I studied part II of the City and Guilds at Morley College in London. Part of the course covers the manipulation and alteration of fabrics for quiltmaking. The subjects mentioned in the syllabus include pleating, fraying, tucking, slashing and embellishment. We had a group discussion on ways in which we could distress fabric and came up with such techniques as bleaching, tearing, pulling out threads, punching holes and burning. As part of our homework, we were required to make some samples using different methods of distressing.
Since childhood, I have always loved making bonfires and so I decided to experiment with burning. The following technique is one that I have devised and is the result of a lot of trial and error. I find it has become an integral part of my quilts and other textile work as it creates an unpredictable and organic effect - very much in tune with my studies of natural forms such as fungi, lichens and stone surfaces. However, this is not a definitive technique - try it yourself and experiment to see what variations you can create which are right to your work.
As I am dealing with naked flames, an awareness of health and safety is paramount. It is NOT a technique suitable for children or as a group activity. Important safety rules are as follows:
  1. Work in a room with easy access to water.
  2. Have enough workspace. Based on these two factors, I work in the kitchen.
  3. You should have an open window for ventilation (it can get smoky), but you must not work in a draught as you need to work with a steady vertical flame.
  4. The source of the heat is a candle flame. The safest method is to use nightlights in metal cups. They are stable and unlike a tall candle in a candlestick, you will not knock them over. (Plus they are cheap)!


‘Tycanol IV - Lichen, Rocks and Rain’ 54 x 54cm
  • small pieces of fabrics for experimentation, maximum 6 x 6" (15 x 15cm). Don’t just use cotton, but experiment with other natural and synthetic materials
  • nightlight and matches
  • face mask (available from DIY stores)
  • pile of newspapers
  • protection for your work surface - things can get a little wet.
  • old teatowel you don’t mind ruining
  • washing up bowl filled with water
  • pure soap flakes
  • iron

Burning fabrics

Method - Read all the instructions before you start.

  1. The newspapers and teatowel should be made thoroughly wet.
  2. Light the nightlight and put on the face mask.
  3. Hold the fabric at either edge so that it is taut and hold over the flame.
  4. Move the fabric 1/3 of the way down the flame and move around to create the hole. Depending on the fabric content, the material will either start to smoulder or it will burst quickly into flame.
  5. Place it IMMEDIATELY on top of the damp newspaper and cover with the damp teatowel. This is essential to stop singeing and to prevent the burnt hole from getting any bigger

A selection of fabrics after burning.

You can repeat steps 3 - 5 with a number of different fabric pieces. Each burning will produce a different effect. Or if you want to create multiple holes, repeat steps 3 and 4 with the same fabric. After every hole, you MUST place on the damp newspaper and cover. Depending on the fabric content and construction, you will have a different amount of charring and ash around the edge of the holes.

  1. Any large bits of ash will immediately flake off. Wash the fabric gently by hand using pure soap flakes. This removes the remainder of the ash.
  2. Dry the fabric flat on newspaper and iron when nearly dry.

It is important to remove the ash otherwise it will flake off when you are stitching and will fall into the mechanism of your sewing machine clogging it up!

Stitching around the holes is essential to hold the layers of fabric
together and to strengthen the burnt fabric. Detail from Tycanol III.

This is the basic method - a few variations are as follows:

  • This technique is unpredictable - each hole will be a different shape and size. However to get a more even scattering of holes, cut a series of holes in the fabric where you want the centres to be.
  • Different parts of the flame are hotter than others. Do not bring the fabric so far down the flame to see what effects this has.
  • Normally you will get a darker ring surrounding the hole where the fabric has charred. However, I have found that on my hand dyed fabrics, the ring is lighter.
  • To burn the edges of the fabric, hold the fabric taut at the edge of the flame and move the fabric along in a controlled manner. You will probably need to do this in several stages. Cut the edge first to get a bigger indentation.
  • I work mostly with cottons and silks, however, you can get some exciting effects with other fabric types. If you burn an organza with some metal content, the metallic threads will not burn, leaving a grid of threads. Jerseys melt around the holes and other synthetics will usually wrinkle up between the holes.

‘Fungal Gothic - Under the Microscope’ 164 x 156cm, a wall quilt in four segments inspired by the rich colours and shapes of spores

Sources of inspiration in my work.

Experimental pieces based on pebbles on the beach.
The cotton and silk fabrics are hand dyed
and painted for a subtle variation in colour
I have always seen objects and patterns in a graphic sense rather than as a combination of colours. My favourite shape is probably a circle and this is one reason why I am so fascinated by the organic nature of mushrooms and lichens. As part of my City and Guilds research, I went to the British Museum in London and studied microscopic pictures of spores. Rather like snowflakes, there are infinite varieties of shape and form. As a result of this research I made a large wall quilt called ‘Fungal Gothic - under the microscope’. This piece incorporated some of my preliminary experiments with burning, but I did not have the time to develop this technique further at this stage.
In October 1998 I went on a week’s quilting retreat to Pembrokeshire. The beginning of the week was spent doing some colour exercises and variations on the log cabin block. I also spent a lot of time exploring the local landscape looking at stone megaliths (rather like those at Stone Henge), dry stone walls covered in lichens and pebbles on the beach. Anything of interest was drawn in my A5 sketchbook and recorded by camera. Because of the scale of lichens I find a good camera which can take very close up shots essential. When I have the photos processed, I am often surprised by the richness of the colours and the elaborate ‘frilly’ edges, details I hadn’t seen with a naked eye.

Framed embroideries with decorative machine
stitching echoing the shapes of the lichens
From a colour point of view, this week in Wales was a breakthrough for me. Until then my work had been very bright (working a lot with primary and pure saturated colours) or monotone. The subtleties of colour in the Welsh landscape meant a sea change in my fabric collection. I hadn’t realised that commercial fabrics were available in such muted and dulled colours. Friends who were fellow quiltmakers started giving me fabrics in these colours as they knew I could use them in my work. I also dye and paint cotton and silk fabrics as hand dyeing produces fabrics where the colour is gloriously uneven.

Using the burnt fabrics in my work

I have created, as the top layer on my quilts. Sometimes there will be a single layer of cotton or silk backing the burnt fabric. Other times I will insert small pieces of organza or chiffon between these two layers to give a sparkle to the quilt.
The layers of fabric have to be well secured as the burnt out fabric is not as strong as it was. The sandwich contains a cotton wadding such as Warm and Natural (now called Perfect Cotton) and a backing fabric. The block will be densely quilted using free machine stitching. I love this type of quilting - it’s like drawing with a needle. The quilting designs are again drawn directly from the source material. Some of the lichens have very frilly edges, others are surrounded by ‘eyelashes’. I will keep my sketches in front of me as a constant reminder whilst I am stitching. I have also done some samples containing cotton and hand painted lightweight silk. These would make wonderful panels hanging in a window, as the light would emphasise the transparency of the silk. I have made a number of pieces large and small based on this burning technique and the fungi and lichens. However, the subject matter continues to fascinate me and I am still learning and still experimenting, three years after making my first fungal quilt.

Left: One of my sketchbooks with reference photos and fabric and stitch notes Right: ‘Tycanol I’ 102 x 102cm - detail showing the intensely machine quilted surface

‘Lichen’ 53 x 53cm A recent piece based on layering chiffons and net. The coloured padding is lint gathered from my washing machine!

First published in Popular Patchwork June 2000