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What is Silk Fabric?

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What is silk fabric? Here’s what you need to know about silk fabric including how it’s made and how to sew with it!

Silk is a shiny, luxurious, naturally occurring fiber that is sourced from insects. Silk usually comes from silkworms and has been used in textiles for thousands of years, though the average person knows little about the silk-making process or the true origins of where silk comes from. What’s silk made from and how can you use it? You’re in the right place to find out!


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How is Silk Fabric Made?

Traditional silk is made from fiber produced by insects to create protective coverings like cocoons. The fibers are actually formed by protein in the strands of saliva they use to coat themselves in a cocoon to undergo the metamorphosis process and become moths.

The practice of harvesting cocoons to create silk is called sericulture. Cocoons are harvested, boiled, and then removed from the carcass of the silkworm before they are stretched, brushed, and spun into silk threads. It takes up to 5,000 cocoons to create one yard of fabric, which is why it’s pretty pricey as far as fabrics go.

Properties of Silk Fabric

Breathable

Like most other natural-fiber fabrics, silk is breathable and naturally allows for air to pass through. It’s also hydrophobic and wicks moisture away from the body.

Anti-Friction

Silk is popular in the beauty industry because it doesn’t promote friction and cause frizz or irritate skin.

Strong & Durable

Silk is an extremely strong fiber, even more so than cotton, which may be surprising due to how lightweight and delicate it is. 

Types of Silk

Pure Natural Silks

Mulberry silk from mulberry silkworms (named for their diet of mulberry leaves) accounts for the majority of silk used today–about 90% of commercial silk comes from this kind of worm.

Other, lesser-known kinds of silk include Eri, Tasar, and Muga silk. These come from different kinds of silkworms and combined make up the remaining 10% of silk production, mainly in India, China, Indonesia and Japan.

Blends

To adapt to different uses (and lower the cost) silk is often blended with other natural and synthetic fabrics to create silk blends and satins. Silk is often blended with polyester, cotton, linen, and wool.

Vegan Silk Alternatives

There are a lot of fabrics on the market that are advertised as vegan silk alternatives. Options range from sustainable, natural silk imitations like cupro, spider silk, cotton sateen and lotus silk to synthetics. These are usually polyester-based fabrics that have a similar look to silk but don’t share other characteristics like breathability. They’re usually much cheaper than silk, so if you see “silk” advertised at an unbelievably low price, you’re likely buying a blend or silk imitation fabric.

If you can’t find information on a fabric’s contents but suspect it might not be 100% silk, you can try a few tricks to spot the differences between pure silk and a polyester imposter:

  • Natural silk’s shine changes colors in the light, polyester retains a consistent white shine no matter the angle of the lighting.
  • Silk wrinkles easily and polyester is wrinkle-resistant.
  • Close inspection of silk weave will probably reveal tiny imperfections, polyester will have a perfectly uniform weave.
  • Silk emits warmth when it’s rubbed, polyester doesn’t.
  • Try the burn test: using a small lighter on a scrap or corner you won’t be using, quickly hold the flame to the edge of the fiber (or a few threads taken from the fabric). If it melts, it’s a synthetic blend and not pure silk. If it smells like burning hair, produces black ash, and stops burning when the flame is removed from the fabric, it’s the real deal. Definitely don’t try this one at the craft store, though.

Satin vs Silk

There’s sometimes some confusion regarding the differences between silk and satin. Are they the same? What’s the difference?

The truth is that although they are similar in appearance, they are not the same thing. The biggest difference is that silk is a fully natural fiber and satin can be made from a number of different natural and synthetic fibers, often a blend of the two. Silk is also shiny on both sides of the fabric, whereas satin is only shiny on one side and dull on the other.

Because of the nature of satin, it’s often far less expensive than silk (aside from some high end silk-blended satins).

What Can You Make With Silk Fabric?

Silk is used most often for clothing like tops, dresses, skirts, and pants. It’s also popular in hair accessories, pillowcases and sheets because it’s soft and helps reduce friction between hair fibers and skin. Silk is also used to make linings in fine garments, bags, and luggage, as well as furniture upholstery.

Silk also makes fine ribbon and is useful in all kinds of crafts where you want a shiny, smooth, lustrous fabric finish.

Tips for Sewing With Silk Fabric

Use fine needles so you don’t leave permanent holes

Silk is an incredibly delicate material and any punctures from needles, pins, or other sharp objects can leave permanent, noticeable holes in the fabric. This is why it’s important to use the smallest, sharpest needles as sparingly as you can.

Do scrap testing FIRST

If you need to experiment with stitching, marking, or heat, try it on scrap before using it on the actual project. Silk is not cheap and it’s easy to cause permanent damage or markings, so run tests on scrap first.

Be careful with heat

Silk can burn at high temperatures and the fibers will become brittle and discolor if exposed to enough heat. Use the lowest temperature on your iron or the silk setting if it has one when pressing seams and folds.

Finish every edge

Silk can fray very easily. Serging raw edges before putting panels together will save you from having to start over with a new piece of silk, especially if it’s been pre-washed. Using pinking shears when cutting out your patterns will also help reduce fraying potential before you can truly finish the edges.

Prewash your silk

Pre-washing silk reduces the chance it will shrink significantly after you finish. Shrinkage could affect the draping and fit after being washed or even throughout the construction process. 

Cut carefully

Silk is notoriously slippery to work with. Laying flat on a non-slip surface and using a rotary cutter will help you achieve perfect patterns and reduce the possibility of making mistakes that could compromise your project.

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