This Is How I Care For Silk

Silk filaments. They are shaped like prisms, which is why silk is so luminous. Click to view source of image. Some kind of nerdy awesome curator site.

I like silk.  It’s pretty and comfortable.  I don’t tend to treat it like it’s made of gold, however.  Silk is tougher than we commonly give it credit for, in fact I like to use a silk-hemp blend for my utilitarian summer sun jackets. I wear my sun jackets daily for months on end, and the jacket gets washed once a week or so.  In the washing machine.  With my other clothes.

Silkworm cocoons. Click to view the source article, about medical implants made from silk. Fascinating.

This is how I care for silk fabrics:

  • Serge/overlock the raw edges of the length of silk fabric to be turned into a garment
  • Put into washing machine.  If desired, add a few other garments of similar weight and color.  Make sure to zip up any zippers.
  • Wash on a cool setting with a small amount of mild detergent.  I make my own.  DO NOT USE POWDER.  In a pinch, use a capful of shampoo.
  • I like to add a little bit of vinegar to the rinse water.  Try 1/4 cup.  It freshens the silk and removes any soap residue.
  • If desired, use fabric softener.  I think of it the same way as using conditioner on my hair.
  • Remove from the washing machine immediately.

My recent silk twill purchase, destined to become a Downton Abbey blouse, drying on the line.

  • If possible, drape it over a wash line, aligning the selvedges and smoothing the fabric gently.  I do this for most fabrics, and since they dry smoothly I have to do minimal ironing during the prep stage.  Or dry it flat.  I can not recommend using the dryer as I do not do it myself.
  • Remove from the line and fold neatly, ready for you to pick it up to sew.

I wash every piece of silk that comes into my possession.  If I can’t wash something, I won’t wear it.  I even pre-washed my wedding dress silk so I could stuff that frock in the washing machine after the wedding to remove cake stains.  It worked.

Another wedding dress shot, I couldn't resist once I started digging around...

Beware: When you wash silk, sometimes you change the texture.  I find this is especially true with Dupioni and Shantung, which are quite crisp off the bolt.  When washed, these fabrics become incredibly fluid and soft.  (I find silk organza doesn’t lose its crisp.)  If you want your silk to stay crisp, then make friends with your local dry-cleaner.

Silk will usually shrink somewhat in the wash.  When in doubt, cut a 4″ or 10cm square piece of fabric, zig-zag or serge the edges, and put it through a wash cycle.  This will give you an idea of how much it will shrink, and whether the texture changes with washing.

Once it is made into a garment, be careful about sweat.  Very, very careful.  Nothing ruins silk quite like sweat.  That doesn’t stop me from making soft little summer shells from silk and wearing them on Mommy days, but I *always* at least rinse the silk immediately when I take it off.  Otherwise the fabric will simply disappear.

I have washed many kinds of silk this way: dupioni, shantung, satin (though sometimes it goes dull), Silk-cotton chiffon, silk-cotton radiance, ahimsa silk, tussah, raw silk, silk twill, habatoi, organza and hemp-silk crepe back satin.  If in doubt, test wash.

Tomorrow: Rehabilitating Silk Fabric (Or, How to Distress Silk at Home!)


60 comments

  1. Love the wedding dress shots! I’m always nervous about washing bright silks since the colors can bleed so much but I do it anyway because dry cleaning is not part of my lifestyle.

  2. Some of my own dyework bleeds over time… I don’t worry about it anymore, I’m just *very* careful about washing like colors. It works pretty well for me, if anything bleeds it tends to freshen the other colors in the load… Dye catching sheets/solutions work pretty well too and in my experience are safe with silks (though do check the labels first..)

  3. I’m one of the people who “torture” my silk before cutting it out. I figure if it can’t hold up to washing and drying it will not suit my lifestyle. If the dyes run, it’s not going to be something that gets worn a lot. If it looks tired after pre-shrinking it won’t get worn a lot either. Crispy? Dry clean for sure to keep it that way. Women still pound their silken clothes on rocks in the river in some countries so it can be a tough cookie!

  4. I wash silk in the same manner as you. I wash all my fabrics and clothes with shampoo and hair conditioner and rinse with vinegar. It keeps the fabrics healthy, and the colors remain vibrant.

    • The vinegar never fails to amaze me… We picked it up as a fabric freshener when we were washing diapers all the time, but it works for a lot of other fabrics too… How much shampoo and conditioner do you use?

  5. Love the wedding pics not the beach! Beautiful dress and it must have been a magic day. I also love the colour of blue you gave a sneak peak in the last pic.

  6. I am jealous of your clothesline, although I have rigged up indoor lines.
    My husband is used to seeing fabric hanging everywhere when I come home from a fabric shopping spree.

    Gorgeous wedding photos!!

  7. Yep. If a fabric won’t stand up to the way I normally launder, I reject it. I try to line dry my more delicate blouses, but my husband has no training not to throw my silks into the dryer. Most times, no harm no foul. Other times, I have gained some really lovely rag yarn from the experience.

      • I DID get torqued at him the time he left an indelible ink marker in a shirt pocket and the insides of the marker came out and got lodged in the dryer and he never thought to take the marker out and persisted in drying load after load of clothes and all of them got ruined and I finally rooted around until I found the wretched marker pieces and extricated them from the dryer. Two entire wardrobes of clothes were ruined, his and mine. If you’d like, I’ll tell you the brand of marker. It was amazingly durable.

  8. I know many people think it’s blasphemy, but that’s exactly what I do with kimono silks before I re-purpose them into yofuku! If I can’t wash it in the washing machine, I’m not going to wear it…I have to many other things to do than to spend all day hand washing. Plus, I have a few old Japanese laundry books that show silk being used on those old scrubbing boards, being boiled, etc…so I figure a washing machine can’t be all that much worse. I’ve even washed hitoe (unlined) kimono in the machine – but before I do that, I take measurements of the panel widths and lengths so I can be sure to steam / press it back to the same width/length due to the shrinkage.

    As for drying, I will put my silk in the dryer for a little bit – but only to get it partially dry, then I remove it and let it air dry. I made the mistake of drying a piece of kimono silk completely in the dryer once and it ended up kinda crispy.

    • Yes… And once they’re crispy it’s really really hard to get them soft and lovely again…

      So interesting… I want to go boil some silk now to see how it changes…

  9. It is so refreshing to hear that. I’ve bought a few pieces of silk now and I’m still a tad afraid to cut into it in part because of after care. I know I won’t baby them at the dry cleaners. One piece I have in mind for Pendrell blouse, it will hit the washing machine soon.
    I LOVE your wedding dress. How adorable and so… you.

  10. I will keep this post full of valuable information, silk is one of my favorite fabrics, but once I use it. Love, love your wedding pictures!

    • Don’t be scared! It’s a lovely fabric, I’m not sure why it has the reputation it does among sewists.

      Noil is gooooorgeous…

  11. Silk is such a dream fabric but gah, I wish it didn’t stain so badly. I never thought about rinsing it right away. I guess it’s the acid, huh? Some day I want to really beat up some dupioni and see how soft it becomes. Charmeuse is my favorite and I usually steam or iron it and just assume that I’ll have to dry clean (or wet clean!–much more eco-friendly–we have one of those two blocks away). I just love that sheen and it gets too crepe-y for me after washing.

    • The way I wash and dry silk keeps it soft. I use liquid fabric softener with silk, then remove from dryer, roll in a towel. Let sit until just barely damp, then iron it. Silk comes out perfectly soft when laundered this way. I made a silk charmeuse blouse that looked perfect for years when treated this way.

    • Yes… I do find that satins don’t like to be washed as much as other weaves. I don’t know what it is in sweat, I just know it degrades the silk but doesn’t do it so badly if I rinse it… :)

  12. Marvy stuff. I love silk and all my silks go in the washer and dryer with everything else.I use a liquid cleanser with no enzymes in it, they are the culprits of course for any natural fibre as they eat them, Stupid enzymes.
    I used to wear silk dupion every day because I worked in a silk shop, and found that the shot fabrics changed a lot as the two dyes bled together, and the fabric became more like a tussah with washing. the vinegar helps to revive the shine too, Funny how the vinegar acid doesn’t harm the fabric.
    I read soemwhere that adding gum arabic (?) to the rinse water did wonders for restoring the hand of silks, but have never tried it. We sell it in the shop for cake decorating and I may give it a go. Mind ou my current silks are all charmeuse types and I don’t really want them any other way. But the gum restores the natural gums int eh silk that are water soluble, apparently. Have you ever tried that Steph?

    • What a wellspring of information you are! I haven’t heard of it, but now I want to try it out. Do you know where I might find it?

      • Well it is in the cake icing section of the shop, so if there is a similarly specialised place in Brissy, maybe there? I’d send you some but not sure how sending packets of powder through the post will go down with the officials hehehe. I’ve tried to find a reference to this process online but no dice so far, except a thing about lace curtains. You dissolve a small amount in water, bring to the heat, so it dissolves but no advice as to what to do next so I assume one adds it to the rinse.

  13. Thank you so much for this post! It seems so timely, as I have a question about caring for silk.

    I have a silk dress I bought second hand recently. It’s labeled China Silk.
    It is absolutely lovely, but fairly fitted, and I think its previous owner was a little too large for it. As a result, some of the seams have been pulled due to the strain. The fabric is weak and a little bit see-through at these points (darts and side seams).

    I was going to try to reinforce the fabric in some way, but I’m not sure how to go about it. I was thinking of light-weight iron-on facing, then stitching back over to secure the seams. I’d love your input on it if you had the time! Thanks so much!

  14. I have woolwash because we have a few wool blankets, so I use that to wash my silks in. Which is particularly handy since my wool (blend) skirt has a silk lining, and I dont even have to think!! I’ve never thought to finish the edges of my silk before i wash it, and it always ends up a horrid tangles mess.. I really need to do that. I’ve also never used shampoo.. I don’t use it on my hair so would never even think to use it for washing fabric.

    • I’m curious- what do you use on your hair? My husband has been experimenting with vinegar and baking soda, he was a quick convert.

      • Baking soda and vinegar :)

        I stopped using shampoo in november 2009, same time I stopped colouring my hair. Occasionally I find myself in the shower and discover that I’m out of soda, so I use my husband’s shampoo, and I hate the way it makes my hair feel. Its strange, but I’ve got so used to what it feels like without shampoo, that when I DO use it, it kinda makes my hair feel like plastic – like barbie hair. I’m pretty lax with the vinegar, only do that about once every 4-6 weeks, but my hair doesn’t seem to mind it.

        I haven’t managed to convince my husband to switch, but I do the kids’ hair the same way, and its incredibly soft.

  15. Thanks so much for this post! I just managed to score a heap of silk satin, dupioni and chiffon on massive clearance and have been wondering how to treat it – I don’t dryclean full stop so if it can’t survive a machine or handwash I’d rather know it before I start sewing! I actually really like the idea of the dupioni becoming more soft and fluid so thats great and thanks for the tip about sweat – my daughter wants a graduation dress out of the silk satin so I might put some underarm shields in it :)

  16. Thanks for this post! I am so relieved that other people out there have the same standards of washing their silks. Dry cleaning is just too troublesome – and if the women in India can pound theirs on a rock, I want to be able to too.

    That being said, I hand wash my lingerie silks… but I’ve had some lovely results from washing and tumble drying my dupioni. It’s just so gorgeous after that!

    • I spied some silk lycra at The Fabric Store the other day, I’m sorely tempted to learn to make lingerie so I can use it. Beautiful stuff.

  17. Also, thanks for sharing your wedding photos… Your dress (and consequently you) look effortlessly gorgeous!

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  19. I have some remnant pieces of brightly coloured very light silk (no idea what kind of weave it is but it is lovely) so thank you for the info. Plus to all the commenters too! I will be finishing the edges of many of my fabrics before washing from now on, not just the silks, because its a brill simple thing. No more tangles.

    Vinegar – does it matter what sort? I’m assuming white rather than darker colours…?

  20. Thanks for posting this. I’ve also washed silks in the washing machine, but wonder if I can add vinegar to the rinse cycle of my high energy efficiency (front load) machine. How do you rinse silk right after you wear it? Do you rinse it by hand or pass it quickly through the washing machine? Thanks!

  21. Your posts have been super relevant for me, lately. I have two pieces of silk noile (sp?), and I have no idea what to do about them. One I want to turn into a skirt, and the other is destined for a dress, but I’m nervious about washing them. Everything I see tells me to handwash them, but I’m sort of bad at that. But then, if I like the garment enough, it’d be worth it.

    Still, I should try washing in the machine. I’m a little nervous to do so, since I only have the apartment communal machines at my disposal.

    Thanks for the handy (and well timed) post. :)

  22. I’ve a draft of this worked up somewhere, but no need to post now :) I always wash silk, too! I soak in the machine or in a basin with shampoo or dish detergent (always the hippie sulfate free stuff) + a bit of borax. Rinse, air dry, press. Repeat after wearing.

  23. Oh, hai! Thanks for leaving me a comment becaue it meant I found your blog for the first time, and it is several shades of aweome. I think dry cleaning is for the birds (no, not really, they probably don’t dig solvents very much) and agree. If you can’t wash it, what’s the point?

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