This post was inspired by a conversation with Hannah earlier today. Silk is one of my all time favorite fabrics. The variety and suppleness of silk makes it appropriate for just about everything. I have seen many wonderful designs look cheap because people chose synthetics to mimic silk. Silk is a wonderful fabric to work with and has a variety of different weights and hands for all different projects. I would like to dissuade you from some silk myths and note the rarely discussed issues I've had with silk.
Myth: Silk is too fragile.
Silk is actually an incredibly strong fiber. It has been used in armor for thousands of years and is said to be stronger than steel although I'm not entirely sure what kind of strength they are talking about. Most silk is also made from a very long single filament. This means that the fiber can distribute the force over the width of the fabric and the individual fibers are not going to sluff off. The point is that silk isn't going to disintegrate while you are wearing or sewing it, unlike acetate which will melt in a wide variety of solvents. However, if you have a very fine knit or loose weave it will snag and shift, although this is true of every other fiber as well.
Myth: You can't wash silk
I think that this is the real reason that many people don't like wearing silk. They believe that you will always have to take that garment to the dry cleaner's. Well, the truth is that you can wash silk. (Believe me, I'm not a dry cleaner kind of a girl.) There are a few things that you should know about washing silk.
1. Some manufacturers don't set their dyes for washing. This is something I have heard about, but never experienced myself. What I have noticed is that the dye will bleed somewhat in the first two rinsings. This is true of most other fabrics as well. This is the best reason to treat your silks gently. You are trying to preserve the process that's been done to the silk more than the silk fibers themselves. It is always wise to wash a sample first and make sure it behaves like you want it too.
2. If you pre wash your silks you will never have any issues with water spots.
3. You should wash your silks often and gently instead of waiting until they're really dirty.
4. Wash with luke warm water and dish washing detergent. In general detergents are always gentler that soaps. Laundry
detergents are sometime made more powerful than you need for silks. Think grass stains on denim.
5. Your silks are likely to change a little when you wash them the first time. The finish that is put on fabrics is meant to make you want to buy it when its on the bolt. This finish might not be as suitable for wearing as it is for selling. Think formaldehyde and other chemicals on your skin. However the finish might be what attracted you to that silk in the first place and removing it might distroy what you liked about the fabric. Test, Test, Test. The most common ways that silks are likely to change is in the sheen and the hand. Some silks will be come less shiny or more prone to wrinkles. Most will become softer. Some will fade slightly.
6. Occasionally when I have rinsed silks there have been some strange smells. I don't know if it comes from the silk or the finish but poor susanna's shirt smelled particularly like fish. I have since discovered that most off odors can be eliminated by adding some vinegar to the rinse. This has the added benefit of helping to set the dye. You will probably have to rinse the vinegar out too but its a lot easier than weird odors.
7. Wash the yardage gently while still folded. It's easy to want to open it up and work it like cotton but silk is more likely to keep the shape it was when wet. DONT RING IT. Place the washed, still folded yardage in a towel. Roll the towel up and press the water out. Then unfold it and steam iron dry.
8. The one thing I don't recommend washing is already made garments with inner structures like jackets or suits. I can bet you that whoever made it did not pre-shrink all that foundation stuff. That's a recipe for a very lumpy jacket.
Myth: You have to use silk thread to sew silk.
You can use any type of thread with your silk. Silk thread is especially good for basting because it is a long satiny filament that can slide through the weave of the fabric with minimal abrasion. This means that when you remove your basting you don't have a bunch of little holes in your project. I like using silk thread for silk because it satisfies my neurotic desire to to put like things together. That and it feels fancy. I believe that the best kind of thread is actually cotton. Cotton is a lot weaker than silk. This means that if your dress gets caught it will tear on the seam lines instead of the silk.
Myth: Silk is too expensive.
While its true that some silks are worth a kings ransom, you can also buy many silks at comparable prices. China silk for example makes a long wearing, washable, totally luxurious lining, or slip, and can be had for 9.99/yrd at my local fabric store.
Notes on working with difficult fabrics:
1. It is true that gauzy and slippery silks are hard to cut. All gauzy and slippery fabrics are hard to cut. Your best defense is tissue or butcher paper laid on top of the silk as you trace and cut the pattern pieces. If you find you need it you can even put paper on either side of your fabric. If you chose this option your lay up would be table, paper, silk, paper, pattern piece. With one or two sheets of paper you are going to dull your scissors a little. Its best to have a pair of scissors sharp enough to cut silk but not your favorite ones. PLEASE REMEMBER not all silks are gauzy slippery fabric. There are silks in a rainbow of weights and textures. Pick one. Try it out. You might never go back.
2. Always use 65 needle or even smaller for fine fabric. It should be the finest needle appropriate for your thread. If you still have trouble with your machine sucking it down, place a piece of tape over the needle hole on the throat plate. Regular tape works fine, like the stuff you wrap presents with. You might have to trim it to the right size so it doesn't interfere with the feed dogs.
If there is anything I forgot, feel free to speak up.
Happy Holiday Silking!