Silk is a beautiful fabric, but, we have to be honest, it is not easy to work with! In fact, learning to sew with silk can be the real rite of passage when you move on from beginner level to advanced sewing. But let this not discourage you! If you invest some time and patience, and follow some simple precautions, you’ll be sewing beautiful pieces with silk in no time. Below, you’ll find the basic tips you need to know in order to sew with silk successfully.
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1. Pre-Wash Your Fabric
Silk fabric actually comes in many different forms (there are also a couple of different types of silk, to begin with, although mulberry silk is the most common like encountered in sewing fabrics. Probably the most well-known silk fabrics are Charmeuse (smooth, satin-like silk fabric) and Chiffon (lightweight sheer fabric, often used in elegant wear). What is common to both of them is that they can shrink with washing. Almost every type of silk will shrink if washed in hot water, but some types will shrink significantly even if washed in cold water.
This, in turn, can cause a lot of problems later on, and ripping the seams on silk is something you really don’t want to (more about that later). In any case, to avoid trouble, just wash and dry your silk before you use it. This will also prevent watermarks when steam pressing the silk.
Another thing you might want to do is test any fabric pens or markers that you are using. Some markers, such as regular tailor’s chalk, can leave stains on the fabric. To avoid discovering your newly-sewn garment is stained, go ahead and test any marker you want to use on a small piece of fabric before you wash it. This way you’ll know whether it is safe to use it or not. If not, you can alter your strategy while you are still on time!
2. Cutting Silk
In essence, anything you want to do with silk will require great care. This is true also when it comes to cutting the fabric. Silk is almost always lightweight and often slippery, which means cutting the fabric precisely can be tricky too. Our advice is to never try to wing it, no matter how confident you feel. One strategy is to use pattern weights and a rotary cutter to achieve a precise cut. Use a fresh, clean plate on your cutter for best results.
Another option is to use a fabric stiffener to make the fabric more rigid, but this doesn’t always work with silk. The fabric stiffener could leave marks on the fabric, so always test it beforehand if you think that might work.
Finally, there is a third option for those who don’t want to invest in any of these fancy accessories like rotary cutters and fabric stiffeners. This strategy involves placing the silk between two layers of paper sheets or some cheaper fabric. This way, you can stabilize the silk and prevent it from slipping around. Then, just cut all 3 layers together. What can make cutting silk in this way a bit easier is using serrated shears, as they will allow you to get a better grip on the fabric.
3. Be Careful With Pins and Needles
There is another annoying characteristic of tightly woven, smooth silk fabric – almost anything can leave a permanent mark on it. This also includes pins and needles. When you pull a needle through the fabric, a tiny hole can remain visible, which can ruin the perfect look of whatever you are making. This is why ripping the seams on anything made from silk can be a bad idea – the marks will remain. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t ever use pins on silk, you just have to be careful. Use only very sharp pins or pins made for silk specifically.
When working with slippery silk, hand-basting is usually a better strategy than using an excessive amount of pins. However, you need to be careful with this too. Always use a very sharp, thin needle and thin thread.
4. Choose Your Seams Carefully
There is yet another tricky characteristic of silk (this is the final one, we promise!) – it tends to fray easily. For this reason, we recommend not leaving any edges unfinished on your pattern pieces. If you have a serger, then use that to finish the edges with an overlock stitch. If not, you can try using a regular zigzag stitch or a tricot stitch on your machine. However, there is yet another thing to keep in mind here! Sometimes the serger stitches can show through the silk fabric after washing or ironing. For this reason, you’ll want to use only fairly fine thread.
Once you’ve figured out how to deal with the edges, it’s time to move on to the proper seams you will use. Always make sure to adjust the stitch length to fit the fine silk fabric. The required stitch length will vary according to the fabric, but it is usually below 2mm.
One of the most common stitches used with silk are the French seams. This type of seam is very neat and makes the allowances invisible. Finishing with a Hong Kong seam is another way to add a personal touch to silk garments, but it doesn’t work with everything either. Finally, a flat-felled seam is also always an option as well as a faux flat-felled seam.
As you have seen, working with silk can be tricky. There are many things that make silk more difficult to work with than some other fabrics, but in the end, it all comes down to patience and preparation. With silk, it is always a good idea to test everything you want to do first on a small piece of fabric. Go ahead and try out any seams that you want to do, test if the stitch length is right, and check out the result. Working with a piece of scrap fabric first can save you a lot of stress and turn the experience into a fun experiment.