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August 20, 2021

Not All Silks Are Created Equal: Designing, Cutting & Working With Silk

By: Peter Gregory

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Silk is all-natural, lightweight, warm and luxurious. It’s also slippery, expensive and hard to cut! 

Available in a huge range of colours and weaves, silk has a lustrous sheen that has inspired thousands of fashion designers over the years. It is the most tactile, dressy natural fabric you’re likely to find … but you need to know how to work with it. 

In this guide, we’ll give you some basic tips on how to start out with silk. We’ll show you some of the challenges and opportunities that silk presents, and give you some ideas on how to make the most of silk in your next collection!

Choose your silk 

Silk comes in all kinds of sheens, colours, patterns and textures. The three main weaves (chiffon, crepe and organza) are all very different, but the first decision you’ll have to make is whether you use natural or artificial silk

Most of the natural silk on the market is mulberry silk. This silk is produced by the domestic silk moth, or Bombyx Mori. It can cost anywhere from £15 to well over £45 per metre. 

If this is out of your budget, art silk may be a good place to start experimenting. Art silk (artificial silk) is woven from man-made fibres like rayon or polyester. It looks very similar to natural silk and it can cost as little as £0.75 per metre. 

Natural silk will cling to the skin on a hot day, and it holds heat very well. This makes it a great choice for dressing gowns and kimonos. Contrary to popular belief, silk is actually a bad choice for bedsheets and pyjamas. 

Art silk hangs and flows in a very similar way to natural silk. It behaves the same way in your sewing machine, too. This makes it an ideal practice material, and the perfect compromise for lower-cost garments.

One of the quickest ways to see whether you’re dealing with natural or organic silk is the rub test. Rub you rub a small patch of silk between your fingers for a moment. If the fabric starts to heat up, then you’re holding natural silk. If it doesn’t pick up much heat, then the silk is artificial.  

Kit out your sewing machine 

Silk is so soft and supple that it can snag easily when you’re working with it. If you try to machine-stitch silk without first making a few basic alterations, you’ll find that the needle can catch in the fabric. Your very expensive silk can bunch up under the foot of your sewing machine, leaving you with messy and frayed edges that are all too easy to spot thanks to the natural luster of the fabric. 

To protect your project, you just need to make two small investments:

A Walking Foot. A walking foot is a sewing machine presser foot that has feed dogs built into the foot itself. What this means is that, when you run your fabric through the machine, it is sandwiched between feed dogs on the bottom and the top. It’s much harder for the silk to warp, as it is being gripped from above and below as it moves through the machine. 

Fine, sharp needles. This is more important than you might think. Silk is usually woven so tightly that, if you try to use a standard sewing machine needle, the silk will get stuck on the needle and will snarl up under your sewing machine’s presser foot. The same goes for any needles that have become blunt over time. Go for the finest needle you can get your hands on, and make sure it is super-sharp.

Prepare your silk

Silk shrinks in the wash, so you might want to consider pre-washing your silk before you start working with it. That way, your finished design won’t warp or bunch in unexpected ways after you have sold it. 

If you’re going to be dying the silk yourself, make sure that the dyes you use work well with silk. Talk to your silk supplier and make sure that the processes you plan to use will work well with the silk you’re buying. 

Cut the silk correctly

Cutting can be a tough task with silk. Not only does silk fray easily at the edges, but it flops so easily over the blade of a shears or scissors that when you cut it you can often end up with a warped or frayed edge.

The best way to get around this problem is with a rotary cutter (the textile version of a pizza cutter) and a cutting mat. Because you’re cutting the fabric flat, you have a lot more control over the fabric as you cut it. You have to make sure the silk doesn’t slip mid-cut, so the sharper your rotary cutter, the better. 

You should also avoid marking the silk with a tracing wheel. The sharp points of your tracing wheel can damage the silk. Particles from the carbon paper can get stuck in between the fibres of the silk, too. A much better option is to pin your pattern to the fabric, then trace that pattern with your rotary cutter. If you need to hold the fabric in place, use some sheets of tissue-thin paper on either side of the silk. 

There’s a great tutorial on how to cut silk at the link below:

Plan your stitching carefully

Silk frays easily … there’s no getting around it. When you’re working with silk, you have to work with the limitations of the material. It doesn’t behave the same way as a stiff cotton or thick polyester. 

Luckily, silk has been around for thousands of years! There are a number of tried-and-tested stitching techniques that we can rely on. For seams, your best options are the ornate Hong Kong Seam, the reliable Flat Fell Seam and the ultra-neat French Seam. For a different and more exposed look, you can also try a Serge Stitch. Just make sure you’re using very fine thread (ideally silk thread). Keep your stitches close together, too (ideally under 2mm apart). 

Thanks for reading!


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