Sewing Circle with guest expert: About sewing on SILK

I got a great question from one of you readers the other day-- Jenny asked, in a comment on this How to Wear DIY post about a silk top makeover:

Q: Could you give us some tips on sewing with silk? It seems like such a finicky fabric!

Great idea, Jenny!  So, to answer that question best, I turned to my expert sewing resource (some of you may have these, too), my mom.  Not only has she been sewing for zillions of years and sewing for other people professionally for 20, she has a business making historic clothing for reenactors, museums, historic sites, etc. and only uses natural fibers in all her garments for authenticity.  She works with silk a heckuva lot!

In fact, just because we just got some photos back from a benefit fashion show we did... want to see some pics of my mom's creations, in three different kinds of silk?  Tangent coming up here:

Here I am in an 1889 ballgown replica inspired by a Morisot painting:
(P.S. I made the self-fabric flowers myself, using this tutorial)

And here's my cousin and her daughter in silk dresses--the pale green is a lightweight silk jacquard in a late 1890's visiting dress, and the little blue number is an 1880's party dress in silk taffeta!  Aaaaw...
All photos by Jennie Baker Photography
Anyway, enough of that pretty little tangential story... the point is, my mom knows her silk.  And it's one of her favorite fabrics!  So, what did she say when I asked her for tips on sewing on silk?  Here goes, her years of knowledge of fine fabrics passed on to you!

A: (By Kay Demlow, of Lavender's Green Historic Clothing)

Silk, OK.

  • First off, note how strong silk fibers are.  This means you need your scissors to be nice and sharp.
  • Use a special needle… most importantly, a very small needle, although a ball point on smooth silks can be better because it pushes aside the fibers rather than try to cut through them. Threads Magazine has done many how-tos on this over the years, and these tips from CraftStylish at Taunton Press may help you out picking your needle.
  • Static electricity could be a problem in a dry, heated house. If that’s the case I would suggest a humidifier or something to increase the humidity. But, of course, that would apply to synthetics, too.
  • The biggest issue is the way some silks react with water! You should test a small piece with the steam iron, drops of water, and even laundry soap before starting the project. Silk is notorious for water spotting, and the damage is permanent. If you're steam pressing, you want to be very sure the iron is reliable and won’t “spit.” Plan to use a dry iron if necessary, or a press cloth when pressing.
  • Pins should be super-sharp, too. You can buy special pins called “silk pins.” They will go through the fabric easily because they are fine and sharp.
  • Use a good quality thread. A good grade of polyester thread will have to do (I recommend Gutermann or better, not Coats & Clark).
  • There’s also the problem of stitches leaving marks when you change a seam. Test the fabric first. With some silks, it’s no problem. Others will have a line of holes. Same goes for pressing. On many silks, a crease from pressing a seam will still show even after you re-sew the seam and press again.

So, overall, take your time, use good, sharps tools, and try to make the seams right the first time.

Thanks, mom!!

I'm sure plenty of you have tips, stories, or more questions for working with silk.  Please, share in the comments!

9 comments

  1. oh my gosh! I want the little girls blue party dress! It is 100% beyond awesome!! Also, my sewing guru is my mom too, it's always nice when thats the case. :-) Tell your mom thanks, these are great tips!!

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  2. Thank you for the tips!

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  3. very very beautifull!!!

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  4. Between the stitch marks issue and the creasing issue, I always do a mock garment first before cutting silk. That way, I can do any re-fitting on a more forgiving (and less spendy/scary) fabric.

    Once you get the garment finished though, you will be surprised how light and durable it is.

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  5. wonderful post, I like you style!
    Take a look at my blog, and if you like it follow me, I’ll be waiting for you!

    Cosa mi metto???

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  6. first of all, i love your blog. it is so inspiring for someone like me who is into design and dressmaking.
    second of all, i love silk! it just feels and looks luxurious, and eco-chic.
    third, yes it is a very difficult fabric to work with because you need to have a sure hand in cutting and sewing it. I suggest you do patterns on paper first, or try cutting the design on muslin or cotton or even those cheap rayon or polyester fabrics to avoid wasting the silk fabric. It does react to water and moisture so I suggest you put it in a box for fabrics and hang your material for a day before cutting it.
    Enjoy silk dressmaking!

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  7. Wow this dress is awesome ^^

    XX
    Sabrina

    http://7hundert.blogspot.com/

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  8. you are very talented and must be getting contracts for theatre and tv.

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  9. hi, thank you for these useful tips! silk needs attention, that's for sure.

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