How to Tell Cotton Fabric From Polyester

Written by louise harding
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Years ago all fabric was created from natural fibers, but today's fabric industry has the technology to make blends from various natural and synthetic fibers. To determine if you have a piece of cotton fabric or polyester fabric, you can conduct a simple test referred to by fabric experts as a burn test. Use caution when burning fabric and always burn a small sample of the fabric. It's also a good idea to have an aluminum can, water, or some sand nearby in case the burn test gets a little out of control.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Fabric sample, approximately 1 inch by 1 inch
  • Matches or lighter
  • Aluminum can
  • Water or sand
  • Tweezers

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  1. 1

    Hold the fabric sample in the tweezers over a tin can. Have a cup of water or a sink nearby to extinguish the fire once you've determined your results.

  2. 2

    Using a lighter or a match, light the corner of the fabric sample. Because cotton is a natural fiber, when it burns it will smell like burning plants. The burning fibers will disintegrate like ash.

  3. 3

    Note the color of the flame on the fabric swatch. Cotton fabric will produce a yellow or orange color and burn steadily. Polyester will have a sputtering, gasping orange flame.

  4. 4

    Allow the fabric sample to burn until you are satisfied that you have determined if the fabric is cotton or polyester. Polyester, a polymer, is produced from coal and petroleum products. When it burns, it melts and burns simultaneously. The smoke will be very black and have a sweet odor. Because it melts, the cooled ash will turn hard.

  5. 5

    Extinguish the burning fabric sample by dropping it into the aluminum can and covering it with sand or water until the flames are gone. Throw the can and the remnants of the fabric swatch into the trash once you are confident that the fire is out and the fabric cannot re-ignite.

Tips and warnings

  • Cotton/polyester blends of fabric are sometimes hard to determine by the burn test method. Usually the polyester will give itself away as the ash will melt and harden.
  • Use extreme caution when burning anything, especially fabric as it is highly flammable.

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