Lessons from a Sari on Fire

Lessons from a Sari on Fire

All cloth will burn though the nature and speed of flammability varies for different fabrics. Here is how I learnt the hard way 

The pallu of my sari was in flames in a matter of seconds. Before I had even finished uttering, “give me a minute, just making sure my sari doesn’t catch fire,” it actually caught fire from a lighted diya. Unknown to me in that moment of coincidental crossfire, I was reading from the script of my destiny and getting it all wrong.

This was on November 14, Diwali evening, earlier this month as I stood outside my neighbour’s house with a box of ladoos. Dressed in a black, cotton Kanjeevaram sari with slim Ganga-Jamuna borders, one rose pink, the other lime green with thin lines of zari on the pallu, an onion pink brocade mask from Ekaya Banaras adding a festive zing to my look, I had gone to extend Diwali greetings. My aim was to avoid stepping inside their house given generic COVID-19 precautions.

Mrs C however insisted in that I come in, even if briefly. Having sighted the diya on the floor, I rustled up my sari pallu to avoid an accident as I walked in. However, in that precise moment, the corner tassel of my pallu caught fire. The next instant, it flared up in an irrepressible rush, as I felt intense warmth on my left arm and back. The flames were unbelievably rapid and insistent.


Textile residue from the burnt sari.

The neighbours were in panic by now. Realising that I will be scorched if I did not act, I ripped off my sari instantly. Tearing it away in frenzy from the one safety pin on the left shoulder, I pulled out the pleats and threw the jumble away from my body. As the flames gobbled the sari now a black heap of burnt fabric on the floor, three members of the family ran with floor rugs and mats and beat down the fire. I stood back in my blouse and petticoat taking stock of the incident and how quick actions all around had saved me from landing perhaps in a burns ward with a life suddenly torched by the unknown.

Miraculously, I did not sustain a single burn. Mrs C was beside herself in a mix of relief and fear. “What if…”, “Oh my god…”… “What if this had happened in our house…”, “You cannot go back without another sari…”, she said one thing after the other. As I walked one floor up back to my house, I knew I had reason to be very grateful.

Storytelling: Real and Reel

Let me indulge myself for a moment. I have been blessed with a sunny disposition since childhood, and my cheer rarely slips, except in extreme duress and grief. Constant cheer is complex as a psychoanalyst friend often reminds me, but on most days, it has its uses. This Diwali included. Not the kind to sit and sing hai tauba about what had not happened, I quickly reached out for another sari (this time a black silk Kanjeevaram), as I narrated the incident to my husband who looked confused. The next minute, I ran down the stairs again (brocade mask and all) to feed my stray dog friends. Later, during the family dinner, I posted my experience on Instagram.

The responses surprised me. Besides the dozens of good wishes and destiny-related observations that poured in (Indian philosophical thought is peculiar and insistent), many were observations on the kind of textile I had worn. Along with multiple photos of the burnt sari that I had added to my Instagram story, I had mentioned this was a cotton Kanjeevaram from Nalli. A majority of those who messaged me, friends, well-wishers and people from the textile-fashion industry, said that my sari was obviously a synthetic blend (and not pure cotton) for the fire to have spread so rapidly. While a few rubbished the idea that there was anything called a “cotton Kanjeevaram”, others asked if the remains had turned into little beads and if the smell of the burnt fabric was like that of burning paper. Others alleged Chinese yarn in the mix.


Photo: Shutterstock

A mix of silk saris.

In the days following Diwali, I called a few textile experts and designers who pointed out certain basic facts about the flammable qualities of different fibres and fabrics. Alongside, I researched the subject in detail. All fabrics will burn and ultimately it is the responsibility of the wearer to take utmost precaution. You should know what material you are wearing if you are going to be in flammable environments.

However, here are some top takeaways combined from research and interviews. Some are helpfully myth busting.

• Cotton like other untreated natural fibres—linen and silk—burns faster than blends and synthetics unless, well the synthetic is plastic yarn.

• The flammability of fibres can be understood by asking if they are plant or cellulose based (like cotton, hemp, linen, jute, rayon), protein-based (like wool or silk) or are synthetic (nylon, polyester, polymide, acrylic).

• Fibres with protein compounds turn into small beads or balls when burnt and can be crushed easily. While burnt cotton will turn into powdery ash.

• Silk burns slowly and away from the flame and extinguishes quickly. It leaves behind gritty powder.

• Wool takes longer to burn, ignites slowly and burns with a low flame velocity. Wool and human hair burn similarly, I was told.

• Many synthetic fabrics, such as nylon, acrylic or polyester resist ignition. However, once on fire, the fabrics flare up and melt quickly. This hot, sticky, melted substance causes extremely severe burns. It continues to melt even after the fire is extinguished.

• A good way to check if cotton or silk are “pure” is to burn them or do the fibre-flame test as it is called.

• Tested zari which is made from synthetic blends of polyester, acrylic and silk burns faster than pure zari.

• *Blends of natural fibres like cotton, linen or silk with acrylic are the most hazardous as the combination of high rate of burning (for natural fibres) and melting (of synthetic) results in serious burns.

• Glass fibres or modacrylic materials are almost flame resistant.

• *According to safety information guidelines for fabrics on various online sites, the weight and weave of the fabric also affects flammability. Fabrics with long, loose, fluffy pile or pillage will ignite more readily than fabrics with a hard, tight surface.


Photo: Shutterstock

An assortment of saris, featuring zari in the designs, arranged on shelves.

Here is a YouTube video on how fabrics burns, which is visually informative.

The Sorry Sari Saga

Oh, yes, a cotton Kanjeevaram is not conversational yarn. It does exist. Among the finest in this handwoven variety are those available at the Co-optex store, at Sundari Silks and the Kalakshetra sari shop, all in Chennai.

While I also did my own burn test with different fabrics to understand the subject better–see the video

” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>here, let me wrap the story with my Sari I am Sorry tale.

As a gift exchange ritual, my husband, a serious sari connoisseur buys me a silk Kanjeevaram every Diwali—it is a robust drape, a festive zari sari in majestic jewel tones. This has gone on for as long as we have known each other. Except in 2009, when we went sari shopping to Nalli (well, it is one of our favoured Kanjeevarm destinations in Delhi) but did not find anything exceptional. I insisted we let it be. The husband relented after some argument. Minutes later, right outside the Nalli store, as we were walking to the car park, a speeding motorcycle rammed into me from the back and sent me flying. I would eventually come home on a stretcher though the injuries were minor given the impact of the accident.

2020. Given the global COVID-19 gloom this year and the fact that I have enough Kanjeevarams that I must give away before adding more, I again insisted (after browsing through some 50 odd silk versions) that we settle for the ₹1282 cotton Kanjeevaram that I loved. “Do not,” warned my husband. “You will meet with an accident”. Yet I pushed my point.

Admittedly, late on Diwali night, long after the smiling photos with the family had been taken, goodbyes said, I found it hard to slip into sleep. The thought of cloth fusing with skin, random images of me arriving in a black burnt sari in an ICU in a city wracked with the pandemic bothered me for a while.

Next morning, I got up and said Happy Diwali to myself. Not without taking responsibility for what could have forever doused the fire in my belly.


Banner: A still of the burnt sari.