Silk is a gorgeous fabric but sometimes you stop considering it so, when you start sewing with it. The uneven cut edges, thread snags, the needle plate eating the fabric, wavy edges, pins leaving holes, uneven unattractive hems. This beautiful fabric can soon become your most dreaded fabric for sewing.
Recently I was sewing a traditional dress for my daughter for a school function. You will know what pressure is, when you sew for finicky young girls and that too the night before you want it done, without extra fabric to make a spare.
I had all the problems you can imagine with sewing silk and had some sort of feeling in my chest which I googled and found it is called palpitation.
I could have saved a lot of those ‘palpitations’ by taking some precautions. If the following problems are sorted out, this out-of-this-world fabric can still be the most wonderous fabric you can ever find to make your clothes from
Tips for Sewing silk successfully
What I would do differently next time when sewing silk
Problem 1. Are all silks the same?
There are different levels of thickness/handle in silk fabrics. You have to recognise this first before starting any sewing. For example silk charmeuse is a lightweight silk and will call for a different way to sew than a heavy silk like silk dupioni. China silk is a slippery silk and you have to careful when sewing this. Silk velvet is also very fluid and slippery. Silk organza is lightweight and sheer. Silk crepe de china is a beautiful textured silk which is also great for dressmaking. It is also fluid and drapey.
The most favourite silk fabrics for dressmaking are silk dupioni, silk habotai, silk chiffon, silk georgette, silk charmeuse and silk organza. Check out all about the different silk fabric types
Problem 2. How do I prepare the silk fabric for sewing?
Every sewing tutorial says to prewash all fabric before sewing them. So what to do about dry clean only silk?. Well, silk also needs to be prewashed.
Dry clean the fabric like you would the final garment. If you are would like a diy remedy to dry cleaning use a baby shampoo and hand wash in cool water (test a small piece first). Check out the post on washing and caring for silk.
Then lay it out flat to dry without wringing it. Just before it is completely dry use a medium hot iron to press out the wrinkles. (Use a press cloth to press) Now your silk is ready to be cut and sewn. Prewash lining material as well if you intend to use it.
But for that beautiful finishing, you find in store-bought silk clothes, do not prewash. But when calculating yardage as well as fit, expect as much as 3% shrinkage.
Problem 3. The fabric slips when I cut or it is an uneven mess
I would use the sharpest scissors I can get. Then I would take long cuts.If it is a small pattern piece interfacing would give it some weight as you cut
Lay silk in a single layer and that too on a surface which is not slippery- a cotton fabric surface would do. I would not cut the silk fabric in many layers unless I am a pro. I would cut only single layers. Make the patterns so, not on the fold. When I try to cut two layers or more of slippery silk the down layers always shifts and cuts differently than the first.
For cutting big silk pattern pieces, if the silk is thin, I would put paper under it while cutting to give some weight. Some suggest sandwiching silk fabric between papers and I found it a very good idea. Just pin along the very edges to keep them in place.
One problem with this method is that the paper may dull the scissors – well, when one problem goes away another pops up.You can always sharpen the scissors pronto
Some silk fabrics have a very soft very delicate surface (like silk charmeuse); The surface can get snagged and damaged if they are not washed properly. Treat these fabrics delicately.
Problem 4. Basting the silk fabric creates pin marks
Use very sharp thin pins for silks (reserve them for delicate smooth fabrics so they never dull). This will prevent the pin marks and thread snags on silk
If possible I would never pin the fabric in visible areas ie I would pin only on the seam allowance.
Problem 5. My beautiful fabric has stains after sewing with it
A wipe of the sewing machine before sewing silk is necessary to make sure that there are no lint or sewing machine oil or dirt. This way your precious fabric is not stained. Keep your hands clean and dry as well. If you have sweaty hands keep a towel ready at hand
Water also leaves spots on silk. You will have to use a dry cloth on the back of the silk fabric and top it with a slightly wet pressing cloth before pressing silk – this will ensure that you get only enough water on silk, not too much to leave water spots.
Problem 6. What thread and sewing machine needle should I use to sew silk?
Which thread to use with silk? – I would use a polyester thread or cotton thread or a poly cotton thread depending on the type of silk fabrics. For 100% silk I would use cotton thread, because they are almost of same strength. You can also use cotton embroidery thread. A polyester thread may cause puckers.But for blended silk I will use the polyester thread or cotton poly thread as this is slightly tougher.
As for needles, use thin Microtex needles (Sharps) in size 60/8, 65/9 for thin silk; size 70/10 for medium weight silk. Microtex needles are Fine needles with a slim sharp point. You can use universal needles with medium weight silks.
Hand sewing of silk can be done with silk thread or hand embroidery thread. Use thin needles for hand sewing (size 10)
If I am attaching sequins or beads I would definitely interface the area behind. The thin delicate fabric will start to come apart due to the added strain.
Problem 7. Sewing seams on silk – Stitch length etc.
For sewing seams on thin delicate silk you may test a stitch length of 1.5 – 2; For me 1.5 was good for thin silk. But for thicker silks like silk dupioni use the regular stitch length of 2 or 2.5.
If you have cut silk on the bias or you have a stretchy silk on your hands use a very narrow zigzag stitch – stitch length 2 and 1.5 width
Instead of back stitching when you start sewing reduce the stitch length to 0 and stitch and then increase the stitch length
Use a straight stitching presser foot with straight stitch needle plate for straight stitching instead of the universal presser foot.
Problem 8. The presser foot doesn’t move on silk
I would use a teflon foot or plastic presser foot for sewing silk; this seems to do the trick for me for this kind of slippery fabrics
Another method is to increase the tension a little ( Sometimes this maynot work as increased tension can cause puckering)
Problem 9. The needle plate sucks the silk fabric inside as I sew
Use a straight stitch needle plate for regular seam stitching; unless you want the zig-zag stitch.
Another way is to interface silk fabric on the seam line ; you can keep tissue paper on top or underneath as you stitch and remove after stitching is done.
Keep a hold on to fabric as you sew; Hold the thread ( both top thread and the bobbin thread) to the back as you start to sew.
Problem 10. Unraveling of fabric edges makes the inside look messy
The question is “How do you keep silk from fraying?” – You should always finish the inside of the dress as much as the outside for a professional finish to your homemade garments. Check out the 15 dressmaking tips that can change the look of your handmade clothes
Silk frays a lot. If it is sheer and the seam is visible from the outside use a french seam. Check out the post on the french seam for more details.
A serged finish or a zig zag stitched finish is used for regular seams. If you are more finicky about the finish on the inside you can try a bound finish for the edges. Use bias strips of the silk fabric for binding the seam allowance. The inside will look as good as the outside just like they do on couture clothes.
You can add twill tape if you want added strength to the seam allowance.
Problem 11. What interfacing and lining should I use with silk
Interfacing should be Lighter than the fabric or of the sae weight. The self-same fabric (the same fabric for the garment) is the best interfacing you can use with delicate silk; it will behave as if you are not using one at all , but will give all the advantage of using one. You can also use cotton batiste (prewashed) if you have a medium weight silk fabric like silk dupioni.
If you want a crisp feel use silk organza as the interfacing. Silk organza is strong yet sheer. Polyester organza also can give you a needed stiffness.
When using fusible interfacing you cannot use the regular one you use with other fabric for thin silk fabrics. It will look puckered. Check if the store where you buy sewing supplies have silk weight interfacing. You can use Acrylic backing for sewing upholstery or even better a knit backing. For some projects in home decor you can even use paper as a backing.
As for lining cotton batiste or silk organza are the popular choices for silk garments.
Problem 12. I am confused as to what hem to use on my silk garment
Wide hems need to be treated very carefully. Do hand basting and then a stretchy blind hem ( hand sewn is preferred) will work.
A narrow hem is easier like a rolled hem. Use the hemmer foot for this.
Problem 13. Best way to finish neckline and armholes
You can bind the edges (neckline edge /armhole edge if sleeveless) with bias binding tape instead of using facing.
Problem 14. I have water spots on the silk
You would have used a spray starch or even the steam on your iron. Silk stains easily. I would dampen a cloth and go over the fabric to be ironed all over with it, and then iron. This is better than spraying with steam.
Problem 15. How do I press silk without damaging it?
100% silk can take some heat but if you have a blended silk be very careful with the heat.Test before you apply hot iron on silk.
One problem with silk is you get a shiny look when pressed directly with iron. Iron from the wrong side or use a pressing cloth and your silk fabric will be alright.