As a professional fire performer fire safety is a real concern. One wrong move and we can go up in flame, therefore protocol to keep one safe is a vital part of our profession. The seemingly basic common sense logistics is a lot more complex than at first glance. Each fire performer has a slightly different take on how they keep themselves safe and there are a number of issues and articles that can be written on the subject. For now I’ll be covering one aspect of how I keep myself safe for my shows, how I make my own fire safe costumes.
Rococo fashion and fire safety at first glance don’t go together. In general fabric is considered a liability in a fire show. This is partly due to the fact that affordable flashy fabrics are unsafe fabrics to use around fire. If that shinny/sparkly POLYESTER catches on fire it will spread, quickly lighting up around you and turning to liquid plastic that will melt to your skin ouch! Therefore using billowing fabric with fire seems absolutely insane! But wait a min. Blankets are used to protect you and put out fire props durning a show… Theatrically one can make costumes using treated organic material like a fire blanket and not put themselves at risk. The reason I say theatrically is that it’s a little more complex than treating organic fabrics and making a costume from them.
The Foundation of fire safe clothing is understanding the different between organic fabric vs synthetic. Patroliume based fabrics are not okay to do fire shows with! They are basically stings of plastic and when burned turn to melted lava plastic. Don’t believe me? Do a burn test to see. Burn a piece of Polyester, then burn a piece of cotton. The difference is huge! Unike natural fibers, many of which are self extinguishing, once plastic starts to burn it burns! Why would fire dancers use fabrics like this you may ask? The reason is because the fabric is so reasonably priced and look so good!
In fact polyester looks like silk! It was designed to replace silk and mimic the feel and luster, only sell for one tenth the price. As a performer I wanted to look amazing and be safe, that is why almost all my fabrics for shows are made of 100% silk. That is why at first glance a Rocco show with huge gowns and wigs looks so dangerous. Polyester gives silk a bad reputation but in reality silk is one of the best fire friendly choices of fabric despite it looking just as amazing as it copy cat Polyester.
Here are three major reasons I use silk for my fire shows and why I prefer it over all other fire friendly materials.
The weave is tight, silk produces the tightest weave known to nature (besides maybe spider fabric) but where can you possibly purchase that. Only other fabrics that compare on tight weave are fabricated made of plastic. You can test the quality of silk weave by pouring water on the fabric to prove my point. It can actually retain much of the water, creating a pool in the fabric. slowly dripping through. This materials weave was so tight that durning world war one, before Polyester was around, parachutes were made from silk! One can’t jump out into the sky with Cotton! Why is a tight weave a good thing? In general the tighter the weave the less air flows in-between the fabric. Since fire needs oxygen to continue to spread this means the less likely the fiber will catch and spread. Silk, although looking very dangerous in a show (thanks polyester!) is the most bad ass organic fabric around! I have a video of my silk pants putting out a lit poi ball like a fire blanket durning a show. I made silk wings and although they look insanely scary because commurcail Isis wings are made of polyester, they are amazingly fire safe. I have used them in hundreds of show. The silk has touched the torches more times then I would like to admit, and has not damage the silk! There has been times I put down the flames on the silk totally by accident. My heart dropped and I was certain there would be wholes in the fabric but nothing it didn’t burn.
Silk looks amazing! Nothing looks better than silk, nothing feels better. The luster the delicate way it floats in the air, silk is magical!
The third reason I love using silk is that I’m a silk painter. I can make any pattern on silk. Its the easierst, smoothies fabric to paint or batik and i’m in love. If its not silk i’m not enthusiastic.
The reason silk isn’t the number one fabric used in the fire community is simple. Its very pricey! Its at least ten times more than polyester and four times as much as cotton. The reality of the situation is if I wasn’t a silk artist, who made her own costumes, silk wouldn’t be an option for me as a performers on a budget. The price of the fabric and the costume cost is not practical for a fire performer who does this for a living. Only reason I use only silk is because I order it in raw and in bulk and make my own costumes and actually save money doing it that way. I spend a lot of my time and energy making fire safe costumes that look unsafe!
For more example of silk dying for shows follow my other blog post
Back to the world of Rococo. This crazy show concept was conceived when my husband and I made the decision to live the life of “JET-SETTERS” and split our time between Paris and the NYC area. He is from Paris and wanted to remain close to family and friends. The problem was I didn’t have a show in Paris. But that was all to change. After the third Palace we visited the idea of a Rococo fire show was conceived. The safety road blocks were apparent from the start. The stye was decadent in every way. That’s its appeal, and also the problem. People dressed more like drapery then clothing and the head pieces! Every thing that was fantastic about Rococo was a issue.
Gowns were a good place to start. They were less of a problem for me then head dresses. Durning the hight of my silk dying career 40 silk wedding dresses were donated to me. With a plethora of Vera Wang and Bagla Mishkas the insane cost of silk dresses were not a problem. All I had to do was dye bath them. I also used old dresses and upcyled them from projects that went array. With all that said it was a little insane dying a dress with a price tag of 5,000 pink and knowing that it would be paraded with fire crowns for the rest of its days, but it was better than a dress of polyester that would be a ticking bomb to go up in flames.
Head dresses were next and they were more of an issue. They could be easily bought on amazon but wearing polyester on my head seemed both cheap looking and dangerous. Getting real hair was out of the question, the amount of money that would be spent was off the charts. I decided to use bleached wool. Being blonde helped, with a little baby powder and some wool I was able to get a cleaver look for the actual fire shows. Meanwhile for the roaming/roving section of the show I made fire crowns out of wool, on a metal frame. The wicks attached to magnets wicks could be taken off for fueling compromising the crown. The crown could be easily take off and on if something were to happen.
For more examples of crowns read some more blogs on this site.
It all seems rather straight forward right?! Stick to organic fiber fabrics. But sadly it isn’t that simple. The last step is treating the fabric. I do treat all my fabric with fire retardant spray. This precautionary step makes a show like the Rococo Fire Show possible. Even with heavy weight silk, prancing around a palace with a untreated huge dress with a fire crown, doesn’t seem like a good idea. Durning the time of Maria Antoinette more than one fat dress, hug haired madam caught herself on fire from candle chandlers. With all hat said, there are some issue with the fire retardant spray. Ideally the fabric shouldn’t be touching the skin, being that its caringnic. Therefore I only use it on the skirts and head pieces. And spraying without protection is carcinogenic and having it around you may be carcinogenic.
Yes, we have dodged the possible fatality of bursting into flames and now come face to face with increasing our chances of cancer, yippie. Believe it or not fire retardant spraying is a whole big fat issue and one that generates debate in all aspects of our modern life. Fire retardant sprays are used in mattresses and curtains and a tone of other products in our house. The whole issue is vast and complex and makes ones head spin. That said as a fire performer I will would rather not put myself at risk of going up in a blaze of fire and use the sprays to protect myself.
Now that costumes are out of the way, I would like to address that fire safe protocol revolves around the costume choices. Due to the dresses, even though silk sprayed, are still a liability for a fire show. Therefore we only use them for fire masks and fire crowns. Swinging fire props into folds of fabric isn’t a good idea regardless of precautionary steps. For The actual show we have a boudoir look, basic silk corset and puffy shorts. Also to be noted is that fire safeties are on hand and fuel drip is something that is taken care of at the fuel dump. It’s good to take note and remember that even a fire retardant organic fiber blanket, designed to keep performers safe can catch on fire if soaked in fuels, therefore a dripping props is a dangerous prop with the risk of fuel transfer.
Burn Safely and Burn Bright!