When you’re using raw silks for your creations, particularly thick ones, they can be a nightmare to cut out. They fray dreadfully and it’s hard to prevent them from unravelling over your sew lines before you’ve even got them pinned! It’s hugely wasteful and if you know anything about me and zero waste, you’ll know how much it annoys me!
Many people think you require very thin sharps or quilting needles when sewing silk. This makes sense – they slip through the threads of the silk more easily. However, what you might find works better is a ball point needle. They are actually designed for knit fabrics, but the idea is that the ball point causes the needle to push the threads aside rather than break them. It works exactly the same with the silk fibres – pushing them aside rather than breaking them and creating holes.
One further point before you start sewing: the presser foot. You can use a normal presser foot, but if you find that your fabric is not feeding well try one with a smooth underside or a walking presser foot that will glide over the fabric and feed your silk through. You can also use a piece of tissue paper, if you find that your presser foot is leaving marks or your fabric is still not gliding well through the machine – it’s very easy to tear off once you’re finished.
How To Avoid Fabrics Unravelling When You Cut & Handle Them
1. Basting (aka Thread Tracing or Loop Tacking) and Zig Zag Stitching or Overlocking
Use a basting stitch to mark out your patterns’ cut lines on your fabric (not your sew lines). Then sew a zig zag stitch just inside this basting stitch before you cut it out, and you’ll find that all the threads hold into place much more easily. If you have to cut doubles (like pillow cases or sleeves for example) loop-baste stitching both fabrics together and cutting them out at the same time is recommended. This basting, or thread tracing, while a bit tedious, ensures that both pieces will be stayed and cut the same. I wouldn’t recommend just tracing, as the lines may mark the silk (I elaborate on this a little further down).
If you have one, try using an overlocker (aka serger) to get a small an edge as possible. Using a rolled edge will probably be too fine, so experiment. I find that a three-thread narrow hemmed edge works beautifully. This technique also makes joining pieces together easier, as it produces a lovely clean finish and you can cut your seam allowance a little closer to the sew lines and not lose any more fabric to unravelling. I find that my raw silk fabrics stay intact even after hand washing and ironing. If your fabric is quite thick you might find the overlocking keeps slipping off the fabric, in which case you will need an alternate option!
Tip: Never overlock straight into an uncut fabric! It might seem like a cheekily good way to avoid dealing with unravelling edges, but I would not recommend it. Firstly, it will stretch the fabric around the edges, particularly around any curves, distorting the fit of the final creation. Secondly, when the yarns in the weave are really thick, the serging has a tendency to slip off the edge of the fabric. Thirdly, yarns will be more likely to jam up the blades on the machine, snag or pull and distort the edges. So when it comes to using an overlocker on silk, cut the fabric out 5 millimetres away from the cut line, and use the overlocker to trim this down as you go around. BE QUICK & CAREFUL, as this only leaves you with a few millimetres for your fabric to begin unravelling.
2. Fray Check
This is a little bit of a cheat move – but who has the time to baste these days? Pin the pattern securely to the laid out fabric. Trace all the way around with Fray Check or a similar soluble stabiliser, just outside the cutting line. After it’s dried, cut out the pieces. Finally, overlock (serge) it off.
3. Interface It
A high-end, lightweight, iron-on interfacing will secure the threads and may guard a little against snagging when the garment is worn. Test on a small piece to make sure your silk doesn’t react badly to the heat. You may also find that you don’t like the drape with additional interfacing.
An alternative is to interface just where your seam allowance is. This is my favourite method.
- Draw your pattern onto your laid out fabric.
- Draw your pattern onto your interfacing (remember to lay it the opposite ways, so that the glue sticks to the wrong side of your fabric).
- On your interfacing, cut either side of this line (approx 1-2cm), to create the perfect shape outlines of your pattern pieces. Tip: Try to cut in a wavy line, not a dead straight line, to avoid any sharp interfacing lines showing on the front side of your fabrics.
- Iron the cut out interfacing shapes directly onto the cut lines you drew onto your fabric initially – be sure you can still see your cut line through the interfacing or retrace the pattern onto the stuck interfacing.
- Cut out the pieces as normal. The interfacing will stop the fabric edges from unravelling.
This is the most accurate way to interface cut lines, but it does leave a lot of excess interfacing from the centre of the pattern pieces.
- A slightly different method is to simply cut two centimetre strips of interfacing and apply in the same method as above – but be extra careful how you lay these strips on that they don’t pull your fabric pieces in a strange direction. Again, try and cut the stripes in a wavy shape.
Finishing Touches On Loose Weave Fabrics
If you’re like me, and hate the sight of overlocking then I would recommend binding. If your fabric doesn’t unravel too drastically, then you could just bind it. It will be much less bulky than overlocking or interfacing. If the fabric is incredibly delicate, then you may need to carry out one of the above methods and then bind the edges. Always bind edges before sewing the pieces together. It is much easier to manage individual sections for a more accurate result, rather than wrestling with an entire finished creation!
If you have a very loose and unstable fabric, I’d avoid bound buttonholes. If you’re working with something not too thick and more manageable but still loosely woven, using really short machine stitches (0.5mm or less) to sew the welts of the buttonholes will give a secure result. A dash of fusible interfacing would also work wonders here – fuse the area where the buttonholes are (try this woven interfacing) before you begin.
On thinner slippery fabric, such as charmeuse, I would suggest sandwiching the fabric between two layers of clear wash away stabilizer such as Solvy. The stabilizer pulls away right at the stitching, so it doesn’t show. It will also work well with any stitching on the right side of the fabric. For seams sewn with right sides together, since it is slippery fabric, pinning the edges together with a strip of tissue paper in between helps.
Marking Your Silk Tips:
Fabric markers and chalk can sometimes be hard to remove from silk. Make sure you do test marks on a scrap piece of the fabric and try to remove it before making any marks on your actual cut pieces. If there’s a problem, try the tailor tacks method (Number 1. Running a doubled length of thread through the fabric at notches, dots and other marks). Or you can mark pattern notches by making a tiny snip within the seamline.