
commercial areas of interior design. She is currently a faculty member
at two Southern California colleges. Anderson has been featured in
numerous books and publications.