The aim of this paper is to study the combustion characteristics of loose fibrous cellulosic compounds through cone calorimeter measurements. The challenge in studying loose fibrous materials by cone calorimeter in a reproducible manner is met by optimizing various process parameters such as sample weight, heat flux and grid type. The method is validated using cotton fibres and fabrics with a range of flame retardant properties. Good correlations are obtained between the flame retardant content of samples and the heat release parameters for both the fibres and the fabrics. In addition, fibres from specific cotton cultivars showed statistically significant differences in heat release characteristics. This shows that valuable data concerning the combustion behaviour and the corresponding kinetics of loose fibrous compounds can be successfully gathered using a cone calorimeter. Thus, such data can be exploited to well define future fibre breeding programmes or fibre modification research. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.