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Dry Clean Only

The Care and Feeding of Silk, Dry Clean Only

How exactly did the dry clean only label come about?  Let’s condense history in to a brief paragraph.  Silk has been around for anywhere from 8500 to 5500 years.  Silk cocoons have been found in a tomb in Henan province China dated to 6500 BCE with a full bolt of cloth located, also in Henan province, dated to 3500 BCE.  Dry cleaning wasn’t invented until 1855 by Jean Baptiste Jolly.  So, from 6500 BCE to 1855 CE, water was used to clean silk.  Water was still used to clean silk until the advent of the washing machine.  How’s that? you ask.  A brief story in merchandising.

Major retailers of fine clothing would sell a silk blouse to a lady.  Or a silk tie to a gentleman.  Then when doing laundry, the silk item would get thrown in with the blue jeans…probably on accident, sorting clothes has been standard process since forever.  Whether accidental or on purpose, the result was the same.  During spin cycle, the zipper on the blue jeans would catch on the silk, tearing it.  This resulted in the blouse or tie being returned to the retailer.  Who would accept the return because, <expletive deleted> you Nordstrom and your “Customer is always right” policy.

The retailers were losing scads of money on damaged returns because people weren’t paying attention.  So they slapped a dry clean only label on it and made damaged goods the problem of the dry cleaning industry.  Fast forward 100 years and everyone is scared to buy or work with silk because it is a dry clean only fabric.

Now let me explain to you why, exactly, except for in rare instances, I would NOT recommend dry cleaning silk fabric.  Chemicals.  Now, I am not someone to whom the word chemical is a scary thing.  I believe dry cleaning is perfectly safe and use the dry cleaner for my wool cloak, and my down comforter, winter jacket.  I do not use the dry cleaner for silk because along with any stains, the chemicals will strip the natural luster from silk, resulting in a decided dullness.

“Silk tends to look dull and dingy after several trips to the cleaners.  In fact, many silks actually look better and last longer when washed by hand. (Parker, p. 61).  How can that be?  The Cleaners are supposed to make sure your garments look the best.  Except for those chemicals which are actually very harsh solvents which strip fibers of any residual moisture. And as we know…silk loves moisture.

Initially, dry cleaning used petroleum based solvent.  Yes…petrol.  As in gasoline.  However, due to the inability to obtain insurance coverage, what with the combination of highly flammable chemicals stored next to highly flammable fabric which had subsequently been soaked in those chemicals, the Dry Cleaning business does what commerce does best.  It innovated.  And by the 1930’s, the industry had shifted entirely to tetrachloroethylene, aka perchloroethylene or perc, as it is commonly known.

This was a wholly good thing, as perc is non-flammable, can be used with most fiber types, and is very stable, which means it can be recycled and is better for the environment.  And while it’s chemical composition won’t hurt silk, it will dull that luster we all love so much.  But for the low low price of $15.99 for Dr. Bronner’s and another $12.49 for the white vinegar to rinse your silk in, you can hand wash all your silk at home.  That $28.48 will last FOREVER…well, not literally.  But I bought my bottle of Dr. Bronner’s well over a year ago and still have half a bottle left.  And white vinegar has other uses than as a silk rinse…it’s an all purpose cleaner!

So save yourself the cost of a dry cleaner and at the same time you will save your silks.  Hand wash them at home.  You can even machine wash them!  Just make sure to separate out the blue jeans first.

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Silk and Static


Yesterday, I commented in my blog that silk was anti-static.  This bears further explanation, especially as googling “silk anti static” will get you no where.  Or more specifically, it will get you many pages of how to discharge a static charge from your silk.  And it’s all good advice.  I think my favorite was from a physics blog, which shows silk has a moderate charge.

But that’s not the whole story.  If you live in a dry area, like, for example, the high desert of Nevada, than silk tends to be very static-y.  There isn’t enough moisture in the air to prevent a static charge from building up.  Which, yes, will cause a static charge to build up.  If you live somewhere with a bit more natural humidity, like, say, New Orleans, LA, then silk will almost never build up a static charge.  Why is that?

Silk is essentially a protein fiber, consisting of fibroin and sericin.  Like hair, it will go crazy with static in dry weather or when an electrical storm is on the way.  But also like hair, silk is NOT prone to static in high humidity environments, due to the way it absorbs moisture.  So to prevent static in silk, you “water” it.  Water is in quotes, in this instance, because you don’t to actually put water on the silk.  Water won’t hurt silk, but if you’ve starched it, it will leave spots and require re-starching.

So how do you “water” your silk?  With steam.  If you have a steam press, that works.  Provided it does not leak water on a starched garment, you can steam press your silk.  If you don’t have a steam press, you can hang your silk over a humidifier.  Lacking that, hang it in the bathroom, turn the shower on hot, and close the door.  Let it steam for five to ten minutes.  Please note, do not hang your silk IN the shower.  The goal is not to actually get the silk wet.  The goal is to allow the silk to absorb moisture from the air (Parker, p. 42).

Now, if you don’t have time to steam your silk, that doesn’t mean you don’t wear it.  There are other options to discharge the static build up.  Wearing layers, with either a silk or cotton under garment, can prevent static.  Wikihow recommends running a metal hanger through the garment, placing a safety pin in an inconspicuous location, or using a metal thimble, all of which will work just as well.  And the old standby, which works for everything, is running a dryer sheet over your garment.  All of these work to discharge a static build up in your silk.  But to avoid it in the first place, try watering your silk ahead of wearing it.

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Working with Silk Fabric

Working with Silk Fabric

One of the things that keeps people from buying and working with silk fabric is fear.  Fear that it’s delicate and they don’t want to damage it, fear that they’ll mess it up.  So here is a crash course primer on how to work with this lustrous fabric.

First off, pre-wash the fabric using your preferred method.  The Caveat is that Silk Velvet and Watered Silk should always be dry cleaned.  Otherwise, either hand wash or machine wash the fabric in preparation of working with it.

Once you have washed and dried the fabric, iron it.  Just like with cotton, linen, or synthetic blends, you don’t want to cut wrinkles in to your silk.  Use a pressing cloth to protect your fabric from scorching.  If you have a very good iron, you might be able to get away without a pressing cloth, but if you are at all uncertain, far better and scorching that happens occurs on the pressing cloth, NOT your fashion fabric.  While you can remove many stains from silk, scorching is basically fire damage.  There’s no coming back from that.

If you don’t want to buy a cotton press cloth, you can make one from a scrap of silk organza.  Simply cut the scrap approximately one yard by one half yard, surge the cut ends to prevent fraying, and you’re good to go.  Make sure it’s SILK organza.  Polyesters can melt under high heat, and again, if it melts in to your silk, there’s no coming back from that damage.

After you have ironed the fabric, lay it out like you would any other fabric for patterning.  Make sure the entire piece is fully supported on your cutting surface.  Silk is SLIPPERY!  That zero friction is one of the difficulties of working with it.  If the full weight of the fabric isn’t supported, then when you start cutting out the pieces, the fabric can slip right off the cut surface, which will pull the fabric and pinned pattern pieces out of alignment, pretty much wrecking the project.  You can recover from this, but why cause yourself unnecessary agony?

For pinning and cutting–If you are comfortable with pattern weights, then by all means use them.  If you prefer pins, then I use Dritz Ultra Fine Pins.  Be cautious about jamming the pins into the cut surface underneath.  Because they are ultra fine, the point can dull very quickly.  As long as the pin shaft has not bent, you can always sharpen them using the emery pad on an old fashioned Tomato Pin Cushion.

When you’re satisfied with your pinning, it is time to cut.  Now, I have not used rotary cutters on silk, but that is mostly due to my inability to use rotary cutters without slicing my hands to ribbons.  I use Gingher Dress Shears with a micro-serrated edge.  The micro-serrated edge will hold any slippery or slinky fabric in place for a clean cut.  If you use a standard knife edge set of scissors, it becomes an exercise in frustration as the silk slides off the blade while cutting.

Once you’ve cut out, transfer any markings using either Tailor’s Tacks or Pin Marking, or a smooth tracing wheel and wax paper.  I do not recommend a serrated tracing wheel for any fabric due to the serration pokes tiny holes in whatever fabric you’re marking, which MIGHT close back up, but again, why risk the mayhem when alternatives are readily available?

Sew as usual, but I do recommend using silk thread when sewing silk fabric.  I also recommend shortening your stitch length to 2mm, or approximately 13 stitches per inch.  The filaments on silk threads are considerably finer than cotton, linen, or rayon threads, making the thread virtually invisible against the fabric.  And silk threads will run through your machine the same way cotton, linen, and rayon threads do.  Use the finest size needles for your machine and for hand sewing.

Originally, this post was published in June, 2016.  I am adding this paragraph here to reflect new knowledge.  When I originally published this post, I did not know what I now do about Seam Slippage.  Given this new to me knowledge, I wanted to include a paragraph about finishing your seams, as a preventative to seam slippage.  My first recommendation is to flat fell your seams, but a good alternative is french seams.  Both work well in giving a clean finish to your seam, and in preventing seam slippage.

And that’s it.  Follow these guidelines to make sewing with silk less stressful.  For additional tricks and tips, read this post from  I think the only thing we disagree on is thread type.  Otherwise, everything there is what I also recommend.  Happy sewing!

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Washing Silk

While I do plan to create more videos…eventually… it is a right pain in the butt to set up the camera, ramble…coherently no less….for at least five minutes, edit out the ums and ahs, and get the video posted.  Traditional blogging is much quicker and so I will probably blog more than I vlog.  At least in this first start up bit where I’m still getting my feet under me.  Plus, I’m sort of cheating with this blog by basically copying my care and feeding page for your perusal.  I updated it, after much trial and error, and am fairly comfortable with what I’ve come up with as a means and method of washing silk.  It takes a bit of time, but mostly it’s hurry up and wait.

So, below are the instructions I have come up with for The Care and Feeding of Silk…also known as Washing Silk and can be found at the links to the left.

Care and Feeding of Silk Fabric

That may be a bit dramatic. Silk doesn’t ACTUALLY need to be fed. But it does need a little TLC to maintain its beauty. Here is what we do when making beauty with Damask Raven silks.  These were the steps obtained after much trial and error, using different soaps and soap combinations.

You may choose to Color test a small swatch. Believe it or not, even with huge advances in dyeing technology, lots of times the fabric will still bleed the excess dye off during washing. This doesn’t mean you can’t wash the fabric, just make sure you are ok with the level of bleed off before dunking the whole big piece. More than likely (but not guaranteed), it will only bleed off once and future washings will result in no additional loss of color saturation. Added bonus to washing first: bleed off will occur in the wash water, rather than on your skin during wearing.  I am a very impatient person.  Also, I accept that color bleed is a fact of sewing life, so I skipped the color swatch.  But do what you are comfortable with.

Color Test: Fill a bowl with lukewarm water. Add a teaspoon of your intended cleaning product. Soak the swatch in the bowl for a fifteen minutes. Rinse the swatch in cold water and roll in to a white towel. If any of the color transfers, there is dye bleed off.  VERY IMPORTANT!  Not just silk, but ANY fabric you buy, is prone to color bleed.  Ever wash a red sock with a white towel?  That is color bleed.  Not saying there is no way to avoid it completely, but if there is, I haven’t located that secret yet.  I promise to share if I do.

Now to wash:

  1. Fill your sink or wash basin with lukewarm water. Ok, not to the top. Leave some room for the fabric so you don’t slosh water all over the place resulting in flooded desolation. Also, lukewarm is something I had to look up. Seriously, I had no idea it was warmish, closer to cold, water. Seriously, who does that to themselves?
  2. As the sink is filling with lukewarm water, add a very gentle soap. I use one tablespoon to a full sink of Dr. Bronner’s Baby Soap. DO NOT use detergents like Tide, Gain, or anything with harsh chemicals…not even Woolite.  I actually began washing silk with Woolite and the color bleed was alarming.  I was pretty convinced my red fabric was going to come out pink from color loss.  While that didn’t happen, and my red is still a vibrant red, the color loss was minimal when using Dr. Bronner’s vs. Woolite.
  3. Submerge your fabric. If you purchased more than one piece, wash each separately and change the water between washes. You don’t want to wash a vibrant red then find the blue in the next wash is now purple from bleed off. You truly don’t need to agitate it any, since when you start the rinse, you will be handling the silk plenty.  I have found that after the fabric is submerged, walk away.  Leave if for at least an hour.  If you happen to be walking by and feel the need to swirl the fabric around, go ahead!  But really, it isn’t necessary.
  4. Move the fabric to the side and pull the plug.  Once the water had drained,
  5. Refill sink with cold water and a half cup of vinegar to begin the rinse. The vinegar serves several functions.  It helps break up the Dr. Bronner’s which is still in the fabric.  It helps the fabric keep a lustrous look to it. And, most importantly, it helps the dye to set.  Let soak another hour before draining the sink again.
  6. While your fabric is soak/rinsing, lay out towels on a large flat surface, end to end.  Like you are creating yardages of towels.  You don’t need so much that you have yard for yard of your silk, just enough that you can roll the silk.
  7. At this point, you have two options:  A) Refill the sink with plain water and let the fabric sit 30 minutes, or B) Let the cold water run over your fabric while you push the water gently through. Think washerwoman on the river bank while you make sure there are no suds left on your fabric. If you choose option A, make sure to follow through with option B when the thirty minutes are up.  They probably wouldn’t really damage the fabric, but might cause you some irritation if you are wearing your new dress with a patch of dried soap pressed against your skin.
  8. DO NOT WRING OUT THE FABRIC! I know it’s hard. You wash the dishes, you wring out the dishcloth. Twisting puts stress on the silk. While silk is generally not as delicate as its reputation leads one to believe, you don’t want to distort it or add wrinkles where none need to be.
  9. Take your newly washed silk over to the towels you have laid out. Spread your silk as best you can on the towels. Unless you have bigger towels than me, you will probably have to fold the silk over on itself. This is ok. Once you are satisfied with your silk arrangement, begin to roll the towel up with the silk inside it. This is gentler than wringing the fabric and will press the excess water out.
  10. Unroll the towel and leave the silk to air dry. This gets especially exciting when you have cats, because they REALLY like silk. If you had to fold the silk to lay it on the towel, you may have to turn the silk once to let the other side air dry.  OR, and this is what I did to keep the cats off:  you can buy a clothes rack and drape the silk over that.
  11. Once the silk is dry, use a pressing cloth and a cool to low heat iron to iron out the wrinkles. Suggested: Test your irons heat on the swatch you color tested. Better Suggestion: USE A PRESSING CLOTH.
  12. Cut and sew your beautiful new fabric in to your new dress or tunic.
  13. Share your pictures at Damask Raven and show us all how you do History in Style.