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View Full Version : How well does wool burn? Any pyromaniacs out there?



AyJay
04-26-2011, 12:45 AM
A really small detail from my work-in-progress. I have a character ripping apart his wool cloak to use part of it to make a torch. He does this by setting it on fire in lava. It's a desperate act and doesn't need to produce an effective torch, but I started wondering: what would happen to the wool?

This is a fantasy story set in an ancient sort of world, so the wool would be untreated, and in this case, the cloak is finely made for an upper class gentleman, i.e. light weight. Am I off the mark in thinking that such a garment could ignite for a little bit? How quickly do you think it would smolder out?

Sarpedon
04-26-2011, 12:47 AM
Go to a thrift store, buy a wool sweater, and light it on fire and see!

MeretSeger
04-26-2011, 12:50 AM
Do that, but do it outside. Wool and human hair are basically the same, so the stink will be amazing (if you've ever managed to singe your hair you know...)

Alessandra Kelley
04-26-2011, 12:58 AM
Wool and silk burn very poorly. You have to hold them in a flame to keep them going. Cotton and linen are extremely flammable. When cotton became fashionable in women's dresses and hoops held their skirts out, a horrifying number of women burned to death when their skirts brushed open flames in a kitchen or lamp and the cotton caught fire and no one could put it out because you can't stop-drop-and-roll a woman shaped like a giant bell.

I have done a lot of work with fabrics, and I've personally tested them by setting fire to them. You can make wool or silk burn if you try really hard, but you have to have an external source of fuel and flame.

Maybe if the wool were really greasy with lanolin it might work, but otherwise, I'd go with some of your character's shirt instead. Shirts until the 20th century were knee-length, so there could be fabric to spare at the bottom.

Royal Mercury
04-26-2011, 01:03 AM
Yeah, it should burn for a while, don't wrap it too tight so it can breath. Hold your nose. Burning wool smells like burning hair.

dirtsider
04-26-2011, 01:19 AM
Also, wool will smolder a bit before it ignites. This is the reason why any volunteers doing open hearth cooking at a historical site I know are required to wear wool skirts when doing demos. And when I took open hearth cooking classes, we were told to wear either cotton or wool rather than polyester which catches faster.

Alessandra Kelley
04-26-2011, 01:25 AM
Also, wool will smolder a bit before it ignites. This is the reason why any volunteers doing open hearth cooking at a historical site I know are required to wear wool skirts when doing demos. And when I took open hearth cooking classes, we were told to wear either cotton or wool rather than polyester which catches faster.

I thought it was that polyester melts and thus acts more like napalm and can cause more horrific injuries.

... But seriously, cotton was ok? Huh.

veinglory
04-26-2011, 01:27 AM
Natural wool smolders. To make a torch you could use it as a wick if you had something like lard to smear on it.

AyJay
04-26-2011, 02:17 AM
I knew I could count on AW. Thanks guys!! :)

Sarpedon and Meret: I'd rather not take this on as an experiment, but you made me smile.

Alessandra - I might switch to the character's linen tunic (cotton is unknown to his world), but I was worried about him running around with just a cloak. He's not going to have access to a change of clothes for the rest of his adventure. I suppose he could refashion the cloak so he's not running around like a flasher, but I'd like to avoid having to get into that.

I thought about him ripping off just part of the tunic--there's material between waist and knee to spare as you say--but I'm not sure how realistic that is? I mean - there wouldn't be seams for a width-wide tear. I've never torn apart linen, but it seems like it would go in the direction of the "grain," which would be length-wise (hence: leaving my character in delicato).

All things considered, I'm feeling like I could "get away" with his wool cloak burning for a little while, which is all I need--in fact, I don't want it to work well, it's a last ditch effort that doesn't solve the problem he's facing. To burn it, he's using lava, which I think is a pretty a capable igniter, no?

PeterL
04-26-2011, 02:38 AM
Once wol gets going, it burns well, but it is hair, so it stinks. Loose wool, or on the sheep will burn like human hair on a head. Tightly woven wool burns poorly; it is the sort of thing to put around someone to stop a fire.

Buffysquirrel
04-26-2011, 02:57 AM
Cloth tears well with the grain and poorly against it, like paper. If he can make a hole in the tunic--using his knife, his teeth, a hot rock?--he can tear a strip from there. If he tears downwards, working with the grain as far as he can, the strip will get thinner as he goes along, but shouldn't leave him bare ^_^.

I have not forgotten a cat who ignited her tail on a candle and wandered blithely around, ablaze, and stinking so much that I eventually had to cut off the singed hair.

Alessandra Kelley
04-26-2011, 03:00 AM
You can't tear linen for love nor money. With cotton, silk, and wool, you can "snip and rip" - one little cut along the edge and you can pull apart the fabric into giant rectangles along a thread. Linen just. Won't. Do. This. It's very strong.

OTOH, nobody -- but nobody -- wore a single layer of clothing. The poorest peasant would have a white linen undertunic and a colored wool or linen overtunic, at the very least. Even a beggar would wear more than one layer of hand-me-down clothing. Anybody higher up the economic ladder would try for three or four layers, including jackets/vests/overtunics/what-have-you. Your character, if he does this, could spare maybe one layer for kindling.

I'm guessing lava would ignite it just fine, anyway.

MeretSeger
04-26-2011, 06:50 AM
You can't tear linen for love nor money. With cotton, silk, and wool, you can "snip and rip" - one little cut along the edge and you can pull apart the fabric into giant rectangles along a thread. Linen just. Won't. Do. This. It's very strong.

OTOH, nobody -- but nobody -- wore a single layer of clothing. The poorest peasant would have a white linen undertunic and a colored wool or linen overtunic, at the very least. Even a beggar would wear more than one layer of hand-me-down clothing. Anybody higher up the economic ladder would try for three or four layers, including jackets/vests/overtunics/what-have-you. Your character, if he does this, could spare maybe one layer for kindling.

I'm guessing lava would ignite it just fine, anyway.

I second the toughness of linen as whole tunics have survived that are at least 4000 years old. If you rip, try for some other material.

Of course, if it is a fantasy world, you can have your character wear whatever you want.

veinglory
04-26-2011, 06:58 AM
IMHO wool doesn't burn as well as human hair. I think it has something to do with the lanolin.

AyJay
04-26-2011, 08:28 AM
Thanks folks!

I think I'll stick with wool--a fine weave cloak--that burns with a flame for a few seconds in the lava, then smolders, to the peril and disappointment of my character. The stink of it is not important for this situation. I just wanted some opinions on whether it was entirely unrealistic for the wool to catch fire briefly before the hero realizes he needs to go to plan B.

shaldna
04-26-2011, 10:21 AM
raw Wool is naturally quite greasy, but it doesn't burn well because of the high moisture content. It will smoulder and singe if you keep a flame on it, and, as mentioned, the smell is fierce.

Washed and treated wool tends to burn a little better, but still not great, it's more of a singe than a burn

PinkAmy
04-26-2011, 01:10 PM
I have a hole in an old wool coat from when I used to smoke-- so I know it'll burn enough to make a cigarette hole :D.

Buffysquirrel
04-26-2011, 03:39 PM
Huh, I didn't know that about linen. Thank you for the enlightenment!