Raw Silk has a distinctive soft cream/yellow colour and is made using the fibres before the naturally occurring gum, which holds the cocoon together, is removed. This fabric is called Shantung Silk and the cloth has a very soft handle and heavy slub (uneven threads in the cloth). This kind of cloth only comes in its natural soft shade as the gum prevents the take up of dyes. Once the gum has been removed the dying possibilities are endless; most commercially dyed silks are dyed using industrial dyes and come in a huge range of colours.
There are also companies that use natural dyes to create a product that derives from more sustainable sources. I used to work for a designer who specialised in using natural indigo from the Indigo plant, I once watched her dying some fabric and it was astonishing. When dyeing with plant indigo the liquid in the dye vat looks somewhat like wee, but when the dyed fabric is exposed to the air it goes bright blue instantly – it’s amazing. Natural dye stuffs were used right up until the industrial revolution when by products from many industrial and chemical processes were found to create lovely bright and fast colours for the textile industry – usually discovered by happy accident. I found a couple of really good articles about natural dying if you are interested, the first is a good point of reference on the Pioneer Thinking website and here is an article on successful natural dyeing at home on the itty bitty impact website which shows you how straight forward natural dyeing could be.
Back to the matter in hand! Silk is made into dozens of different kinds fabrics, from the heaviest brocades to translucent chiffon; there are soft, raw Silks, stiff grosgrains, crisp taffeta and duchess satin and fluid crepes. Silk can be mixed with other fibres and is often mixed with the finest of Worsted Wool, Cashmere or Alpacca for a lightweight and very luxurious cloth and yarn, or Linen to create soft lightweight suitings that are softer than Linen alone and harder wearing than Silk alone. Silk has special qualities that make it very highly prized. It is super lightweight, incredibly strong, it is iridescent and warm in cold weather and cool in hot conditions. However, it is easily damaged by perspiration and has to be cleaned very carefully.
The following pictures feature just a few examples of those Silk fabrics I have used a lot over the years.
Double Woven Silk Dupion, Shot Silk Dupion
Silk Dupion is what most people think of when they think of Silk, Princess Diana’s famed wedding dress was made out of ivory Silk Dupion. Dupion has a slub in it and is quite a crisp, paper like cloth that creases easily but adds wonderful structure to garments. These two examples are a taupe coloured power woven Dupion that creases a little less than most, the mauve on the right is from the Far East and is shot mauve/lime green.
Crepe backed satin, patterned Jacquard Silk
On the left of this picture is one of my all-time favourite fabrics, crepe backed satin. On one side crepe backed satin is shiny and the other side is matt, this fabric is gorgeous and cascades in large pieces, like a waterfall. The patterned jacquard on the right is made by the threads woven in such a way as to create a raised pattern, it is made in a similar fashion to brocade fabric.
Naturally dyed raw Silk, Devore Silk Velvet
These two Silks are naturally dyed with cochineal beetle shells that have been finely ground to create a fine powder that can be used for lots of different purposes; the cloth on the left is a heavy raw silk which is hard going to cut and kills sewing machine needles for a pass time, on the right is devore velvet. Devore velvet is rather special, you can screen print the fabric with a special acid paint which when washed out removes the pile leaving translucent areas behind – Monsoon loves devore velvet!
Naturally Dyed Silk
Looking from left to right in this photo the first and third pieces of cloth are Kantha Silk, this is made in a fair trade workshop in Bangladesh and is produced by hand sewing in concentric squares a layer of silk which is backed with cotton scrim (like muslin). The second piece is the kind of silk fabric used for the Silk layer of the Kantha and the forth is Silk jersey. Both the green and the blue in these samples are natural dyes.
Some of the other Silk fabrics widely available are;
- Brocade – heavily patterned stiff cloth usually used for very rich garments and upholstery
- Grosgrain – ribbed stiff cloth often used for upholstery
- Crepe – comes in several weights from fine crepe de chine up to heavy Moroccan crepe, has a lovely soft fall and does not crease very much
- Duchess Satin – stiff, soft sheen and frays like mad
- Chiffon – lose woven very fine cloth which can be challenging to work with
- Taffeta – tightly woven crisp fabric that rustles
- Habiti – tightly woven fine cloth that kind of falls between chiffon and taffeta in character.
This is not an exhaustive list by any measure, there are many other finishes and weights available and specialist Silk outlets have a much wider range and stock a vast array of colours.
Silk can be less expensive to buy than one thinks depending on the quality and where you buy it, most general fabric shops will only stock Dupion, chiffon, crepe de chine, crepe backed satin and duchess satin as a rule and there will only be a few colour available; if you want a wider range of Silks there are several really good stockists in the UK, however, some will require you set up a business account with them – but you don’t need to buy loads of cloth to get one, as long as you buy something at least once a year they are fine with small purchases. My favourite Silk merchants are Bennet Silks, they have lots of fabulous cloth and wonderful staff too. The other two suppliers that I sometimes use are James Hare and Pongees, all three have great websites and they will send individual sample swatches or swatch cards with all the colours of a given cloth for a small charge.
A word about using Silk, in my opinion there is no such thing as a difficult fabric to sew with, as with all things you just need to practice to get the hang of it, for the best results here are a few tips;
- Measure twice, and thrice, cut once! Silk is expensive so you don’t want to make any big cutting bloopers so measure grain lines carefully and pin in the seam allowance so you don’t mark the cloth. When pinning the best pins are good quality glass head pins, glass head pins are made with better quality steal and are thus more expensive but worth every penny, pin quite close together to prevent slippage, around 3cm apart with fine cloth and around 5cm apart with heavier fabric.
- ALWAYS pin or tack your silk in the seam allowance when cutting and sewing.
- Use the right sized needle, you can generally use finer needles with Silk, crepe de chine and habiti need new needles as they mark easily with blunt ones.
- Tack your project if you don’t feel so confident, in the seam allowance, this is especially important with velvet as the pile in each piece will want to wriggle about a bit and will distort the seam if you are not on the ball.
- Use a scrupulously clean cotton/linen cloth/brand new tea towel to press silk as some can be water marked, when pressing velvet use a velvet board if you can get one to prevent flattening the pile – and lay it right side down; if you don’t have a velvet board use another piece of velvet to lay the right side against, this won’t entirely prevent flattening the pile but it does help.
- Be brave, don’t be afraid of the cloth, there are much more challenging fabrics than Silk in the synthetic fabrics that will slide all over the place, you just need to take your time and be methodical.
The following pics are some examples of the projects I have made using Silk over the years.
These scarves are double sided, often using two different Silks for each side and are piped at the edge, I love making these and they make lovely gifts. Sometimes I make them with small pieces sewn together with mixed shades of similar colours, it is amazing what goes together and they end up being very useful garments that will go with lots of outfits, it’s a great idea for you to make something special for a delicious gift.
Embroidered Silk Dupion is more often used for curtains but it makes exquisite garments too, this butterfly patterned jacket was worn at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
This was a really exciting project, the Silk velvet was part of an antique opera cape belonging to the client, she wanted to re-use it on a bespoke jacket so we selected a Mutka (raw) Silk that is woven with a silver lame thread. To utilise the effect of the silver I designed the jacket with panels that are split just below the bust line and the lower panels are cut on the bias (diagonally) which gives the jacket a lovely soft fall over the hips and it gently flares at the hem.
This is the back of the wedding dress I made with the jacquard woven patterned Silk highlighted in photo 2, it was teamed with a heavy Moroccan crepe in pink for the details and I sent some of the jacquard to DM Buttons to make the matching covered buttons. You can see the dress in full in this article.
I hope you will consider sewing with Silk now if you haven’t before, it is a marvellous material to work with and the finish you can achieve is unique and totally luxurious – I love it!! Silk is also really exciting as a medium for lots of textile techniques such as painting and a whole host of other ideas so if that is your thing, go for it, there are loads of books and courses about that kind of thing.
For something a little different to take a look at, Spider Silk has been used in Madagascar for hundreds of years, it creates something quite delicious, there is a fantastic video on YouTube so take a look, it’s fascinating.