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Fabric Care and Fiber Identification


Before you cut into your new piece of fabric, it is advisable to decide how to care for the garment you will make from it. If you plan to wash the garment, you should probably prewash the fabric. That way, any potential shrinkage or other changes will occur before you have put in all the time and effort to complete your project. But before putting the entire piece of fabric in the washer, please TEST!  Cut a square of fabric 3” x 3”, as accurately as you can. Lay the 3” square on a piece of paper and carefully trace around it. Set the paper aside. Now consider whether this fabric will take hot, warm, or cold water, machine drying or air drying, or any other variables that you think might be important to determine how you will test your little sample.

Before actually washing your sample, try it for colorfastness. Dip one corner of your 3” square in some soapy water and lay it on a white paper towel. Tap the wet corner a few times with the paper towel and peek underneath to determine whether any color is bleeding from the fabric. That may influence your next steps.
At this point, you could handwash the sample or put it in a lingerie bag to prevent it from raveling in the washer or dryer. Go ahead and test the fabric using the method you’ve decided on. When the sample is dry, carefully press it, again considering variables such as iron temperature, steam or no steam, need for a press cloth, and so on.
Once your sample is pressed, examine it carefully. Has the color changed? Is the surface different and do you like or dislike the change, if any?
Place the sample back on the traced square from an earlier step. Has the fabric shrunk? If the shrinkage is significant, you may want to calculate how much your entire piece of fabric will shrink when and if it is washed and whether the shrinkage will be satisfactory. If the results of your test are not what you wanted, you could cut another square, modify the treatment of this second sample, and try again. If none of your testing gives you the results you wanted, you may need to dryclean any garment made from this fabric.


You may have fabrics in your stash that you bought some time ago. Now you can’t remember what the fiber content is. A burn test may help solve the puzzle.
In general, natural fibers generally leave a soft ash that is easily crushed when they’ve been burned. Synthetic fibers, on the other hand, usually melt rather than burn, and they leave a hard bead.
To test, cut a small scrap of fabric. Hold it with tweezers over a metal bowl or empty tin pie pan. (Have some water handy just in case!) Light the fabric with a match or lighter, letting the ash or bead fall into the can. Note the characteristics of the residue as well as the smell of the burning fibers.

Cotton burns readily. A yellow flame quickly appears and continues to burn; it will continue to glow. The ash is soft and feathery, easily crushed. The smell will be like burning paper.
Linen also ignites quickly, but not quite as quickly as cotton. The flame is yellow, and, like cotton, it will burn until all the fabric is consumed. The ash and smell are like cotton’s.
Rayon is a manufactured fiber, but it is also made from cellulose. It also burns with a yellow flame and may catch fire even more rapidly than cotton and linen. Its smell and ash are also like linen and cotton.

Silk does not ignite quickly, and it curls away from the flame and sputters as it burns. It smells like burning hair and leaves a shiny, round bead that is easy to crush.
Wool, like silk, ignites slowly and sputters. Its flame flickers, and the fibers curl away from it. It eventually sputters out, leaving a crisp, dark, irregular bead of ash that is easy to crush. It also smells like burning hair.

Polyester is made from petroleum products. In a burn test, the fibers fuse together and shrink away from the flame. They slowly melt and burn, smelling like chemicals. They leave a black, hard, round bead that can’t be crushed.


Cotton breathes and absorbs moisture, so it is comfortable. It is used for a wide variety of garments. If you will wash a garment you make from it, prewash the fabric first. Cotton can be washed in any temperature, but lukewarm to warm water may help it last longer. Wash dark and lights separately, of course. Use the dryer, but remove items promptly to avoid creasing. You may want to airdry dark colors because the friction of tumbling in the dryer can abrade the fabric’s surface, making it appear lighter and less colorful.

Linen is more absorbent and breathes even more than cotton, so it’s great for warm make garments last longer. Hang garments to dry, using your hands to smooth the fabric, gently pulling the seams straight. Or try Louise’s method: Turn the dryer on to Hot and let it come up to that temperature while it is still empty. Then quickly put in your fabric or garment and let it tumble until it is almost dry. Remove it while slightly damp, hang it up, and smooth it with your hands. Iron with a hot iron (on the linen setting) if needed.

Rayon should be washed in cooler water on a short, gentle cycle. When rayon is wet, it absorbs a lot of water (it’s cellulose, after all) and can feel quite stiff when wet. Don’t worry; as it dries it becomes soft again. Air drying is preferable, but it can also make pressing easier if you put it in a lukewarm dryer for just a few minutes to get it almost dry and to relax the wrinkles. Pressing with a warm iron on the wrong side prevents making the right side of the fabric shiny.

Polyester is long-lasting, doesn’t wrinkle, and won’t shrink. It can be woven and finished to mimic the look of many other fibers. It can be machine washed and dried, but be careful of the highest temperatures. Use a low temperature when pressing.
Spandex is often blended with other fibers. For best results, keep temperatures in the washer and dryer medium rather than hot, even if the base fabric could take the higher heat. Your spandex will keep its elasticity longer.