The Effect of Fabric Type on Ignition Time and Burning Rate

Researched by AJ L.


The purpose of this experiment was to compare the amount of time it took fabrics made of different materials to ignite and be consumed by fire.

I became interested in this idea when I heard about a young child dying in a house fire.

The information gained from this experiment can be used by everybody to be able to see which fabrics should be kept away from heaters and vents. It can also be used to show which fabrics that you wear should be avoided. 


My first hypothesis was that rayon would be ignited the quickest. 

My second hypothesis was that silk would burn the quickest.

I based my hypothesis on my research, which stated that “rayon is mostly made of cellulose.” From further research Encarta stated that “cellulose is the woody or fatty part of a plant.” It also stated that “Rayon is artificial silk and silk can burn quickly.”


The constants in this study were: 
* The room temperature
* The size of the fabric
* The type of lighter used to light the fabric.
* The method of lighting the fabrics 
* The amount of trials per fabric

The manipulated variable was the type of fabric used.

The responding variable was the time it took for fire to light the fabric and then to consume the fabric.

To measure the responding variable I used a stopwatch to see how long it took the fabric to ignite and then to see how long it took to be consumed. 


5 7.5 x 7.5 cm square of cotton fabric
5 7.5 x 7.5 cm square of rayon fabric
7.5 x 7.5 cm square of silk fabric
7.5 x 7.5 cm square of nylon fabric
7.5 x 7.5 cm square of wool fabric
5 7.5 x 7.5 cm square of polyester fabric
aluminum cake pans
2 stopwatches
1 open room with no flammable materials
1 medium wire screen cylinder 
1 pair of goggles
1 fire extinguisher


Construction of Screen
1. Take a piece of chicken wire that’s 40.5 cm x 21.5 cm and place it around a circle shaped burner cover.
2. Hook the ends of the chicken wire together to make a nice secure cylinder. Wire the chicken wire to the burner cover to make a cylinder. 

1. Cut each fabric into 7.5 cm x 7.5 cm squares. Make 5 of each fabric.
2. Cut a small hole in the fabric towards in each corner. Make sure each cut is in the same spot.
3. Put a small wire through each hole. 
4. Pour about 200ml of water in each cake pan. 
5. Connect each wire to a medium size wire screen dome. Have it so 2 wires are connected to the lower sides and 2 wires are hooked to the top of the screen.  Do these so that when the dome is placed over the pie tray the fabric will not touch the water. Have it so that the fabric will sit about 5-10 cm above the water. 
6. Place the dome over the cake pan. 
7. Ignite the fabric. Start both stopwatches when you start the lighter. Stop 1 watch when fabric becomes ignited. Take time to see how long it takes the fabric to ignite. Record time. 
8. From there take the time of how long it takes fire to consume the entire piece of fabric. Keep the other stopwatch running until fabric is consumed with fire. When this happens stop the watch. Record the time. 
9. Let the fire burn out. 
10. Let it sit and cool for about 15 minutes over the water before removing the dome screen. 
11. Remove the dome now very cautiously.  
12. Take the fabric off the dome screen and place it in the cake pan full of water to be cooled further. 
13. Observe speeds and check recordings. 
14. Set that cake pan aside. 
15. Repeat steps 2-13, 3 more times for the same fabric type. 
16. Repeat steps 2-14 for each type of fabric. 
17. Average results. 
18. Study data. 
19. Organize data. 
20. Create a graph of data results.


The original purpose of this experiment was to compare the amount of time it took fabrics made of different materials to ignite and be consumed by fire. 

The results of the experiment indicate that rayon ignited and was consumed by fire the quickest. They also indicate that wool took the longest to ignite and to be consumed by the fire. 

See the tables and graphs below.


My first hypothesis was that rayon would be quickest to ignite. 
These results indicate that this hypothesis should be accepted. Rayon did ignite the quickest with an average time of 1.24 seconds. 

My second hypothesis is that silk would burn the quickest. 
The results show that my second hypothesis should be rejected. Silk had a burning time of 27.77 seconds while rayon had the quickest. Polyester and Cotton were also faster silk. 

Because of the results of this experiment, I wonder if the temperature of the environment would affect the results. For example if the air temperature was 0 degrees Celsius (freezing) would the results differ than if it were 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit). I also came upon the question if the type of lighter and lighting method would affect the results.

If I were to conduct this project again I would run more trials. I would also do the experiment twice to test two different lighting methods.


Humans need fire to cook food, give heat and to help make materials for everyday life. We also need fabrics to clothe ourselves from the elements and to keep our heat inside at night with sheets. When fire and fabrics come together it can cause trouble and harm to us. 

What is Fire
Fire is heat resulting from the rapid combination of oxygen with a flammable substance. Fire needs three components in order to burn. First it needs a flammable substance, second it needs oxygen, and third it needs a temperature high enough to ignite the flammable substance. A flame is the glowing particles of the substance being burned. Flames are usually yellow, red and orange but sometimes may be green and blue. The color of the flame depends on the substance being burned. 

History of Fire
Fire was said to be discovered about 500,000 years ago, although no one knows how it first came about. Microsoft Encarta 95’ says “Maybe ancient civilizations got ideas from watching the natural wonders of volcanoes or land and forest fires started by lighting.” Those civilizations used fire to warm themselves, cook food and frighten away predators. As time progressed people learned that they could use fire to make light, weapons and create better tools for war. 

Kinds of Fires
Fire burns in many different ways. Some fires may be burning gases or wood. Others may burn fabrics. All substances do not burn in the same manner. All substances burn in different ways but all require plenty of oxygen. Different things burn at different rates. One fire may smolder while one might quickly flare up. 

Methods of Starting Fires
There are two main methods of starting fires. One way is using friction and the other uses percussion. Rubbing two things together long enough and quick enough to generate heat, to ignite the substance is the friction method. One famous example is rubbing two sticks together quick enough to generate heat to ignite other sticks. Another famous way could be the flint and steel method. One last way using the friction method to produce fire is using matches. An English physicist named John Walker invented the first match. The first match was a stick with a gum like substance on the end of the stick. The gum substance would be soaked in a chemical. When the tip was rubbed against something rough the chemical would ignite. However, the percussion way is different. The percussion method is where you use natural energy, such as the sun. When you direct the sun’s energy into one spot with glass or a magnifying glass, the area will get hot enough to burn. 

Ignition Temperature
The ignition temperature is when something can ignite due to heat. For most solids the ignition temperature is from five hundred degrees to nine hundred degrees Fahrenheit. For gasoline the ignition temperature can be negative thirty-six degrees Fahrenheit. 

Helpful Fires
Fire is often harmful but can be very helpful at other times. A controlled fire can thin brush and break down trees to make fertilizer for new growth. It also can help build many materials for weapons and tools, such as hammers or the barrel on a fully automatic M-16. Some modern uses of fire are stoves, ovens, hot air furnaces, water heaters, boilers, and clothes dryers. But mostly fire can give us heat and light. Some industries can use fire to dispose of waste products. People can also use fire during war to directly kill the enemy. But the most important use of fire is in jets, airplanes or anything that’s gasoline powered. Fire creates a small explosion in the cylinder, which makes the pistons move up and down to power the engine, which makes the wheels turn so the vehicle will move. 

Harmful Fires
Fire may be helpful but it can be very harmful at times. It can damage or even destroy buildings, forests, people and animals. In fact fires destroy billions of dollars in property every year. Fires also kill thousands of people and animals every year. 

Fabrics can be made of almost anything and can be turned into almost anything. They can be made into clothes, draperies, or bed sheets. Some fabrics are cotton, rayon, silk, nylon, polyester and wool. 

Cotton is a plant fiber. When ignited it burns with a steady flame and smells like burning leaves. The ash left is easily crumpled. Cotton, in an economic sense is a great source of money. Cotton is most likely the most important and the most used raw material as a fabric. 

Rayon is a regenerated cellulose fiber, which is almost pure cellulose. Rayon burns rapidly and leaves only a slight ash. The burning smell is close to burning leaves. One interesting fact about rayon is that some parts can be used in building a spacecraft. 

Silk is a protein fiber and usually burns readily, but not necessarily with a steady flame. Silk smells like burning hair. Silk cloth can be warmer than cotton, rayon, and linen clothing.

Nylon is a polyamide fabric made from petroleum. Nylon melts and then can burn rapidly if the flame can stay on the melted fiber. If you can keep the flame on the melted nylon fiber it will smell like burning plastic. 

Polyester is a polymer fabric produced from coal, air, water and petroleum products. Polyester melts and burns rapidly at the same time. The melting, burning ash can bond quickly to any surface it drips on, including skin. The smoke from the burning polyester is black and has a sweetish smell. 

Wool is a protein fiber but is harder to ignite than silk. The individual “hair” fibers on wool are shorter than silk and the weave of the wool fabrics are generally looser than the silk fabrics are. The smell of burning wool is like burning hair. 

In conclusion fires and fabrics do not make a safe combination. There are ways to stop them from meeting and causing trouble. Keep your draperies away from heaters and never leave anything hot running in your house unsupervised. Fire is not an impossible thing to figure out but it still causes many deaths and millions of dollars worth of damage each year. If you take the right precautions you will not have fabric fires harming people.


Block, Ira. “Wool” World Book Encyclopedia, 

Cosgrove, John H. “Rayon” World Book Encyclopedia, 

“Cotton” 12/12/03 

“Fabric Identification: Burn Test” 12/12/03 

“Nylon,” World Book Encyclopedia, 

Phoenix Public “Flammable Fabrics” City of Phoenix 10/22/03 

Quintiere, James B.  “Fire,” World Book Encyclopedia, 

“Rayon” 12/12/03 http://www. 

Sullivan, John M. Jr. “Silk” World Book Encyclopedia, 



I would like to thank the following people for helping make my project possible:
* My parents for supervising my project and helping me get the materials. Also for their help in the actual experiment and with the project in its entirety.
* Mr. Newkirk and Ms. Helms for helping me step by step, giving me new ideas, and encouraging me to follow through. 

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