Friday, April 6, 2012

All About Fabric Series: Silks

I have always wanted to sew with silk. I love its feel. Its warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And it feels so luxurious. I recently bought some silk on Ebay and I have had to re-educate myself on what its all about. 
 Visualize the term silk. I bet you are thinking of its opulence and luxury and its feel on your skin. For centuries it has been associated with the upper echelons of society. During the Roman Empire, silk was literally sold for its weight in gold!

  1. Silk is the strongest natural fiber. 
  2. A steel filament of the same diameter as silk will break before a filament of silk! 
  3. Silk absorbs moisture, which makes it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. 
  4. Because of this absorbency, it is easily dyed in many deep colors.
A little about the silkworm...

Silk comes from worms. Like any insect they go from egg to larvae to pupa to adult.  The worms eat a diet mainly made up of mulberry leaves.  They eat for approximately 40 days straight after emerging from their eggs. A single silk worm will grow to 10,000 times in its birth size in its short life. In adulthood, it attaches itself to a twig and begins to spin itself a cocoon. That cocoon is typically 1000 yards of silk. It is this that is used to make our luxurious silk fabrics. They emerge from their cocoons as moths. But sadly, few silkworm farmers allow this as they hurt the fibres of the cocoon to do it.  

The raw silk is then processed to remove the natural "gum" that protects the fibers for the cocoon. It is only natural for silks to have some irregularities – sometimes called "slubs". This is the nature of the 100% silk fabric.Silk that has been processed can be woven or knit into a variety of fabrics.

  • The weight of silk is shown as "mm" – pronounced "mommy" – and varies within the different types of silk.
Varieties of silk fabrics:


Chiffon is a fine, see-through fabric that looks like a net up close. It is commonly used in blouses and scarves but has really garnered attention for its use in the billowing effect of overlays in couture fashions. This sheer fabric usually requires a lining fabric as well.

China Silk

China silk is a lightweight, plain-weave fabric that is sheer. It also goes by the names habutai, or habotai. It is one of the less expensive and more commonly available silk fabrics.China silk can range from very thin/sheer (5 mm) to a heftier 12 mm. If you own a silk scarf its likely made from China silk. This fabric is not recommended for fitted garment styles because the seams will tear from the stress.

Crepe de Chine

Crepe de chine is a lightweight fabric  with a grittier texture. It is made by twisting some fibers clockwise and others the opposite way. The twisted fibers are then woven in a plain-weave fabric, but it's the twisted fibers, not the weave, that gives crepe its distinctive texture and feel. This silk doesn't have a shiny luster. Both sides of the fabric look and feel the same.Many drawstring pouches and some larger scarves are made of Crepe de Chine, often in the 12mm to 15mm range. When considering this fabric for sewing, avoid using it in tailored styles because the fabric is too soft to hold a structured shape. Crepe de chine doesn't ravel as easily as other silk fabrics, but it will tear if not handled gently.


The back of this fabric is a flattened crepe while the front is a shimmery satin weave. This, silk charmeuse, is what most people think of when they say silk. 
  • Charmeuse has even more drape than crepe de chine and works well for scarves, blouses and lingerie. 
  • This is not a good choice for full skirts as the fabric does not hold a shape well. 
  • Its a slippery fabric that can be difficult to sew. Seams can pucker and pull and it must be handled carefully.
  • Use a special presser foot or the fabric may slide while sewing.
  • It is often used as lining for menswear.
  • It tears easily when wet so dry clean.


Jacquard silks marry matte and reflective threads to create an interesting effect. Similar to brocades, jacquards typically are woven in a single colour. These are generally heavier weight and more densely woven. The design is woven into the fabric (which means it is never printed off-grain.) Patterns are often florals and paisleys. (I bought a polka dot jacquard recently.)
  • This heavier weight material is ideal in construction of more detail styles like jackets, dresses and even drapes.
  • You must pre-wash jacquard fabrics because often they are not colour-fast. Pre-wash a few times actually. (Run cool water over the fabric until all excess dye has run out and then wrap in towels to dry)
  • This is one silk fabric that does not hold onto wrinkles!


Douppioni is a plain-weave fabric with nubs. It is stiff, and taffeta-like. It comes dyed in bright colors.

  • Douppioni is often made into elegant evening gowns or semi-fitted vests and garments. 
  • But make sure the style isn't too fitted, because the fabric doesn't stand up well to stress and ravels easily. 
  • Silk dupioni for example appears to have good strength but really benefits from the support of a lining. (in The Dressmakers Handbook of Couture Sewing Techniques, Lynda Maynard writes that top designers line with flannel!) 
  • Prewash this fabric for best results. Dyes will fade out over time.
  • Washing will make the fabric lose some of its stiffness, which may be your preference, and the colour will soften as the excess dye is washed away.
  • Handwash douppioni gently.
  • Seam edges must be finished because this fabric ravels easily. 


Hand-dyed Silk Noil               Image from Wikipedia

 Noil is sometimes called raw silk but that is not correct. It is made from shorter fibres and it is a weaker fabric than the ones listed here. It still has lots of strong selling points: 

  • Noil looks similar to cotton, but has the soft feel of silk against the skin. 
  • It also drapes better than cotton and resists wrinkling, so it's the perfect choice when traveling.
  • This is not a shiny silk.
  • It can be machine washed on gentle and dried on low, but this will cause a faded, "weathered" look.
  • If you prefer bright colors, dry-clean or hand wash.

Raw silk


Raw silk is any silk yarn or fabric that hasn't had the sericin - the natural "gum" that protects the fiber - removed. 
  • The fabric is stiff and dull and the sericin tends to attract dirt and odors.
  • It tends to be a thicker fabric because several fibres are twisted together before they are woven
  • The colours tend to be off-white to pale versions of the other colours. The silk is not bleached before the dyes are applied in order to save the integrity of the fibres.


Picture from


Tussah silk, often called shantung, is made from the cocoons of wild tussah silk worms who eat oak and juniper leaves. Because the worm isn't grown in a controlled environment, the moth hatches from the cocoon thus interrupting the filament length and making the fibers short and coarse instead of long and lustrous.
  • Tussah silk is difficult to dye and to most often available in its natural color, a creamy tan. 
  • This is not a shiny silk. 
  • This type of silk is often sold as a blend with cotton or linen.
  • This fabric is ideal for button-down shirts and dresses.
  • Seams must be finished because this fabric ravels easily.
  • Garments made of this fabric do not wrinkle easily.


Shantung is a blend of different silk threads. It is made with cultivated silk warp yarns and heavier douppioni filling yarns. (Blends use cotton or nylon in place of some of the silk threads.) It is a heavy fabric with the characteristics of some lightweight fabrics: it has drape and shape of a heavy fabric but isn't cumbersome.
  • Shantung may be lustrous or dull but typically has a rough texture.
  • It has a firm, semi-crisp hand and tends to ravel, so avoid close-fitting styles.
  • It resists dirt which makes it a great fabric for home decor as well. 
  • It can be used for suits, jackets and dresses.
  • It has a crisp texture and can hold the shape of detailed garments.
Pre-treating silk:

Expect silk to shrink from 5 to 8%. You must pre-treat silk fabrics for shrinkage and for colour fastness.

Pre-treat your silk fabrics using the same cleaning method that you plan to use for the garment after construction. ( I buy a little more fabric than I need to account for shrinkage).
  • bring to a drycleaner to have steamed (You must still pre-shrink silks you plan to dry clean. Dry cleaning will shrink many silk fabrics. Better safe than sorry).
  • pretreat at home using cool water over the fabric until the excess dyes run out. Hand wash and roll between two towels.  
  • Some silk fabrics actually look better when washed, as dry cleaning can sometimes cause a garment to look dull. 
  • Silk fabrics typically soften when washed. If you want your silk to stay crisp, consider dry cleaning.
  • When hand washing, use a mild shampoo (find my laundry recipe here) or baby shampoo.
  •  Avoid agitating your garment in the wash. Excessive twisting, and wrinkling can change the texture 
  •  Test your washing process on a swatch to determine if you prefer hand washing to machine washing.
  •  Rinse your silk fabric twice. In the first rinse add a Tbsp of white vinegar to remove soap residue. The second rinse will remove the vinegar leaving your silk delightfully fresh. 
  • Some people say you can machine dry your silks but I do not.
  • Silks tend to wrinkle: Hang to dry and try steaming or ironing it when it is still damp. 
  • Be careful with the iron. You do not want to create that awful sheen when you iron a delicate fabric with a hot iron. Test! Test! Test on a bit of fabric first.
  • Use a press cloth (I use silk organza) and use a low setting on your iron.
  • Or better yet, use a steamer!

Sewing Silk Fabric:

  • Use sharp scissors, a new (universal) sewing needle and sharp pins made for silk fabrics.
  • Use clips when making notches. Avoid them in loosely woven silks
  • Avoid wax-based makers they may stain your fabric.
  • Tailor tacks are best with silks (and really aren't very labour intensive!) 
  • I use cotton thread when sewing silk. Cotton is not as strong as silk. So if there is any pull on the garment, the seam rips and not the fabric. 
  • Use silk thread (very expensive) for top stitching.
  • Sew a test seam on scrap fabric to determine the best stitch length for your fabric. A general rule-of-thumb is 10 stitches per inch. 
  • Slippery silk fabrics can be difficult to cut out and also to sew. You might try laying the fabric on top of strips of tissue paper and sewing through all layers. ( A woman at my fabric store told me to use toilet paper if I didn't have tissue paper on hand!)
  •  Silk fabrics tend to ravel or fray easily. Therefore, seams should be finished to prevent the garment from showing unsightly frayed threads or raveling apart.
  • If you have a serger, serged seams are great. 
  • If not, finish silks with pinking shears or any practical seam finish. I like Hong Kong seams all of a sudden.
  • Consider making a test seam to see if your chosen seam finish is too bulky.
  • As with all fabrics, interfacing should be matched to the fabric for weight, texture and weave.
  • Pre-treat your infacing (and zippers) using the same method you plan to use to wash the garment.
  • Fusible interfacing is not ideal for the more sheer and light-weight silks.
  • In addition to commercial interfacings, consider silk organza, silk organdy, silk chiffon, and silk voile. These fabrics may also be available in either cotton or polyester. 
  • Even cotton flannel (pre-treated) can be used in place of interfacing in a silk fabric.
  • Press seams flat before pressing them open. 
Because of the expense of silk fabric, I think the number one tip must be ...make a muslin!

I would love to hear any extra tips you have....


  1. Using toilet tissue is so funny, practical and cheap! I love it!

  2. I alwys though mm referred to millimeters! Live and learn.

  3. Thanks for all your work. I'm going to reference this in project I'm completing for school...


    THe standard for measuring momme weight is by using a piece of fabric that is 100 yards long and 45 inches wide. If that piece of fabric weighs 19 pounds then the momme weight of that silk is 19.Momme weight is usually shown as "mm."

    The higher the momme weight the heavier the fabric which means a greater amount of silk was used in the weaving process.

  4. did a very intensive research on silk...thank you for all the helpful information. I should have read this post months ago. I thrifted a Laura Ashley silk blouse sometime ago. I spoilt the blouse while trying to alter it. My heart still aches everytime i think about it.


  5. Thanks for sharing this informative article. Your timing's amazing! I recently picked up three metres of silk fabric, in the sale bin at my local fabric store. Not knowing the proper name for this fabric was annoying me! Now I know how to treat my crepe de chine too, I can't wait to turn my day dreams into reality...

    1. I'm so glad you found the article so informative. I am really setting out to re-educate myself. I get so many helpful comments that I am really motivated to do more sewing!

  6. Really a great compilation of facts about silk. I've learned a lot.

  7. Some of your info is not accurate. Tussah silk is quite easy to dye. Noil silk, the "raw silk" of fashion industry is not stiff and grotty, it is soft and matte. True raw silk is undegummed and covered by your dupioni. It is stiff but not grotty. The tussah silk pic is from my website and should be credited: and/or me, Cheryl Kolander. Nice, informative site but please make the corrections and you may contact me for further accuracy checks.

  8. This article is very interesting , and I had knew many new things from ur post , keep sharing more in future. I have add your blog to my bookmarks. This would help me to read more good article from you bro. At the same time, I should pay some attention to my life. HaHa.....

    silk stretch satin



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