Not all that glitters is silk

Is it natural silk? That will have to be seen… and smelt. 

A fashion designer expresses him/herself through fabric, so choosing the right one is the key to get a successful project. This choice cannot depend just on what the designer likes; besides aesthetic considerations other aspects have to be taken into account. To know about the properties of the fabric, as regards its durability, its comfort when it comes into contact with skin or its care and preservation, it is very useful to foresee its behaviour and to guarantee its suitability for the chosen design and for its final use.

Cloth properties are settled by the raw material with which it is made of, that is to say, by the properties of the fibres that make up the fabric. Lots of times fabrics without any composition label fall into our hands. To identify the clothes we can use different and complementary procedures. The choice of one of them will depend on the nature of the sample, on the experience of the analyst and on the available equipment.

Silk is one of the most valuable fibres and the most imitated one, in fact, it was the pattern used for the appearance of the first artificial fibres. In 1889 in the International Exhibition in Paris the first imitation of silk was presented and since then the textile industry has been researching and bringing out into the market new fibres that are becoming more and more similar to silk. To distinguish silk from its substitutes and to prevent the consumer from getting confused it is necessary to have some basic knowledge of fabric technology and to know the identification tests in order to recognize it.

One of these tests is combustion. It is a very simple method which gives us information about the nature of the fibre that forms the cloth if it is made of just one fiber, that is, just in case there isn’t any mixture of fibres. This test, also known as pyrognostic analysis, consists of burning fibres or threads of the fabric we want to identify and analyzing the way they burn, the way they smell while burning and the waste we have after the combustion.

So to find out if the fabric we have is really natural silk we have to burn some of the threads that make it up. If it is difficult for them to get burnt, if they smell of burnt hair or if the resultant ash is seemingly solid but it breaks down into powder when it is pressed down, the fibre is natural. To check that it is not wool, as wool behaves in the same way when it burns, we’ll analyze the length of the fibre and we’ll observe if it is long. If we have a microscope we can notice that its surface is smooth.

In conclusion, if we have a shiny fabric that glitters like silk, just using a lighter and having a good sight we can distinguish if the fibers that make it up have been made by worms in the natural way or if they are the product of modern chemistry.

Carmen Pardo

Translated from Spanish into English by Alicia Hergueta and Edu Grao

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