twelve white an off white squares of fabric in various materials

Natural vs Synthetic Fabrics

Week 8

I love using old textiles and fabric scraps, but sometimes I have no idea what kind of material I've ended up with. Textiles in the US are required to have labels with their fabric content, but often times those labels have been removed or worn out to the point of illegibility. While it doesn't always matter, there are certain projects where I would like to have an idea of what I'm working with.

All fabric can be split up into two main catagories: natural and synthetic. Natural fabric comes from materials found in nature, while synthetic fabric is man-made and generally, just another form of plastic.

Common natural materials

  • Cotton
  • Flax (Linen)
  • Wool
  • Silk
  • Hemp
  • Bamboo
  • Jute
  • Pashmina

Common synthetic fabrics

  • Polyester
  • Spandex
  • Acrylic
  • Olefin
  • Neoprene
  • Nylon
  • Polyester Fleece
  • Rayon*

*Technically, rayon is a blend of natural and synthetic, but in my mind, any amount of synthetic gets added to the list.

The easiest way to differentiate natural and synthetic materials

I've found that the quickest and easiest way to tell natural and synthetic fabrics apart is by doing a burn test. All you have to do is take a small swatch of the fabric and safely bring a flame to it. I recommend using tweezers and keeping a bowl of water nearby in case the need arises for a quick extinguishment.

Natural materials will burn and char with an odor similar to setting paper alight. Synthetic fabrics, however, will melt and let off a chemical odor. When the flame is out, the synthetic fabric will be left with a hard edge, similar to melted plastic (becuase it is essentially, melted plastic).

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