Silk

Amethyst silk charmeuse (Courtesy of fashionistafabrics.com)Description : Silk is lustrous, strong, absorbent and has excellent draping properties, however, it can be damaged by either heat or water. It is one of the most comfortable forms of fabric to wear. Silk fibres reflect the light because their cross-sections are triangular, hence offering many surfaces for reflection. They can absorb up to 50% of their weight in water without feeling moist when touched. Silks are resistant to accumulating dirt. However, silk reacts badly to sweat stains, becoming breakable in affected areas. Likewise prolonged exposure to sunlight also weakens silk, and both light and excessive heat will cause them to yellow. Silk is one of the strongest natural fibres, but loses up to 20% of its strength when wet.
Silk Cocoon (Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)Fabrication : Silk fibres are generally extracted by unraveling the cocoons of larvae. Most silk production (called sericulture) is obtained from the mulberry silkworm raised in captivity. Other caterpillar species found in the wild may also be used, however. Silk fibres are typically about 1000 m. long, but can range up to 2000 m. The unraveled thread is surrounded by a gummy substance called sericin - this is what holds the threads together to make the cocoon. The sericin must be removed by washing the unwound thread, generally in an oil and soap bath. Better quality silks have less sericin while cheaper silks still have quite a lot. Removing the sericin reduces the weight of silk fabric by up to 25%.
Subtypes : Tussah or wild silk is produced from several different species of silkworm, and the quality of the silk is coarser and more irregular, as no sericin is removed. These silkworms are usually raised on oak leaves, not mulberry leaves. Oak leaves are a coarser food, and the result is a coarser, more irregular thread, tan in color rather than the white of mulberry silk thread. Tussah fabrics include shantung, raw silk or silk noil, muga and pongee. These are fabrics with a coarse, irregular ribbed surface. The fabric washes well, but shrinks badly. Spun silk is the result of combing and spinning the waste silk generated from the original extraction process. Dozens of varieties of silk fabric can be found.
Dyes, color treatment and washing characteristics : Silks should, in general, be dry cleaned rather than washed. Cultivated silks both readily take up dyes and readily release them too. In addition, unwashed silk may shrink up to 8% over time, and dry cleaning may shrink silk 4%. Silk should therefore be pre-washed or dry cleaned before use in garment construction - this is especially true of wild silks. If washing is necessary, they should be hand washed with soaps for delicate fabrics, and should not be rubbed, brushed or twisted to get rid of moisture. A few drops of vinegar in the final wash will help bring out their color. Silk garments should be dried by laying them flat on a towel, or rolling them within a towel.
Draping properties : Silks range in properties from light weight and supple to heavy and fairly rigid. Most silks have excellent drape, although some can be crisp and bouffant. It does not pill, soil or wrinkle easily.
Cutting properties : Most silks can be easily damaged through pinning, seam ripping and machine stitching. They should be pinned with very fine pins within the seam allowance. One should avoid most marking methods for silk, as chalk, marking pens and even tracing paper can leave a permanent or oily mark. Silks can also be damaged by improper pressing with a too hot iron. When pressing the right side, always use a pressing cloth. Some silks are also very slippery, requiring extra care during cutting. Slippery or lightweight silks can be laid out on a flannel fabric to prevent them from moving about so much. Bulky and thick silk fabrics should be spread in a single layer for cutting.
Sewing challenges : To avoid damaging the fabric, baste stitch with soft cotton basting thread and use a very fine needle, except on the heaviest silk fabrics. Use quality interfacings, including self fabric, silk organza, silk georgette, marquisette, tulle, cotton organdy and muslin. Use silk or rayon for linings - avoid synthetic fabrics. To prevent slippery or lightweight silks from sliding around on the sewing table while working, cover the table (underneath the sewing machine) with clean sheet or pillowcase.
Example creations : Pyjamas, Jersey, Hand dyed dress, Silk slip, Bias skirt, Casual skirt, Ruffle shirt, Kimono, Cocktail dress, Pleated jacket,
Uses worldwide : Silk fibre is used in the following fabrics - brocade; chiffon; China silk; ciré; crêpe-backed satin; crêpe de chine; doupion; duchesse satin; faille; georgette; organza; ottoman; peau de soie; raw silk; silk noil; satin; satin-backed crêpe; shantung; taffeta; Thai silk; and tulle. Because the source of silk are rare caterpillars, the quantity of silk available is limited - no more than 2% of the world's fabric is in the form of silk.
Silkworm (Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)Origins and history : Legend has it that the production of silk fabric from the silkworm's thread was discovered by the Chinese empress Si-Ling-Chi around 2640 B.C. The legend suggests that the thread's properties were discovered when a cocoon fell into a cup of tea. When removed, the cocoon partially unravelled, revealing the presence of a continuous and strong thread. Whether true or not, silk fabric became one of the main explorts of China over centuries, and the means of production was kept a closely guarded secret. It wasn't until about 300 A.D. that the secret travelled to Korea and Japan. The preference for dry-cleaning silk fabrics today also bears some explanation, given the long history of the fabric before the invention of dry-cleaning. Silk garments were often worn as overgarments by individuals who did little work in areas likely to soil their clothes. As such, the fabrics did not come in contact with body oils as much as do modern garments. Many were not washed at all, or when they were washed, the clothes were dismantled into pieces (before the use of machine sewing, this was easier to do).
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