Teacher Notes

Flinn Forensic Files—Finding Evidence in Fibers

Student Laboratory Kit

Materials Included In Kit

Cover slips, 100
Microscope slides, 15
Multifiber test fabric, 4 ft

Additional Materials Required

Beaker, 50-mL*
Bunsen burner*
Forceps, metal*
*per lab group
for Prelab Preparation

Prelab Preparation

  1. Cut the multifiber test fabric into 6-cm strips and distribute. Each lab group needs one 6-cm strip.
  2. Obtain a portion of the remaining fabric and pull out several strands from the cotton section. When starting with the crème end on your left it will be the fifth of the six fabrics.
  3. Place the cotton strips into two containers, place half of it in the “evidence from the crime scene” container and the other half in the “evidence from the gas station” container.

Safety Precautions

Remind students to exercise caution when heating fibers over a Bunsen burner. Wear chemical splash goggles and a chemical-resistant apron. Remind students to wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water before leaving the laboratory. Please review current Safety Data Sheets for additional safety, handling and disposal information.


Please consult your current Flinn Scientific Catalog/Reference Manual for general guidelines and specific procedures, and review all federal, state and local regulations that may apply, before proceeding. The fibers may be disposed of in the regular trash according to Flinn Suggested Disposal Method #26a.

Lab Hints

  • Enough materials are provided in this kit for 30 students working in pairs or for 15 groups of students. Part A and Part B can be completed in one 50-minute class period. The analysis of the evidence (Part C) may be completed in the next 50-minute class period.
  • Other multifiber test fabrics containing 8 or 13 different fabrics are available from Testfabrics, Inc. See their website at www.testfabrics.com (accessed May 2014).

Correlation to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

Science & Engineering Practices

Analyzing and interpreting data
Constructing explanations and designing solutions
Developing and using models
Obtaining, evaluation, and communicating information

Disciplinary Core Ideas

MS-PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter
HS-PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter

Crosscutting Concepts

Structure and function

Performance Expectations

MS-PS1-2: Analyze and interpret data on the properties of substances before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred.
MS-PS1-3: Gather and make sense of information to describe that synthetic materials come from natural resources and impact society.
HS-PS2-6: Communicate scientific and technical information about why the molecular-level structure is important in the functioning of designed materials.

Answers to Prelab Questions

  1. Based on the information provided in the Background section, name one type of fiber that would likely melt when exposed to flame.

    Nylon and polyester are both acceptable answers.

  2. Why is visual inspection traditionally done as an ancillary identification means as opposed to a primary means of identification?

    Synthetic/manmade fibers are traditionally more difficult to identify by visual inspection because they are all very uniform and are difficult to differentiate from each other.

Sample Data

Part A. Burn Analysis

Part B. Microscopy Analysis
Part C. Evidence Analysis

Answers to Questions

  1. Wool and cotton are considered natural fibers. Acrylic, polyester, nylon and acetate are considered synthetic fibers. Based on your results from Part A, what generalizations can be made to differentiate the two groups?

    The natural fibers tend to burn a little slower and not melt/drip. The synthetic fibers usually retreat from the flame when heated and burned. They also tend to melt and drip.

  2. Based on the observations of the six known fabric types in Parts A and B as well as the results obtained from the fabric from the Crime Scene (first half of Part C) what type of fiber was attached to Christine’s coat?

    The fabric obtained from the crime scene was cotton.

  3. Based on the observations of the six known fabric types in Parts A and B as well as the test results obtained from the fabric from the gas station (second half of Part C) what type of fiber was found at the gas station? Was this fiber a match to the fiber found at the crime scene?

    The fibers obtained at the gas station were cotton. These matched the fibers obtained from the crime scene.

  4. Based on your testing, identify a possible suspect in this robbery. Is this conclusive evidence? Explain.

    Kyle Long is a possible suspect. However, this evidence is not conclusive enough to convict him of the crime. They would need further evidence (e.g., DNA analysis, fingerprints).


Collins, David. Investigating Chemistry in the Laboratory; W. H. Freeman & Company: New York, NY; 2006; p 131.

Deedrick, D. W. Forensic Science Communications—Hairs, Fibers, Crime, and Evidence Part 2: Fiber Evidence. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, July 2000. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/lab/forensic-science-communications/fsc/july2000/deedric1.htm/deedric3.htm (Accessed 27 March 2014.)

Kubic, T., Petraco, N. Forensic Science—Laboratory Experiment Manual and Workbook; CRC Press: Boca Raton, FL; 2003; p 93.

Student Pages

Flinn Forensic Files—Finding Evidence in Fibers


A crucial element needed to convict a suspect is to find evidence that places the individual at the scene of the crime. One way this can be accomplished is by fiber analysis.


  • Physical and chemical properties
  • Fiber analysis
  • Chemical bonding
  • Forensics


Case Background

Christine Schultz had worked a long day in her job as Accounting Director trying to get the financial statements ready for month's end. She glanced down at her watch and noticed it was already 9:00 p.m. Her associate, Lisa Olszewski, had left about 30 minutes earlier and Christine stayed to wrap up some last minute odds and ends. As she walked out to her car, the parking lot was dark and there was a chill in the air on this fall evening in Lexington, SC. She had quite the walk since her car was located at the far back side of the parking lot. On her way to her car she noticed an old van with temporary plates that she had never seen before. To be cautious she picked up the pace and briskly moved toward her car. As she reached for the door handle an arm came out from behind her, swatting her arm away from the car. She turned around and there was a man about 6 feet tall wearing a white sweatshirt, jeans and a black ski mask. He told Christine to hand over her purse. She refused and tried to get back in her car. At that point the man grabbed and turned her and reached for her purse. Christine put up a struggle but the man overpowered her. He grabbed her purse and pushed her to the ground causing her to hit her head.

The next thing she knew she was being examined by a paramedic and when she opened her eyes she started to remember what had occurred. Officer Brendon Kaiser quickly jogged over when he saw her waking up. He asked what happened and Christine told him. As she was put on a stretcher and into the ambulance, Officer Kaiser said, “Wait a second.” He noticed a section of torn fiber on the button of her coat sleeve that did not match anything she was wearing. He asked, “Is this from him?” Christine glanced at it and immediately knew it was from the man’s sweatshirt. “Yes” she nodded. Officer Kaiser removed an evidence bag from his pocket and placed the piece of fabric in it. “We will take this back to the lab and perform fiber analysis. Take care ma’am; we’ll be in touch,” the officer said before heading back to headquarters.

Later on that evening the police received a call from Jamal Brooks who worked at the Gas Mart across town from where Christine was attacked. He said he saw a white van with temporary license plates dispose of something suspicious in the dumpster at the gas station. He thought it was odd as the van did not fill up with gas and the customer did not come into the store. All he did was throw away what appeared to be tattered clothes. The police collected the evidence from the dumpster. They also reviewed the surveillance video and found the van was registered to man named Kyle Long.

Technical Background

Fibers are the smallest component of a textile material. They are used to form fabric, rope, carpet, etc. Fibers gathered as evidence at a crime scene may arise from numerous scenarios. They may be transferred via personal contact between suspect and victim and they can also be transferred to other items at the crime scene, such as furniture, weapons or flooring, due to a physical struggle.

In most cases, fibers are analyzed based on their physical and chemical properties. The burn test is a primary identification technique used to determine fiber identity. When held near a flame, different fibers will exhibit different behaviors. Some will begin to melt and others will twist or curl up. When ignited they will also react differently. Some fibers burn slowly, others burn quickly. Some will melt and drop off before the flame reaches the rest of the fiber. Odor is also a powerful tool in identifying an unknown burnt fiber. If the smell is similar to that of burning hair, the fiber is most likely silk or wool. If the smell is similar to burning paper or burning wood, the fiber is probably cotton, rayon or linen. If the fiber melts, it is likely a synthetic material such as nylon or polyester.

Fibers may be analyzed by visual inspection, based on their appearance and comparison with known samples. Identifying fibers based on appearance requires the use of a microscope to view miniscule details. Natural fibers are easier to distinguish under a microscope. Synthetic (manmade) fibers are traditionally less descriptive under a microscope because they can consist of practically any strand diameter or color. Synthetic or manmade fibers typically have a more uniform diameter and appearance than natural fibers. Therefore, while microscopic analysis is not the main determining test used to identify fibers, it can be helpful as an ancillary test.

Experiment Overview

The purpose of this experiment is to examine six different types of fibers against the evidence from the crime scene. This will be done by performing a burn test and using a microscope to perform visual inspection. Each fibers unique physical and chemical properties will determine the fabric composition of the obtained evidence.


Part A. Burn Analysis
Water, tap
Beaker, 50-mL
Bunsen burner
Forceps, metal
Multifiber test fabric, 6 cm
Paper towels

Part B. Microscope Analysis
Cover slip
Microscope, compound
Microscope slide

Prelab Questions

  1. Based on the information provided in the Background section, name one type of fiber that would likely melt when exposed to flame.
  2. Why is visual inspection of a fiber sample traditionally done as an ancillary identification means as opposed to a primary means of identification?

Safety Precautions

Exercise caution when heating fibers over a Bunsen burner. Wear chemical splash goggles and a chemical-resistant apron. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before leaving the laboratory. Please follow all laboratory safety guidelines.


Note: The multifiber test fabric consists of six different fibers in the following order starting at the cream-colored end: wool, acrylic, polyester, nylon, cotton and acetate.

Part A. Burn Analysis

  1. Fill a 50-mL beaker with tap water. This will be used to extinguish any stubborn flames resulting from the burn analysis test.
  2. Obtain the multifiber test fabric strip and pull it apart slightly by grabbing the wool section and the acrylic section. Once the fabric is loose enough, pull out a single wool strand (see Figure 1).
  3. Light the Bunsen burner. Using forceps, hold the single fiber over the heat but not within the flame. Record observations on the Finding Evidence in Fibers Worksheet.
  4. Place the fiber into the flame. Does it ignite quickly or slowly? Note: hold each fiber in the same location within the flame to achieve comparable results.
  5. Remove the fiber from the flame of the Bunsen burner. Does it extinguish quickly? Does it melt or drip? Record observations on the worksheet.
  6. Repeat steps 2–5 to single test strands of each of the different fibers in the multifiber fabric. Note: With some fibers the reactions in steps 2–5 occur very quickly. Repeat tests as necessary in order to make accurate observations.
Part B. Microscope Analysis
  1. Obtain the test fabric strip and pull it apart slightly by grabbing the wool section and the acrylic section. Once loose enough, pull out a wool strand.
  2. Place the strand on a microscope slide. Add a few drops of immersion oil to the strand and place a cover slip over the specimen.
  3. Examine the specimen underneath a compound microscope. Record observations at 100X on the Finding Evidence in Fibers Worksheet.
  4. Repeat steps 7–9 with the five remaining fibers.
Part C. Evidence Analysis
  1. Obtain a sample fiber obtained at the crime scene from your instructor.
  2. Perform the tests from Parts A and B on the evidence fiber. Record observations on the Finding Evidence in Fibers Worksheet.
  3. Obtain a sample fiber from the possible evidence collected at the gas station.
  4. Repeat step 12 with the fibers collected at the gas station.
  5. Consult your instructor for appropriate disposal procedures.

Student Worksheet PDF


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