The news is flying around the knitting world about a recall of Sirdar's 'Fizz' viscose rayon yarn. This is NOT the same yarn as Crystal Palace Fizz. Ours is 100% polyester and is not a public danger.
Viscose Rayon eyelash and textured yarns are highly flammable and we have wondered when it would be mentioned publicly. There are other viscose rayon eyelash yarns on the market from other companies (not just Sirdar) and we think you will see them all being removed from the knitting market very soon. There are no textured or eyelash viscose rayon yarns in the Crystal Palace collection.
Since we've starting seriously doing glass torchwork, we've had to think intensely about fabrics and fire. Especially since the best studios are well-ventilated, which can leave the glass-blower in winter feeling the coldest she has since boarding school :-)..
Fire has always been a double-edged thing, when it goes wrong impressing the imagination of survivors with a horror little surpassed by other means of death (not that tsunamis are a good way to go...). No doubt some of that has to do not just with the slowness of the death it inflicts, but with the horrible pain that accompanies it, and which makes surviving not necessarily the most appealing alternative.
The special victims of fire are often women. They tend to be singled out for this treat on political ends, possibly because the public spectacle of horrible death certainely goes a long way towards squashing any but the most heartfelt impulses toward rebellion. The Catholic Church despatched millions by fire over centuries in Europe, many more women than men, often as heretics and particularly as witches. In a more contemporary setting, 'kitchen fires' are the preferred means in India to dispose of women who don't conform to the expectations of in-laws as well as they should, and still cause thousands of deaths yearly.
Women also more often fall victim to accidental fire, which in part has to do with their still being the main cooks in most of the world. This is reflected for instance in women having much higher lung cancer rates in much of the developing world than their cigarette-smoking husbands, because they are chronically exposed to very high levels of smoke indoors. And while cooking it's very easy to get too close to a live fire and have some part of your clothes catch on fire, especially since households with open fires rarely come equipped with fire extinguishers. Cooking naked is usually limited to specialized services :-) for good reason: clothes do protect you from spattering grease and minor accidents, even if they increase your ultimate risk.
Women are also strongly associated with textiles in the modern western world, if only because there are more of them at home than in offices or factories. This isn't a terribly good thing, as textiles tend to be much more flammable than other things we are in daily contact with. They catch on fire much more easily than other materials within houses, including wood. They are frequently draped in loose layers, so more vulnerable to a candle flame or an open fire. Worse, they're almost always present close to the body, so any accident will directly involve the person in them. A house that burns can leave intact survivors, but clothing that burns is much more likely to have fatal results or at least disabling ones.
Large-scale accidental events can often involve far greater proportions of female victims too for messy sociological reasons. Interestingly, several involve textiles and women across geographical locations and extremes of social class.
In France, the great fire of the Bazar de la Charite decimated the ranks of Parisian charitable ladies in 1897. Great swags of 'medieval' draperies displayed for the event made the hangar an instant inferno, along with the displays of crocheted knick-knacks and similar bazaar fare. Clothes also greatly contributed to the deaths. A major way was by hampering the flight of their wearers, who were in addition trampled by their male counterparts on their way out (final toll: 135 to 5..). A particularly horrible detail was the large poof of flammable lace filling every fashionable ladie's decolleté that year: many of the dead were first blinded, and the survivors often horribly disfigured. Fashion passed to something else overnight...
In the US, many people still remember the Triangle Waist Fire fire in New York, which killed 146 people in 1911. Most of them were young poor immigrant women, working in a sweatshop producing early ready-to-wear. The presence of large amounts of textiles was the factor that made the fire incontrollable once it started. And of course the hideous working conditions contributed greatly, keeping the women literally locked in, stuffing them together densely in dangerous conditions. The restrictive clothes of the period played a part in keeping them from escaping too, since windows were the only way out and the lower floors could have seen more escapes otherwise.
Even the lack of textiles can contribute to death. In 2002 Saudi girls in a private school burned to death when they weren't allowed to leave because of not being properly swagged. Full veils would have caught on fire much faster, but apparently lack of them was just as fatal - modesty over life, according to the men guarding them. There have been many other incidents such as the Argentine club fire where textiles have contributed to the spread of fire, and where stampedes kill as much as actual flames. The preponderance of synthetic textiles in modern public places also tends to cause worse problems than flames with toxic smoke.
The main thing is that fiber content vastly influences a fabric's behavior when it burns. Roughly, there are 3 categories of fibers, and which one makes a huge difference in a fire:
Eeck. Worse is that textiles tend to add up the properties of their components. That's why you find stuff that's made from a hodge-podge of ingredients: the hope is to find the perfect balance of softness and drape and washability and so on at an affordable price, sometimes with ridiculous extremes of 10% of everything. Unfortunately, this adding up of properties also applies to behavior while burning. So the very worst fabric to wear in a fire is the staple of our 70s youth: the polyester-cotton blend. It flames vigorously and sticks to you. Makes you wonder whethere it's not better to pick your poison and stick to one kind of fiber...
Then there's the fire-retardant controversy. Much of the flannel I buy for pyjamas is labeled "not suitable for children's sleepwear", from a law brought about in the 70s when many babies died in a carapace of melted synthetics. Alas, the fire retardants used almost exclusively are PBDEs, chemicals now implicated in massive food-chain pollution and which have long been known to mess with thyroid hormones in a big way. A more natural alternative is the one found in my mattress, a strong borax solution. Alas, this washes off quickly in clothes so works best for items like drapes and mattresses. So what's a mother to do? Personally, I'd start with a pure wool blanket.
It should also be noted that another component of textile flammability is their texture, beyond the fiber content. Between two otherwise equal textiles, the one with the fuzziest texture will catch fire more easily. Which makes sense: a dense book will resist fire better than a single sheet of paper. This why fuzzy rayon yarn catches on fire with a vengeance, worse than flat rayon fabric. And why eyelash yarn in general is more vulnerable than the plain variety.
So if you think you might be in a fire, be sure to dress like Katherine Hepburn, in wool gabardine, and in pants so you can leap easily over obstacles :-). Top if off in winter with a scarf made from Iceland! Seriously, places such as The Crucible which teaches many fire arts have policies telling students to wear natural fabrics (and leather shoes). This seems an excellent idea, since torches set things on fire very efficiently, overriding the slight fire-retardant advantage of synthetics. Minimizing injuries should be the emphasis for the inevitable accidents.
So I've taken to wearing wool as much as possible while working with glass. I was totally horrified when my teacher told me the story of "watching the flames spread over his whole chest" when his own sweater caught on fire once. But in retrospect he can't swear to wearing an entirely wool sweater... Yes, the fuzzies in theory could spread flames. But driven by a sick curiosity, excuse me a spirit of fearless scientific experimentation, I took my (definitely 100%) wool sweater off and passed it right through the torch flame a few times, in a way I hope never happens with my body in it! Nada. A smell that overpowered the whole block, the fuzzies got fried off a bit, but no actual burning (not a result possible with cotton). I've several times since been alerted to a stray blob of glass smoldering on my wooly lap by the smell, but nothing has ever caught on fire even when I was slow on the uptake. I'm investing in tropical wool for summer pants, and trawling the thrift shops for silk shirts...
First published: 2/17/05
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