Silk is a premium fibre and a luxury fabric for garments and soft furnishings. The fact that we can buy metres of it and make our own beautiful, luxe products can be a huge money-saver. Unfortunately for us, silk can be a real pain to sew!
My last silk sewing article was suitable for fabrics prone to unraveling, like raw silk. The following tips are great for all types of silk and delicate, slippery fabrics and is a bit of an extension on my original sewing Chiffon post. As with any tip or technique, test everything on a small scrap before you dive into the whole project, to avoid any mishaps with these rather beautiful (and expensive!) fabrics.
Before You Start Working With Silk
As silks can be incredibly delicate and slippery, it can make cutting and tailoring with it quite a frustrating process. Here a few tips to treat the silk before you even begin to sew with it.
• Like most fabrics, I advise pre washing your silk. This should stop any shrinking once the fabric is washed in it’s final made-up form. Silks should usually be dry-cleaned, but a careful hand wash using a mild washing detergent and luke warm water will do the trick.
• After it is completely dried, press the silk. Always place a damp or dry cloth on the surface, to prevent the fabric from overheating and burning, or reacting badly to the heat.
Marking Out Patterns On Silk
• Pins can leave behind holes in silk, so if you must pin, do it within the seam allowance so any left-behind holes won’t be visible on the finished product.
• Fabric markers and chalk can sometimes be hard to remove from silk. Test your mark maker on a scrap of the fabric. If you can’t remove it, then use tailor tacks (run a doubled length of thread – refer to the image above- through the fabric at notches, dots and other marks) using silk thread.
Cutting Silk Fabric
• Use an extremely sharp pair of scissors or shears to cut the fabric. If your scissors are slightly blunt, you risk snagging your beautiful fabric – and what a waste that is!
• A rather marvellous invention, particularly for super slippy fabrics, are rotary cutters! If you’re using them, I’d advise sticking a whole new rotary blade in there. Rotary cutters are particularly brilliant, as they don’t require you to lift the fabric up off the table, like scissors do, which can lead to distorted cutting – believe me, it’s even worse with malleable fabrics like chiffon! Nightmare!
• If your fabric is slipping all over the table, place a bit of tissue paper underneath. You can also lay it onto carpet or a towel – just be careful not to cut into either! If you’re super worried, then sandwich the fabric between two layers of tissue paper, newsprint or craft paper – one on the top and one on the bottom. Some sewers prefer to place their fabric onto muslin, as it replicates the fabric better and also doesn’t dull your blades as paper does. This can be a little more expensive, but you do have the advantage of having a second set of pattern pieces all ready to sew up in muslin fabric! Some sewers like to use spray fabric stabilisers, but I wouldn’t recommend this as they can stain.
• While cutting a silk fabric, try and make sure you cut into a single layer. It’s tricky to cut through two layers, even for the best sewers, and often the fabric will go off grain.
How To Sew Silk
• Sew silk with cotton thread – not with silk thread. Silk thread is beautiful for thread tracing into silk, as they glide straight in and leave little to no marks. They are also beautiful to embroider with, because of their shiny, luxurious look, but they aren’t actually as strong as cotton or poly threads.
• Always try and use a new needle while working on silk. This is because it will be ultra sharp! The sharper the better and the less likely to snag your fabric. Look for a 70/10, 65/9 or 60/8 size or needles called “sharps”, “quilting” or “Microtex”.
• Use a straight stitch throat/needle plate, which ensures precise stitch formation when straight stitching and supports and guides the fabric through the machine.
• Just like the cutting method, to prevent the silk from slipping around while you sew it, pin it to tissue paper to hold it in place. As paper will blunt your needle, you will need to dispose of it afterwards. If you are still worried, layer lightweight tear-away stabiliser over and under your fabric prior to stitching. Always test that the stabiliser won’t mark your fabric beforehand.
• I’d recommend a shorter machine stitch length – try 2.0 to 2.5. And tack or stay stitch any curved or bias edges to prevent stretching and fraying.
• Always sew a test piece! This way you will know what challenges you might face ahead.
• As above, press your fabric on a super low heat and with a cloth over the top.
Finishing Silk Hems and Seams
Always finish seams to avoid unravelling.
• A French seam for incredibly fine silks is the best choice.
• For an easier option, try using a narrow, rolled hem foot. A serger will also do a rolled hem.
• For stiffer fabrics you could try overlocking or serging. Overlock all the raw edges of the cut pieces to prevent unraveling while you are working with the pieces. Don’t forget to overlock into your seam allowance (or your pieces will be a few millimetres too big all the way around).
• Finishing hems can also be a nightmare, particularly on curved seams, so here’s an amazing trick: machine stitch a line of basting (super long stitches) 1/3 of the hemming allowance, from the raw edge, all the way around your hem. Use a bright colour so you can see the basting clearly and increase the thread tension just a bit when you do this. This will measure and mark a precise line and importantly, it will form an almost perforated line, making the hem easier to fold! Simply press and turn, press and turn and hey presto! Now you can edgestitch along the fold on the inside of your skirt (don’t forget to remove the basting!) to form a perfect hem!
• If you have a seam that is likely to have a stress point (sleeves, crotch, pockets, etc), add some ‘stay tape’, a strip of interfacing, or twill tape over the seam. Another fabulous, free idea is to use the selvage from the silk fabric.
• Avoid fusible interfacings. Silk organza is a good alternative.
While these tips may sound like hard work – it will save you a huge headache in the end. And the most important tip – take your time when you’re sewing silk. Put on calm music, stop regularly for refreshment breaks and you may actually end up enjoying it!