Part 12: Silk


I found myself unsure of some silk terms, so I went to the library.  The topics covered are, in order: What it is, History, Definitions, Fabric terms & types, Care, Silk for home sewing use.

Most, but not all, of this information is taken from The Silkworker's Notebook by Cheryl Kolander.

What it is:
Silk is made from the unwound cocoons of a particular group of moths; the finer grades are harvested before the moth emerges (ie, the moths are killed).  When it emerges, it eats through one end of the cocoon, cutting most of the fibers in to much shorter lengths.  Most silk is cultivated, and produces a very fine white product.  Other silk is "wild" and produces a shades-of-beige product. Silk can be made from certain varieties of spider cocoons, but they are much more difficult to farm than the silkworm moth cocoon.  In recent years, improvements have been made in sericulture (silkworm raising) and thus silk is much less expensive than it used to be.

The oldest silks found are from China, dated to 1500 BC, although the word for silk in Chinese is known to be older than that.  In China during the Han Dynasty (200 BC -200 AD) silk was part of a soldier's standard wages. The establishment of the Silk Road sometime between 140-60 BC marks the beginning of silk use in the West.  It was still rather rare, but when the Crusaders began returning from the mideast with silk, demand developed and better trade routes to Europe were established.

Venice, Lucca and Florence became renowed centers of silk weaving starting in the fourteenth century.  These cities specialized in heavy brocades and patterned velvets, which were exported to the whole of northern Europe.


Raw Silk:  Silk fiber as it comes from the cocoon is coated with a protective layer called silk gum, or sericin.  The silk gum is dull and stiff.  Silk with all of its gum is termed "raw silk."  It should not be confused with silk noil which is often termed "raw silk."  There are many methods of removing some, or all, of the gum.

Silk made from wild silkworms is called tussah silk.  The natural color of tussah silk is usually not white, but shades of pale beige, brown, and grey.  It is usually coarser than cultivated silk.

Reeled silk or Thrown silk is the term for silk fiber that is unwound from the silkworm cocoon.  It is the most fine of the silks; the fibers are very long, shiny and of great strength.

Spun silk is several fibers of silk spun into narrow threads, often from the broken cocoons from which the moths have already emerged.

Noil is the term for the shorter fibers of silk left after the longer silk fibers have been combed out or reeled off the cocoon.  These are 1" or shorter bits of fiber, and often include little tangled fibrous knots, as well as black flecks of the former chrysalis of the moth.  There is little or no shine, and since the fibers are short, not nearly as much strength as in the thrown or longer spun silks.  However, fabric made of noil is both inexpensive and comfortable to wear.  Noil silk in clothing is a recent invention.

Fabric terms & types:
These are chosen from the great selection of terms that exist; some of the more common or interesting variants.

China Silk:
Lightweight to mediumweight thin silk; takes dyes very well.  This is the sort often found in commercial shirts.

Dupionni: silk thread spun from two or more cocoons.  Thus it has slubs (longish lumps) along the length of the thread where new fiber was added in to continue the thread.  Fabric woven with both warp and weft of dupionni is called Dupionni, and has random crossings of slubs, producing an interesting texture.  Originally made of tussah silk, now of many kinds.

Shantung: has one of the warp/weft directions strung with dupionni thread, so it also has slubs in it. It is very shiny.  Commonly imitated in synthetics.

Watered silk: a term which is applied to two different techniques.
1: Silk that has had a design printed on the warp before weaving.  After it is woven, the design looks as if it had been dampened, or made indistinct or 'watery'.
2: Moire: this silk (or other fabric) looks as if it is some kind of optic interference pattern.  Which is somewhat what it is.  Two lengths of heavy-thread silk are dampened and then smushed together with great force; where the threads cross (or not) they are pressed down in a unique pattern. Also can be done with engraved rollers.

Light transparent fabric made of non-degummed plain weave silk; hence its stiffness.

Samite (remember your Arthurian Legends?):
Twill-faced patterned silk.  This was the weave used in ancient Persian and Byzantine figured (damasked/brocaded) silks.

Shot Silk:
Silk woven with one color in the warp, and another in the weft. Produces a color-change effect in changing light conditions.

Plain weave silk.  Thin, closely woven and very glossy; can be shot (see above; we're not talking firearms here).  This type of silk was woven in Europe in the early middle ages; it was one of the first western-woven silks.

Thai Silk:
Medium to heavy silks from Thailand of plain weave.  Tightly woven and very luxurious.

Silk *can* be washed.  It is the sizing used in finished silk cloth that produces water spots -- the sizing gets rinsed away from the water impact (as of a spill, etc) and re-deposits in a heavier concentration in a ring around the spill.

If you are dealing with silk fabric before it is made into a garment, or if you are willing to take a chance with an existing garment, you can machine wash and dry it.  The chances you are taking are: 1: you might lose some of the dye onto other fabrics, or the silk color might be a little less bright than before.  Some manufacturers use dyes that are only stable in dry-clean conditions since they expect that only dry-cleaning will occurr to a garment.  2: you might lose some of the stiffness or shape of the garment. It might shrink a little. Sizing is stiff, as is the gum that is on silk in its natural state.

Caveat: Silk is a fiber made of protein, like wool or hair.  Some detergents are specifically made to dissolve protein stains -- these will weaken silk over time.  If you want to be extra cautious, use a soap (which is different in chemical composition from a detergent) such as Ivory Flakes, hair shampoos, Dr. Bronner's, etc.

Silk for home sewing use:
I once saw a marvelous brocade silk up at Britex (a fancy fabric store in San Francisco) that looked like some of the elaborate fabrics from the paintings from the 1400s.  It was a symmetrical vinelike weave, with red and deep yellow and a metalic gold thread outline.  As it was $145/yard, I forebore purchasing any of it.

However, there *are* silks that are more within the price range of many home sewers; the noils mentioned above run in the $8/yard range, and on sale are often cheaper; Thai Silks(*) has heavier silks around $15/yard which are great for almost any garment use.

Thai Silks also has shot taffetas at around $19/yard which are really yummy. Green shot with black, blue shot with black, and a nearly-florescent blue shot with fuscia (shudder). Their brocades are quite nice, although they don't have the older style symmetrical brocades.  Maybe someday they'll carry a formal brocade at a cheaper rate than the Britex example!

I am told that silk dyes very well, so if you don't find the color you want, buy a small amount of the *texture* you want, and experiment to see if you can get the color desired.

*Thai Silks, also known as Exotic Silks, is on Main Street in Los Altos (California). They have a mail order business as well.
All material (c) 1999 Cynthia Virtue Email Author with comments
Back to Virtue Ventures Main Page Back to Fabric Index


Visit my CafePress store!