Fabric Facts: Essential Tips for Sewing with Silk

...and other slippery fabrics!

Silk was first developed in Ancient China and the earliest forms date back 8500 years. Made from the fibres spun by moth caterpillars (most famously the mulberry silkworm) for their cocoons. Because of its texture and lustre, silk rapidly became a sought-after luxury fabric in the many areas accessible to Chinese merchants. Silk was in great demand, and became a staple of international trade. The process of making silk starts with cultivating the silkworms. Once they start pupating in their cocoons the larvae are killed, usually in boiling water, as this ensures the long individual fibres are not broken. To produce 1 kg of silk, 104 kg of mulberry leaves must be eaten by 3000 silkworms, and as a guide, it takes about 5000 silkworms to make a pure silk kimono!

However, today there are lots of alternatives to raw silk that you can consider: wild silk is made from cocoons after the caterpillar has metamorphasised. This fabric is produced on a much smaller scale, and is much less uniform in it's appearance as it is usually made from a variety of insects and the threads are broken on exit. Or there are man-made alternatives...

We have been so excited about our brand new fabric range: 100% Oeko-Tex certified bamboo ‘vegan silk’ is available at Ray Stitch and comes in a beautiful range of exclusive in-house colours. We love this fabric for it's closely woven  fibres which make it lightweight and flowing but also gives a heavy, silky drape and a beautiful satin finish. Fabulously versatile - you can use it for blouses, party dresses, night wear, day wear, scarves, pillowcases, gorgeous linings….. the possibilities are endless (and luxurious!) Our silk-like fabric has a lustrous sheen to one side and matte on the other, which can be used to create interesting contrasts in your garments.

We launched this fabric about a month ago after much testing by us - we really enjoyed making up some of our favourite patterns in silk. We have had such great feedback from our customers and we are loving seeing your finished slinky garments: you can use #raystitch to tag us on Instagram. Plus it is the perfect fabric for sewing 'Frosting' projects... see this post on the Closet Case Patterns  blog for more details on this, plus you could win some Ray Stitch silk along the way.

But working with silk and other slippery fabrics can be daunting, so we have put together some of our top tips to get you confident to tackle your next lush project. There are lots of things to remember, and working with silk is more time-consuming, so be patient and don't rush, but the results will speak for themselves!

Pre-wash: to avoid any shrinking when you first wash your finished garment. It will also help to remove any last traces of dye, and importantly, avoid any watermarks being left by the iron when you are constructing. Most silks these days will be fine in a gentle cycle in the washing machine, although you can always hand wash with a gentle detergent if you are at all concerned. Check with the retailer to make sure it is not dry clean only, and if it is then we would suggest using a pressing cloth to avoid any watermarks.

Test Your Fabric: because silk can behave so differently to other fabrics, it is wise to test everything first. Fabric pens and tailors chalk can bleed or leave permanent marks behind, so test these on an off-cut first. If in any doubt, use tailors tacks instead. Also, test out your stitches and tension on a small piece of the silk before you dive in with your machine. You will need 'Sharps' needles which are very fine and pointed to slip between the threads easily without snagging. If you will be hand-sewing make sure these needles are suitable for silk as well.

Cutting: use a spray starch to stabilise the fabric before cutting (test a small area first to make sure that you don't get any marks.) Use a rotary cutter, with a very sharp new wheel blade: scissors will lift the fabric and allow the material to slide. Make sure you cut onto a cutting mat and not your dining room table or kitchen floor!

One of the downsides to silk is that it frays. A lot! Snip off any threads on your cut edges before you lay out your pattern pieces to ensure that they don't get caught and distort your working.

Pins vs Pattern Weights: we choose to use weights as you do not need to move the fabric at all, however, if you prefer to use pins, make sure they are Silk Pins (super fine and sharp to prevent any snagging of the threads or creating holes.) Also, pinning parallel to the edge and within the seam allowance will make sure if you do get any snags they will be hidden.

Mirror your pattern pieces and cut from extra paper so that you do not have to cut any pieces on the fold. The two layers of silk will slip all over the place so cutting one layer of fabric at a time will ensure more accurate results.

Cut each pattern piece out separately, ie don't lay all your pieces out initially. Cutting individually will mean that you have more manageable sized pieces to work on.

Silky fabrics also have a tendency to warp and stretch across the grainline. To help prevent this you could tape the selvedges down against something straight (a meter ruler, the edge of your cutting matt etc)

Preparing to sew: If your fabric is very slippery it would be a good idea to consider basting all your seams in place before you sew - this is more consuming of course, but it will hold the pieces of fabric together so much better than pins will.

Sewing: Before you begin to sew you will need to choose the correct machine foot and needle for your fabric. As a general rule, silk and other lightweight fabrics will require a smaller needle such as a 60/8, 70/10 (fine silk, georgette, chiffon) or you could go up to a 80/12 for slightly heavier fabric (medium weight silk). A walking foot will help to keep the two layers of material together as you sew. These are not particularly expensive but so useful for trickier fabric or even quilting.

We would recommend using a short stitch (1.5-2mm) on silk, but make sure you test out both the stitch and the tension on a scrap before you start. Lightweight fabrics do not like backstitching (they get caught up in the machine and will cause snags) so you will need to tie off your end with a knot to secure them.

Although you can get silk thread we would not recommend using this for sewing garments (it is usually used for decorative purposes). Cotton or polyester thread will work just fine for all silky fabric.

Because silk can distort across the grainline, handle your project lightly as you work on it. Some patterns may require 'stay stitching' to stop the fabric from stretching, particularly on necklines or arm holes. Simply sew each piece of fabric individually in the seam allowance using a 1.5mm stitch length to stabilise.

As you will know by now, silk does fray! Which means that you will need to use French seams (where the unsightly cut edge is enclosed within the seam.) Not only will this make sure your garment looks good but French seams also provide more strength to weaker fabric, so it will last longer too!

Pressing: Use a low setting on your iron to be on the safe side. Water will mark your silk, and so will any dreaded limescale splurts, so always use a pressing cloth and whenever possible, press on the wrong side of the fabric. Silk organza is a great pressing cloth because it's see-through (you can check you are not pressing creases into the fabric) and being a natural fibre it can take a lot of heat.

Left: The Kalle Shirt by Closet Case, Right: the Bridgetown Backless Dress by Sew House Seven


We hope that these tips will give you the confidence to tackle sewing with silky fabrics, but we are always keen to hear of any other tricks and tips that you might have so please leave a comment here or on our social media channels. We have put together a sample swatch pack of our Bamboo Silk in all the colours so you can check drape and feel for yourself before committing to a bigger purchase, plus we are always happy to give advice and help for any project at any level, so pop in or give us a shout!