Thursday, November 27, 2008


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!


Chrispy said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm always telling people that silk can take alot more abuse than they expect.

My fiber art school teacher used to show how much you could do to it. It was a great lesson in this fabulous fiber.

Now if I could convince knitters that you can treat silk as an easy care yarn.

melissa said...

What a great post! I agree wholeheartedly with everything here, and as a result, silk is one of my absolute favourite fabrics, both to sew and to wear. This is also nicely timed because I just finished sewing a silk sheath dress and you've very succinctly written all my pro-silk comments for me!

Frida said...

This is a great post, you are absolutely right!

Alyson Clair said...

Thanks for posting this. I am usually too scared to work with silks, but I think I may try now.

Claire Wain said...

You can also use shampoo to wash silk! You might want to avoid the fancy ones with conditioner and magic hair-improving ingredients added, but a simple baby shampoo is great for silk.

I used to throw my favourite silk dupion party dress into the washing machine, and it came out just fine!

Jessie said...

Thanks for the thorough and wonderful entry Carly! I am about to be working with lots of silk and always knew it could be "manhandled", if you will. However, it's reputation has made it a somewhat hazy gray area for me. I will be using georgettes and chiffons, and would love to wash them first as long as it doesn't compromise their textures and soft-looking finishes. I will be doing some tests just to make sure.

I am so excited about this entry!

Anonymous said...

Hi, sorry but this is one of my pet peeves...SILK IS NOT A FABRIC! IT IS A FIBER! It is what a fabric is made of, not a fabric in itself. (Like wool, cotton, etc.) When you refer to a fabric made of silk, it can be velvet, chiffon, organza etc. The proper way to refer to it is as a silk blend velvet, or a silk chiffon, or a dupioni silk, etc.

Carly said...

I am sorry that this bothers you anonymous but I have no intention of trying to list all of the different silk types that exist. My sentence would become much too long. If you want I can refer to silk fabrics for you however even that seems a bit redundant in this context. I'm fine with people sewing polyester shirts and not polyester fabric shirts. I'm ok with people sewing cordura, or nomex too. Raw silk technically refers to silk that has not had the larval mucus washed out of it as opposed to the wide range of nublly silks that people are usually referring to. However it is more important to me to hear what they are trying to tell me than have them use my "Correct" terminology. This is not to say that I believe that we should neglect our language, and thus reduce it to less and less specific terms. However our language is ever evolving and you seem to have chosen a very narrow pet peeve on a subject that doesn't seem to confuse anyone. Best of luck and thanks for keeping me honest.

hannah said...

Carly thanks for posting this entry!
The silk that I'm using to make my holiday dress (although at this point it might be an Easter dress) smelled really strongly of gasoline after I washed it, and I decided to try rinsing it with distilled vinegar. It worked to some degree, but it still smells faintly...nothing like the smell of gasoline when you're standing under the mistletoe.
I tried ironing the wet silk, and after about 10 minutes the silk was still damp and I got tired of ironing and just hung it up to airdry. Any idea why it's suggested that you iron dry silk?

On a seperate note, I'm curious anon, if you also hate references to "cotton fabric" or "wool fabric" ? It seems to me that when discussing treatment of all fabrics made from a specific type of fiber it makes sense to refer to those fabrics using the umbrella of that fiber content. Would it be correct to say "all fabrics made from silk "?

Carly said...

I think that the point of ironing silk dry is to help keep it flat. I have washed a wide variety of fabrics and hung them to dry versus ironing them dry. I have found that many fabrics will release their wrinkles more when wet than dry. I think this is more true of fabrics with a crisp hand than softer fabrics. I have also heard of using the iron to remove water marks by wetting a broader area and then trying to dry the area evenly with an iron. However I have not done this myself and have no idea if its true. As for fiber vs fabric I would think this post would be true of all silk fabrics as well as all silk fibers. i imagine that you could treat silk cocoons in the same way. Silk is a bit unusual because it exists only as a filament. It comes out of the worm as a "yarn" Where as polyester could exist as a liquid, pellet, or bucket full. I wonder if a pellet would count as a very short very thick piece of yarn? Could you weave coke bottles together to make polyester fabric? I have no idea where the line is.

Sonia Levesque said...

This is the best "how to" about washing silk I've read in a looooooong time! brava

You make me want to use silk a bit more... It's definitely my favorite natural fiber, and I nontheless shun it too often in favor of polyester. How silly? lol

Liron said...

Great post.
Thank you

Anonymous said...

what about sweat spots on silk ?

Bebelover09 said...

Hi. I love this article but I have a small question. I accidentally splashed muffin batter on the bottom of my silk top this morning. I wore it to the grocery store and came home and without thinking started preparing blueberry muffins for the children, The batter is a creamy color and my top is a kind of greyish green, although the sopt just looks dark now. The top is 100 percent silk and says dry clean only. What should I do? I love this top and it is from Bebe so it was kinda expensive, not the usual budget for a college student. I read the tips above but it seems hard and confusing. Should I pretreat it before it goes to the dry cleaners or just leave it alone? I do not want to cause a stain on something that might can be corrected by a professional. If you can help me I would sincerely appreciate! Please let me know if I should pretreat it or not! I need help. Thanks so much, Your article is helpful, but in this case I am a little apprehensive to working with my top. Thanks! Brandi B

Carly said...

Bebelover09. If you would like to take it to a dry cleaner's and then I would not pre-treat is or do anything except tell them what happened and get it there quick. If you don't want to take it to the dry cleaner's then you can probably get it out yourself. Although I have a feeling that it is butter that is making the dark spot and grease is particularly hard to get out. I would start by dabbing a rag with lighter fluid and testing it on an interior seam. If there is no discoloration you can
make sure the garment is dry,
put a towel under the stain,
douse the stain with lighter fluid,
put the garment on a clean piece of glass or other smooth hard surface,
and then tamp it with a clean nail brush.

Alternatively if you catch a stain fast enough you can rub soap into the spot and then leave the whole garment to soak for a couple hours then hand wash as usual.
You risk having the finish or the color change a little.

In this case it seems like you don't mind taking it to the cleaners in which case they will be responsible for any mishaps and that would take the pressure off you.
Good luck