Fabrics 101: Embroidering on silk
Fabrics 101: Embroidering
soft....slippery....shiny....and strong, too.
Silk is the strongest of all natural fibers.
It's breathable, warm in the winter, cool in the
summer, and naturally hypoallergenic. Garments
made with silk maintain their form and graceful
drape for their entire lifetime.
For fabric-aholics, silk is the Holy Grail. We
stop at yard sales to dig through boxes of
abandoned fabric, hoping that maybe -- just
maybe -- there's a treasure to be found.
And yet when we find that treasure, we hesitate.
While the fibers in silk are strong, the fabric
is surprisingly delicate. Impurities in the air
can weaken the fibers, as can sunlight and
moisture. Do we really want the silk? It's
difficult to clean, nearly impossible to
launder, so once we have that perfect silk shirt
or suit, we never, ever wear it.
There's one word to describe silk: fickle. Some
days it's our best friend, and the slippery and
luxurious feeling makes us feel as rich as kings
and queens. Other days the hefty price tag and
cautioning care instructions makes us feel like
paupers. See what I mean? Fickle. But then,
that's what we can expect from a fabric that has
the most exciting history of fabrics.
Washington created this beautiful
dupioni silk pillow with the
India Camel design, using her Babylock
According to Chinese mythology,
in the 28th century BCE a 14-year-old empress
named Leizu found a silkworm cocoon
in her tea cup. While removing it from
her drink, she noticed that the cocoon began to
unravel in long threads.
Leizu had an idea to weave it, and
told her husband, the Yellow
Emperor. The emperor gave his wife a
grove of Mulberry trees, and Leizu
began the practice of
sericulture, the art of raising silkworms and
Thirteen hundred years later, silk production in
China was a prosperous industry. Silk was used
for everything from musical instruments to paper
to currency for domestic and foreign trade. And,
for thirteen hundred years, silk production was
the best-kept secret on the planet. Only China
knew how to do it.
As people began to migrate from China to other
parts of Asia, their knowledge of silk
production went with them. In some cases, the
secret of silk was transported away from China
in very creative ways. One princess hid silk and
a silkworm in her hair when she was married to a
prince in Khotan. In another early form of
industrial espionage, two monks visited Asia on
a religious mission, and returned to Byzantium
with silkworm eggs hidden in their wooden
following centuries, silk production spread from
continent to continent through explorations,
crusades, wars, and takeovers. And, by the 18th
century CE, Europe, Japan and Africa were also
involved in the silk industry. Eventually,
through exceptional planning and organization,
China regained their historic first place
ranking as the world's largest producer and
exporter of silk. They still maintain that top
What was this
amazing technique that the Chinese so
voraciously guarded for so many years? It is a
tedious and lengthy process that starts with the
hatching of silkworms. Two conditions are then
necessary to ensure the highest quality of silk:
the moth must be prevented from hatching out of
its cocoon, and the silkworm's diet. Baby silk
worms eat and eat (and eat!) mulberry leaves
until they become almost 10,000 times their
weight. They then enter their cocoon stage for
eight to nine days in which they are dropped in
hot water to eradicate the worm. The cocoons
become loose and the filaments, which are 600 to
900 meters long, are then wound onto a spool.
Five to eight filaments are twisted together to
create thread, which is finally ready for
weaving into cloth.
Silk's quality is not measured in thread counts
such as cotton fabrics, but by the momme weight
system. It is comprised of a different set of
standards than in other fabric industries. To
determine the momme weight of silk (mm), the
equation is the weight of 100 yards by 45 inches
of silk, in pounds.
Five momme (mm) is very light and transparent,
while 22 mm is much thicker and heavier.
Higher momme weights indicate that more silk is
used in the weaving process. Within a one meter
width of silk, 1600 to 1800 threads are
considered to be poor quality; 2000 threads are
said to be of good quality.
Silk fabric is can be found worldwide in many
items. Garments and apparel, like blouses,
sarees, skirts and suits, are the most common
use of the fabric, although in more recent
times, it has made its way into home decor.
Sheets, throws, pillows, and drapery will add an
incredibly elegant touch to any room. One lesser
known use for silk is in the medical field where
antibacterial, medicated silk fabrics have been
developed to keep healing skin free from cuts,
burns, and bedsores.
One a recent trip to JoAnn fabrics, I found only
a few types of silk fabrics in the fashion and
home decor sections. While there many
types of silk (chiffon, brocade, damask,
and tussah) the three types of silk I found
locally were charmeuse,
dupioni, and shantung.
I found the lightweight charmeuse material with
the fashion fabrics. When we think of
traditional silk, this is the type we envision.
With its luminous shine, silky feel and
beautiful draping, charmuese is commonly used
for scarves, blouses, and lingerie.
silk was also present with the fashion fabrics.
A plain-weave, stiff taffeta-like fabric, dupioni is known for having uneven and irregular
threads called 'slubs.' It ranges in weight from
light to medium weight, and works nicely for
evening gowns, semi-fitted vests, and fine
suits. Dupioni isn't recommended for garments
that are too fitted because it doesn't stand up
well to stress.
Shantung is a medium to heavy silk that is often
a combination of rough silk and heavier dupioni
yarns. While often used in making garments, I
found it in the home decor department. That's
because this type of fabric is
becoming more common in drapery, swags,
and table runners. The plain weave, also with slubs, is semi-crisp and can have a lustrous or
dulled finish. Even though shantung silk is
heavy, it drapes quite nicely without being
cumbersome. The same precautions for fitted
garments apply to shantung as dupioni.
Here's a photo of the three types of
fabric. From left to right, they are charmeuse, shantung, and dupioni.
all three have a delicate weave, I
did all of my testing with a 75/11
sharp needle. I thought that a
needle with a rounded tip
(embroidery, ballpoint, stretch)
would tear the delicate fabric and
leave visible perforations.
chameuse silk, full of lively and
and black swirls, is very
light-weight and a bit translucent.
Such a silk calls for a very light
design such as toile or redwork. I
chose to embroider the very light
design from the
Japanese Quick-stitch (Bluework)
Pack -- but instead of using
blue thread, I choose a pink that
coordinates with the fabric.
the designs were light, and because
cutaway stabilizer would show behind
the translucent fabric, I used
tear-away stabilizer. I didn't use
any spray adhesive, which would
likely damage the silk with its
When removing the
tear-away stabilizer, use one hand to hold
down the outer edges of the
design, while gently using the other
hand to tear away the excess
bottom picture shows the
finished result, which is crisp,
clean, and has no stabilizer showing
Textured, sturdy dupioni silk can
support heavier, solid-filled
designs, but it is necessary to take
draping into consideration. Using a
light to medium design will allow
for the fabric to hang nicely. I
embroidered one of the
Sweet Christmas Squares designs onto
this ivory dupioni using a medium
weight (2 oz.) cutaway stabilizer, lightly sprayed with a temporary
adhesive. Make sure to tightly hoop
the fabric and stabilizer together.
again, the design looks cleanly
stitched and the silk drapes
deep red shantung or decorator silk
that I found is of a medium-to-heavy
weight, and has a crispness to it.
It has similar weights and textures
to dupioni silk (and because it
contains dupioni yarns).
sturdy silk is able to handle
medium-to-complex designs. As an
example, I chose to embroider the
Splendor Panel - Elm Tree design.
again I used a medium weight cutaway
stabilizer. I lightly sprayed it
with temporary adhesive and smoothed
the shantung silk over the
stabilizer before tightly hooping
Several beautiful projects
using silk have been submitted to the Stitchers
Marilyn's beautiful, silk prayer shawl was
created to be worn during Jewish
services and holidays.
combination of dupioni silk, lace,
makes for a wonderfully elegant and
embellished vibrant silk purses that
she purchased from Gecko Traders in
Arlington, Virginia with the
Standard Poodle designs. She used
her Bernina 180 machine.
from Ohio, made a plain silk top
into a silky, shiny gem of a shirt.
She embroidered the blue silk shirt
with designs from the
Flight Sweater Set along the
neckline, and added some extra
sparkle with crystals. Sherry sews
on a Toyota 860.
When caring for
silk, always first check the manufacturer's
label. Although silk can withstand heat, extreme
temperature changes in the home washing cycle or
overheating through excessive drying will damage
Some silk can be
hand-washed, but it must be done carefully. Use
a mild detergent like Woolite with lukewarm
water. Roll, don't twist, the fabric in a towel
to absorb the excess water. You can machine dry
the garment, but make sure to remove it while it
is still damp and hang it on a hanger to
dry-cleaning is your best option, especially if
the silk is particularly delicate, structured,
multi-colored, or hand-dyed. If you are unsure
or have any doubts, always choose dry-cleaning
over hand washing.
Silk tends to shine
when ironed, but this can be avoided by using a
steam iron on a low setting, with a press cloth.
Silk will yellow and fade with too much heat.
Be aware that moths will not only attack wool
garments, but silk ones as well. Use a
breathable cover, such as a cotton pillowcase,
when storing silk clothing. Plastic storage can
trap moisture and lead to yellowing and mildew.