Silk is the queen of all fabrics. And like any monarch, it tends to be both worshiped and feared. Silk's reputation as a difficult fabric isn't unfounded. It can be tricky to cut, stains easily and has a maddening tendency to fray.
But if you understand silk's challenges going in — and have a few pro tricks up your sleeve — you can easily master this fabric (rather than the other way around).
Get ready to up your fabric game!
1. First Things First: Prewash
Water and silk were once sworn enemies (making pressing, especially with steam, a real challenge). These days, though, many silk fabrics are washable. And as wonky as it may sound, the best way to prevent water marks is to wash the silk before you begin working with it.
While washing can slightly change the finish of some silks, I prefer that to living in fear of the slightest splash or paying for dry cleaning.
2. Use Weights and a Rotary Cutter
Silk can be a moving target. To keep your fabric from slipping and sliding all over the cutting board, use pattern weights to hold it down securely while you cut. Using a rotary cutter with a fresh blade will also help keep your fabric from shifting.
If you don't have a rotary cutter, your next best option is micro-serrated shears. Unlike the blades on regular dressmaker shears, the serrated blades grip the fabric and prevent it from slip-sliding away.
3. Pre-Test Fabric Pens
Be careful: Some fabric pens can bleed on or stain silk. Try out your pen on a scrap before using it on the real deal.
Tailor's chalk can also spell trouble — pressing will melt away the color, but may leave a stain in its place. Consider using tailor's tacks or, for marks that will be concealed in seam allowances, a well-sharpened pencil.
4. Avoid Permanent Pinholes
Those little holes made by pins and needles never disappear in some silks, like shantung, To avoid them, use silk pins and extra- or ultra-fine glass head pins; these will glide smoothly through the fabric, preventing any snags, and are less likely to leave behind any evidence they were there.
Since ripping out a seam will leave marks, make sure the fit is right before you cut out the first pattern piece. You might even want to hand-baste seams in place using silk thread to check the fit before you do your final stitching.
5. Check Your Machine
Do a test run by stitching on a scrap of the silk fabric to check the tension, needle quality and stitch length. If your machine skips stitches or the needle snags the fabric, a new needle is in order. Or, do what I do: Start with a fresh new #60 or #70 needle from the get-go.
6. Press Carefully
Ironing silk fabrics takes a bit of patience. Since some silks can't handle steam, always do a test first. With many fine silks, like dupioni and shantung, pressed creases can be difficult to fix. To avoid making any permanent pressing mistakes, use a piece of silk organza as a pressing cloth; it will protect the fabric and (since it's sheer) allow you to see what you're doing and avoid missteps.
7. Avoid the Fray
Silk fabric has a tendency to fray — a lot! To save your silk (and your sanity) do everything you can to stop fraying as soon as the pattern pieces are cut. If you have a serger, overcast all the raw edges of each pattern piece before you start assembling them.
No serger? No problem. Do what I do with most sheer or very lightweight fabrics: Fuse narrow strips of fusible interfacing (⅛ -to-¼ inches wide) along all the edges of each pattern piece. Yes, it's a time suck, but it's worth it. Tons of fraying can really reduce your seam allowances.
8. Finish or Hide Your Seams
Because many silks are lightweight (and tend to fray; see above), pay special attention to your seams. For an unlined garment, consider using French, Hong Kong, flat or faux fell seams, or finish the seams with a good overcast stitch.
You definitely need to respect your silk and treat it like a queen — but if you do you will be royally rewarded!