This content was originally written for Indiesew and has been adapted for this blog. It was originally published on September 9, 2015.
For too long I avoided buying silk fabric, even though the prints and textures were exactly what I was looking for. This soft, drapey, lightweight fabric terrified me. I felt too inexperienced and, to be honest, not mature enough for silk. It was expensive and it seemed hard to sew with. I spill food on a lot of things I wear and I assumed silk could only be dry-cleaned. So in my head, a silk fabric purchase just wasn’t happening.
But my opinion of silk fabric has completely changed. I’ve discovered why this amazing fiber garners a higher price tag, and I know firsthand why silk fabric is ideal for garments (not to mention the fact that silk has the most interesting backstory of any other fiber). Grab some popcorn, because this Fabric Files is a good one.
The History and Origins of Silk Fabric
It could be said that silk has the richest, most long-standing history of any other fiber that we use to make clothing. Silk fibers were first discovered in China as far back as 3600 B.C. Legend has it that a cocoon fell into a Chinese empress’s tea cup while she was sitting under a mulberry tree. She was so enamored by the appearance of the unraveling, shimmering threads that she searched for their source and discovered silkworms.
How does silk fabric come from silkworms, you ask? Good question. Within 2 to 3 days a silkworm can spin about one mile of silk filament that it uses as its own cocoon. To harvest the fibers, silk farmers kill the caterpillars and soak the cocoons in boiling water to soften them. Then, they unwind the single silk fiber and spin it with three to ten more silk strands to create one single thread of silk. The process is incredibly time and resource intensive; thus silk fabric is quite expensive.
Once discovered, silk began to gradually spread through the rest of China and eventually all the way to the Mediterranean via the Silk Road. Today, the majority of the world’s silk is produced in China and India. The demand for silk has declined slightly in recent decades due to the introduction of new synthetic fibers.
For a full overview of silk history, check out this article.
If you’ve ever worn a single silk garment, you know exactly why silk gets such a great reputation. Silk fibers are naturally lustrous, due to the shape of the fibers as silk worms create them. But silk isn’t just pretty to look at; it’s also an extremely breathable fabric, making it ideal for year-round wear.
In fact, silk is considered a non-conductive fabric, meaning it keeps warmth close to skin in cold weather. The only downside to this trait is that silk is prone to static cling. It is also extremely absorbent, so it’s easy to wear in hot weather, too.
And silk is also surprisingly durable! In fact, one source says that the only items intact from a 1780’s shipwreck discovered nearly 60 years later were the silk garments worn by the passengers.
Types of Silk Fabric
Simply calling a fabric silk is a bit of a misnomer. There are several different types of fabric that are created from silk fibers, each with different characteristics. The most common types of silk fabric seen in apparel sewing are silk charmeuse and silk crepe de chine.
These two types of fabric are soft and flowing. Charmeuse has a more noticeable sheen, while crepe de chine is more matte and slightly rough in texture. Both fabrics are lightweight and ideal for blouses, dresses and skirts.
There are other types of silk fabric that are stiffer and even more radiant. These are called Dupioni and Shantung silk. Shantung silk has a beautiful sheen, but was much more stable than crepe de chine. Dupioni is a similar weight and hand, but has a bit of slub texture to it.
Chiffon and taffeta can also be made of silk fibers. You may also see silk/cotton, silk/wool, or other silk blends on the market. Recently silk jersey fabrics have made an appearance as well.
How to Sew with Silk
One of the most common questions I get is, “I’m terrified to sew with silk fabric! Help?” I can understand people’s trepidation around this fine fabric, especially when it often comes with a hefty price tag. But the fear of the unknown shouldn’t stop you from cutting into that lovely silk charmeuse you’ve been hoarding.
Cut with Tissue Paper
Perhaps the most helpful advice I was given was to cut your silk garments with a piece of tissue paper underneath the pattern pieces. Because silk crepe de chine and charmeuse are often so lightweight and shifty, the pattern pieces can distort during and after cutting. This method helps to stabilize the fabric so that it doesn’t shift around as you cut.
Once my silk pattern pieces and tissue paper pieces are cut out, I loosely roll the piece up and carry it in the palm of my hand to my ironing board or sewing machine. Don’t carry around your silk pattern pieces by one corner or side, as that will stretch them out considerably.
Use Extra Fine Needles and Pins
When sewing with silk fabric, use small sewing machine needles and pins. Silk fabric has a tendency to snag if you use pins and needles that are too large. I use Dritz Extra Fine Pins for sewing my silk fabrics and Schmetz Microtex Needles in my sewing machine.
Another important trick I learned when sewing with silk is to staystitch, always. Staystitching is simply sewing a line of straight stitches sewn very close to the edge of the pattern pieces before you assemble your garment.
The staystitch keeps your silk pattern pieces from stretching out as you work with them. Staystitching is especially important around neckline and armholes, as those can stretch considerably.
Use a Walking Foot
I always use my walking foot when sewing lightweight fabrics like silk crepe de chine. I find that it helps to evenly feed the fabric as I sew and results in less puckered seams.
Use the Tissue Paper Sandwich
You can also try sandwiching your pattern pieces between two pieces of tissue paper as you sew. The tissue paper will help the pattern pieces to glide smoothly through the feed dogs.
Carefully rip off the tissue paper when done.
How to Care for Silk
Contrary to popular opinion, you can hand wash silk garments if you’re very careful. Hand wash your silk garments in cold water, with gentle soap, being careful not to agitate or wring the fabric. (Hot water and dryers can shrink silk garments considerably and can also break down the silk fibers.) Squeeze the excess water out of the garment by rolling it up into a dry towel. You can also dry-clean your silk garments if you’re nervous about damaging the fine silk fibers.
The best way to press your silk garments is to do so when they’re still damp. Use a warm iron on the silk or low setting. Most wrinkles will also fall out of silk garments when hung in the bathroom while you’re showering.
Never store your silk garments in direct sunlight as the UV rays will break down the natural fibers.
How to Buy Silk
Silk crepe de chine and charmeuse are quite commonly seen in most fabric stores that specialize in apparel fabrics. While it’s best to be able to see and touch silk fabrics in person, you can bet that any fabric that is 100% silk will likely be high quality. But beware, some “silky” fabrics may actually be silk blends or not silk at all. Always read the fiber content of your fabrics before purchasing.
Silk fabric is readily available in both beautiful prints and solids. Because the production process of silk is so resource intensive, silk fabric is often more expensive than most apparel fabrics. Most 100% silk fabrics are priced between $15 and $25 per yard.
Garments Best Suited for Silk
Silk has so many amazing benefits that it’s no wonder why fashion designers use it in so many types of garments. Silk blouses are likely the most popular silhouette for this kind of silk crepe. Shantung or Dupioni silk fabrics are ideal for fit and flare dresses and pencil skirts, due to their stiffer nature.
If you’re brand new to silk fabrics, I recommend starting with a blouse or tank top pattern. Once you’ve gained some silk-sewing confidence, venture into fitted dresses and skirts. You’ll find this fiber just as much fun to wear as it is to sew.