How Not To Wash Silk (Or- How To Make Distressed Silk Fabric)

Click to view the source. Lovely example of distressed silk used in a dress.

I taught a Little Black Dress class here in Brisbane a few years ago.  On the first night we discussed topics such as fitting, alterations and fabrics.  Most of my students chose to use black silk for their lined dresses and (I thought) listened carefully while I gave instructions on how to pre-wash silk.  Just like yesterday’s post.

I sent everyone home that night with fabric and care instructions.  Several days later I was working in the shop and received an interesting phone call from “Jane.”

Click for a very good and proper tutorial on how to distress silk, from Off The Cuff

Jane: “I’m so glad I got you on the phone.  I washed the silk and I thought I’d ring you before I did anything.”

Me: “Ok, what is the problem?”

Jane: “Well, I put it in the washing machine today, like you said.  It came out all hard and tough with gray streaks, so I put it through again but it’s the same.  I thought I’d call you before I tried anything else.”

Me: (slightly alarmed): “How did you wash it?”

Jane: “Well, I put it in the wash with my son’s rubgy gear since it had to be washed anyway…”

Me: “…. pardon?”

Jane: “I washed it on the hottest setting to make sure it was clean, and it came out all weird.”

Me: “Hot?”

Jane: “Isn’t that what you said?”

My mind raced, wondering if there was any chance I had said such a thing.  “Jane, did you read the care instructions?”

Jane: “I did, but I didn’t have any gentle soap so I dumped in a scoop of laundry powder.”

Me: “What?”  Laundry powder is abrasive and the fillers leave a build-up on the fabric.  It is not suitable for washing silk.

Jane: “And then the second wash I took out the rugby stuff and threw in two scoops of soap, I thought it would help get rid of the streaks.”

Me: (weakly) “Two scoops?”

Jane: “So I rang you to see what I should do because it doesn’t look right and I thought before I go making a mess I should ring you.”

Me: “Ok.  Ok.  I’ll look at it when you bring it in, we’ll see what can be done.  Don’t worry!”

This is a piece of silk I gently distressed. To *reset* it's crispiness (rather than revel in its softness), I added 1/3 c of washing soda to the rinse water and pressed the fabric while damp. It did the trick.

Jane is a very clever scientist, but a little prone to overlooking details in her sewing.  When she brought in the poor piece of silk and dumped it in my arms it crackled like hair that had been washed a few times and then left to dry in a salty wind.  It felt so nasty I dropped it on the floor.

But- I was intrigued so I bought a new length of the same silk and traded Jane.  I figured I could do something with the silk, and I wanted to try to make it soft again.  I gave Jane very careful washing instructions and her second length came through the wash fine.  The severely distressed silk came home with me.

You can see the tiny texture created by distressing. I can't get a good shot of the black, but it's the same texture.

First I put it through a cool and gentle wash cycle with vinegar to remove the soap buildup.   Then I soaked it in a solution of water and hair conditioner for a few hours, then rinsed and line-dried.   I repeated that a few times until the silk became soft and fluid.

Terrible photo, but you can see something of the texture. I'll finish her soon and take some good photos.

It kept some of the weird striation and the funny texture, but it softened up enough for me to turn it into a skirt UFO.  I ran out of steam short of putting on a waistband and hemming- but I did find a way to rehabilitate that poor silk.  I really should finish that skirt…

Tomorrow- The Blank Canvas Tee is back and improved…. And on Saturday, a guest post on types of lace while I work feverishly to finish my Megan Mod Dress!


  1. You were extremely generous to take her fabric off her and replace it at your expense. That woman was crazy. I would not have been as kind as you.
    That said, I’m glad you managed to get something for yourself out of her mistake.

    • No– really, she was just incredibly absent-minded at times. Very very smart lady otherwise. She didn’t want me to take it, but I saw a bit of a project/challenge in the fabric so practically forced her to trade with me. Probably I’m the crazy one. :)

  2. Ohh poor Jane! I’m afraid I can relate a bit. Cut a few corners here and there to save time…usually works out just fine but occasionally….major screw up! I’m amazed you could salvage it! I would have pitched that fabric with tears in my eyes (silk is not cheap!)

    • Sigh… *With* rugby gear…

      Though I suppose me washing my silk twill with my new cotton stretch cord the other day is kind of similar…

  3. Oh, yikes! Good for you for being such an understanding and patient teacher. Although throwing in regular powdered laundry detergent sounds like something I would do… I usually only use liquid for the darks.

  4. Rugby clothes? Oh my, that reminds me of the time I was pre-shrinking some Slinky Knit to make in an Emma Seabrook pattern. After a hot wash with liquid soap, I threw it in the dryer on warm to make sure it never shrank after the cutting. Well, I forgot to remove the dryer balls, you know the ones with little bumps on them to help fluff towels? The little bumps ended up grabbing unto the Slinky and torturing it so it looked more like chenille than flat knit. At least the knit was really cheap and not priced like silk. Since silk is real like hair I love the transformation after all the torture we do to it when the iron hits it. Like how pretty a flat iron makes unruly hair. Great post and photos!

  5. Hi Steph
    thank you for all the knowledge and laughs that you write about on your blog, LOVE IT!!!
    You posted a while back about how you prewash your fabrics, and I can’t find it now.. I bought some knit fabric and want to prewash(never have in past, but just learnt the hard way that I should, haha, t-shirt is now midriff, lol) question is should I overlock cut edge of knit fabric before I wash, or not bother??

    • Just pre-wash the same way you’d wash regular clothes… And no, don’t worry about overlocking the edges of the knit. It won’t fray in the wash!

  6. thanks for that, deep down I knew but needed your expert reassurance.
    Also do you know of anywhere I can get out of print kwik sew patterns, they discontinued their boys & girls raglan tshirt patterns. I have an old pattern listing book so went to buy them and discovered they were gone. I have looked and rung around, might try ebay too but thought you may know of somewhere.


  7. Pingback: One Week, One Pattern: Day 7 | The Cataloguer

  8. Thank god I found your blog post. I bought my daughter a silk pillow case but had no idea how to wash it. I figured it could just be thrown in there with the other bed linens. It came out with a weird texture and didn’t feel silky at all. My daughter was really upset. Hopefully I can salvage it with what you’ve out in this post. :)

    • Oh good, I’m so pleased it’s useful to you! Silk will do that, it’s a protein fiber. You should be able to soften it up, if you have any continuing issues please feel free to email me. :) I love fixing silk.

  9. My girlfriend tried to do me a favor, and washed some of my laundry for me. Unfortunately that was a very nice silk robe and half my white clothes(on super hot of course, with powder deterg), which are now sky blue, and i think the robe might be ruined… the seams seem off center and the whole thing looks puffy. I have it hanging up now to gently dry, and im gonna see if that vinegar wash will help when i get home.

    • I hope it works out for you! the silk will never be completely the same, but the vinegar may help it become soft and wearable again. :)

  10. I had a similar experience with a black silk designer dress that my mother washed with other black items at 60 degrees Celsius. I soaked it in a tepid bath with a solution of 2 eggs and half a cup of olive oil and sunflower oil blended fiercely before adding it to the water. The dress soaked for 8 hours after which I rinsed it in clean water with a cup of vinegar. It is true that silk responds the same way as human hair, I use the same ingredients to soften and shine my hair.

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