How to Identify Scraps or Unlabeled Fabrics

What Kind of Material Is It?

Bolts of fabric at a well-stocked fabric store
Travel Ink/Getty Images

Sewing can be an expensive hobby if you rely solely on the craft store for your fabric, but you can find economical solutions to meet your fabric addiction needs. Yard sales and tag sales are just two of many sources to collect scraps of fabric for quilting and small sewing projects. Flea markets are another great place to find cost-effective fabric. If you have friends that sew you can plan fabric swaps to clean out any fabric you don't think you'll use and maybe find something you will. The only problem with finding fabric this way is that you usually have no way to tell what you're getting––scrap fabrics usually don't come with labels. Luckily, there are some fairly reliable ways to help you identify fabrics yourself.

Fabric Burn Test

Short of taking your fabric to a lab for identification, the fabric burn test is the most dependable way to determine a fabric material of unknown origin. A fabric burn test won't tell you the exact name of the fabric you're dealing with, but it will help you match laundering and pressing needs.

You'll clip a small swatch from your fabric, then slowly expose it to a flame from a lighter. Different types of fabric burn differently; cotton burns with a yellow flame and a smell reminiscent of leaves, while acrylic smells acidic and melts. Pay attention to:

  • The smell of the fabric as it burns
  • The color of the smoke
  • How quickly the fabric burns––or if it melts or doesn't burn at all
  • The resulting ash

Note the results of your test and compare it with descriptions of how different types of fabric react to being burned. When you're done, you should have an educated guess as to what type of fabric you have.

Fabric Detective Work

While the burn test is the gold standard, you can also do some old-fashioned detective work, either to support your findings from the burn test or instead of doing a burn test. Some questions to ask include:

  • How old is the fabric? Where did it come from? These questions may help you figure out a manufacturer.
  • What condition is the fabric in? Synthetic fabrics may begin to break down over time, feeling oily or sticky. Stretchy fabrics like nylon or spandex lose their elasticity. Fabric made with natural fibers may have damage on fold lines or insect infestation.
  • How does it wash, dry, and iron? Take a small swatch and try it out. If your primary reason for identifying a fabric is to know how to care for it, this can provide you with your answers.
  • What does the fabric look like? Use a visual fabric guide to help you narrow down the type of fabric you're working with.

Examine Fabric Under a Microscope

If you have a microscope on hand––even a cheap children's model––you can use that to get a closer look at your fabric. Compare what you see to pictures of different types of fabric magnified.