Cotton or Poly/Cotton? How to Test Fiber Content

I love good, heavy, vintage cotton fabrics.  They’re a joy to stitch, wear and touch.  But the old texitles I collect for my Rewind Designs rarely come with fabric content  labels.

Cottons from the 30s, 60s and 70s blended in one of my designs

Here’s how I tell if I’m buying 100% cotton or considering  a polyester blend:

1)  Feel fabrics–I’ve  fabric shopped by touch all my life and I like to  think I’m pretty good at it.  Still,  sometimes just handling  a fabric isn’t enough, especially if it’s never been washed.    In that case, I rub it agaisnt my cheek.  Cotton is softer, but more textural.  Poly blends are  slicker and smoother.

2) The burn test.  I learned this from an old quilter.  Clip a few threads and put them in a  jar lid or pie pan.   Then burn the fabric with  a match.  Cotton will burn away or leave a powdery ash.  Cotton/poly will leave a resin or goo.

These techniques will also help you date fabrics.  Everyone associates polyester with the 70s,  but that’s  really the era of polyester DOUBLE KNIT.

The first polyester textiles were actually invented in the early 1940s.   And while the 70s gave them a bad name,  polyester texiles are  not all bad.  Look at the wonderful Sunbrealla fabrics developed near my hometown in the North Carolina Piedmont.  We used to drive by rows of test swatches on our way to the grocery store.


If you’re blending  fabrics for quilting or applique and collage, I find it helps  to pull from the same content family.

And number one on my list–good old cotton.  Love that stuff.

To see more of my Rewind Design in my favorite fabric, check out my website


    • I think it depends on the other fabrics going into the quilt. If the blend feels like cotton, has the same “hand” and I really wanted to use ii, I’d give it a go. Have you ever seen those polyester quilts from the 70s? Heavy, hot and gaudy, but they went together easily because all the fabrics had the same weight and feel. PS. I don’t think you’re ever wasting time sewing. It’s good for the brain and the soul. C

  1. Your feel test is outdated. Polyesters have been evolving: there is a commercial product Smart Wool which I believe is fuzzed-up polyester. Microfibers are polyesters.

    • You’re right about the evolution of polyester fibers. It is getting harder and harder to tell, esp. the new polys that pass for silk. I am still working up the courage to ask for a swatch and a match and go outside and burn it. Probably the only sure way to test if there is no fiber content label. But since I work mostly in vintage and reclaimed fabrics that aren’t on bolts, I’m standing by my feel test for those. In fact, I’m horrible at buying any new fabric online, because I have to test the “hand”. What about you?

      PS. Is smart wool washable?

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