Everything Silk

We Carry
by Sara Snuggerud in Archives

Many of you know that I often select the monthly club topics for Sewtopia based on projects I want to complete, or it may be that my projects may need “help”  being completed by giving myself a deadline. Such was the case for the November club meeting when the topic was silk.

My silk journey started last year when we started carrying a selection of silk dupioni. I was immediately drawn to the lime green silk which is one of my favorite colors. I had 2 yards professionally machine quilted in hopes to make a jacket from it. Since it took over a year to finally get my nerve up to cut into it, I concluded that it really just needed time to “age”.

After taking Judeen’s jacket fitting class this fall, I had in my hand a perfect jacket pattern adjusted slightly for the thickness of the quilted lime green silk. Since the back of the quilted silk was also silk, I did not have to plan for a lining. The jacket was finished with a black silk bias cut binding.

I also was inspired by the new silk fabric collections available for quilters at Heirloom Creations. The red quilt pictured was on display at a show and I knew we needed the same one sewn and displayed. This is the “In and Out” pattern.


Then I started wondering what I could do with silk scarves. When I was around 18, my mom and I hosted foreign exchange students for a couple years. Some brought us silk fabric or silk scarves from their country as gifts. They were beautiful pieces and much to pretty to cut up! But after many years, I wanted to do something with them. I decided that these silk gifts would make beautiful purse linings or purses themselves. I turned this one into a “Lazy Girl Wonder Wallet”.

It is small enough to hold a couple credit cards, cash and ID and is still light as a feather! If you need a quick holiday gift idea, the Wonder Wallets only take a 5” strip of fabric or make TWO from one fat quarter.

I also embroidered on a 5 1/2” x 6 1/2” silk rectangle to and turned it into an elegant purse-size tissue carrier!

Selecting the Right Tools
You will have the best results sewing with silk fabric by using sewing tools suited for working with this delicate fabric.

Sewing Machine Needles – Select a smaller needle such as a Schmetz Sharp 70/10 needle.

Pins – Use the finest pin which leaves a smaller hole or no hole. I love the Clover Quilters Pins (Fine) which are extra long with glass heads and sharp points.

Scissors and Rotary Cutters – When working with very fluid-like silk, be sure to use the Gingher serrated shears for accurate cutting which keeps the fabric from shifting as you cut. When using a rotary cutter, replace the blade with a new one before cutting. Also, if the rotary cutting mat has been used for many years, turn it over and use the back. This way the silk will not get pressed into the tiny grooves, which prevents it from cutting cleanly.

Thread – When sewing on silk fabric, select thinner thread such as silk thread, Isacord, or Aurifil  thread for a finer stitch. A finer thread is required to use in conjunction in the finer size 70/10 sewing machine needle.

Interfacings – Silk is notorious for fraying. To keep silk from becoming just a pile of threads, use a fusible light weight woven interfacing such as Whisper Wift.

The Science of Silk
There is much to learn about how silk is made. Briefly, the average silk worm cocoon contains 300-400 meters of silk. It takes about 5500 silkworms to produce 1 kg (2.2lb) of raw silk! One ounce of silk worm eggs produces about 20,000 worms, which consume a ton of mulberry leaves during their lifetime.

Silk is a natural protein fiber, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The best-known type of silk is obtained from cocoons made by the larvae of the mulberry silkworm. The shimmering appearance for which silk is prized comes from the fibers’ triangular prism-like structure which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles.

Silk is one of the strongest natural fibers but loses up to 20% of its strength when wet. It has a good moisture regain of 11%. Its elasticity is moderate to poor: if elongated even a small amount it remains stretched. It can be weakened if exposed to too much sunlight. It may also be attacked by insects, especially if left dirty.

Silk’s good absorbency makes it comfortable to wear in warm weather and while active. Its low conductivity keeps warm air close to the skin during cold weather. It is often used for clothing such as shirts, blouses, formal dresses, high fashion clothes, negligees, pajamas, robes, suits, sun dresses and underwear.

Silk has many other uses from bullet proof vests to non-absorbable surgical sutures.

Washing Silks
Hand wash silks the old fashioned way. Some silks should be dry cleaned (notably Dupioni) but most can be hand washed, especially if you wash the fabric before sewing. Dry cleaning gets more expensive every day, and the smell of perc (the dry cleaning fluid) in our clothes is not our favorite fragrance. And worst of all, silk begins to look dingy and dull after just a few trips to the dry cleaners. Many silks look better and last longer when hand washed.

But beware, many inexpensive and poorly woven silks may fade, become stiff, change texture or lose their sheen when hand washed. Try a test piece in a series of launderings before spending a lot of time and effort in any project.

Silk noil MAY shrink noticeably in hand washing (how much depends on the weave), and should absolutely be pre-shrunk before being sewn to minimize shrinkage in the final garment. Silk Noil may be machine dried, but this will increase shrinkage and should definitely be done before being cut and sewn.

When hand washing a ready-to-wear silk garment, make a wash test on an inconspicuous part of the garment, the inside back of a hem, for example. Nothing in this document should be considered a recommendation or guarantee of success.

Why Silk Shrinks
Silk fiber is a protein, like your hair, and it does not itself shrink. The way the individual fibers are twisted together in the weaving process is what causes silk to shrink. Highly twisted yarns and loose weaves cause shrinking when water releases twisting energy in the fibers. It’s a bit like twisting a rubber band, reducing the length and seeing it bunch up. Ready to wear silk garments shrink because manufacturers don’t go to the trouble of washing the fabric first.

Do you want to sew something elegant? Select a piece of silk fabric instead of cotton for your next project. You will feel like a queen sewing it and royalty using it!