Ah, silk. With it’s rich history, unique qualities, and undeniable beauty, silk has always been synonymous with luxury, glamour, and refinement. If you’ve never sewn with silk before it can be daunting, or at worse an expensive mistake (hey, we’ve all been there!). When I first started working at Mill End, the very first thing I bought was some slinky burnout silk velvet. I realized quickly that I needed to respect the fabric by learning how to sew with it.
So. We’ve consulted our archives and resident fashion sewing experts, Sue & Shelley, to bring you the top questions we get about sewing with silk. I consider this a love letter to silk, because when you complete a silk garment the way you intended, it will always feel special when you wear it, and people will always notice. There’s just nothing else like it.
FACTS ABOUT SILK
- Only natural filament fiber
- A silk fiber can be up to 1,600 yards long
- It is unreeled, like a spool, from a silk worm’s cocoon.
- Naturally coated with sericin, a gummy coating, giving it a plush hand
- Formed by an emission from a silk worm’s mouth combining two proteins, sericin & fibroin plus the contact with air makes the solidified filament
- Two main types of silk: mulberry silk & tussah (wild silk)
- Filament is shaped like a prism thus giving it a shimmery look
- Very strong fiber (strong as steel in comparative strength)
- Easy to dye
- Very absorbent
- Does not conduct heat
- Very elastic and resilient
1)Can I machine wash silk?
Yes and no.
Yes) 3 things to consider are color retention, construction, and shrinkage. The more brilliant and dark the color, the more likely it is to lose some of the dye when washing. Intricately constructed garments are best left to the dry cleaner. Silk will shrink, so be sure you pre-washed or dry cleaned the fabric before sewing. However you intend to wash the garment is how you need to pre-wash it. When in doubt, buy an eighth of a yard and test it out. Silk is expensive, so it’s worth it to take this extra step!
Never machine wash and dry. To hand wash at home, using lukewarm or cool water and baby shampoo, gently agitate the fabric in a clean sink.
- To retain color: ¼ cup white vinegar to every two gallons of lukewarm/cool water. Never twist or wring. Rinse several times. To set dye, add a few shakes of salt to the final cold rinse. Silk will fade and “suede” with washing.
- Drying: Roll in towel, hang in dark place, iron on low on the wrong side. Sueded and sand washed silk can be dried in a hot dryer, although up to 10% shrinkage may occur, possibly more for looser weaves. White silks will often yellow.
No) Do not hand wash: bright colors, dark colors, patterned silk, douppioni, & taffeta. Washing crisp silk will take the sheen and body out of the it. It will appear more like linen.
WHAT NOT TO DO
- Never expose to direct or indirect sunlight. It will fade or deteriorate.
- Never spray perfume or deodorant directly to silk; wash or clean silk clothing after wearing it as perspiration and chemicals will fade and break down the fibers.
- Never soak silk in water for a long period.
2)Do I need a special needle or thread to sew silk?
For delicate weaves, use a microtex needle. Thicker needles and pins will punch holes in fine weaves, like charmeuse. Use silk pins to avoid this. Although it seems counterintuitive, do not to use silk thread on silk fabric, because silk thread is stronger than the fabric. You want your thread to break at a stress point, instead of tearing the fabric.
3) Is silk hot to wear?
Silk does not conduct heat, so it will keep body heat close to your body. Silk may be used in underwear for winter sports for this reason. For wearing silk in the summer, choose a lightweight weave for a loose silhouette, like chiffon, crepe de chine, or crepe. These fabrics flow away from your body naturally. The texture in crepe silks creates a small layer of air between the fabric and your body.
4)What is the best way to cut silk?
Heavy weight silks, like twill and noil, can be cut out like any other sturdier fabric. However, for lightweight silks (and exceptions), here are some tips:
- Use plenty of weights or silk pins within the seam and cutting line. Lay out the silk on a surface it will lightly adhere to, like flannel or quilt backing. Cut with long, sharp shears.
- Use weights or silk pins, and sandwich the fabric between two sheets of tissue paper. Cut with long, sharp shears.
- For all silk, it’s best to cut the pattern pieces out in a single layer as folded fabric can stick to itself and not lay smoothly. Lightweight silks can slip or shift easily.
4)How do I press silk?
Use a cool iron and a press cloth to avoid scorching the fabric.
5)What should I use to interface silk?
- Use organza, organdy, or use another layer of the same outer fabric.
- Do not use fusible interfacings on silk.
Edit: Armed with Sue & Shelley’s advice. I finished my silk burnout velvet top:
Do you have any tips for sewing with silk? We’d love to hear from you! Leave us a comment!