It is elegant, expensive, soft, and beautiful. It doesn’t take too many guesses to figure out I’m talking about silk. There are many types of silk fabric, but all of them are special and valuable. Some things never change and our love for silk is one of them. What is it, that makes silk so special? Well, I could write a book to answer this question. But if I had to sum it up, I would say it’s because of its luster, sheen, softness, and strength.
It’s really a fabric that deserves its royal status. Silk shines and caresses you. So, it both looks great and feels great on your skin. Silk fibers have extremely fine, smooth, and strong structure. You may be surprised that something so thin and delicate is also strong, but it’s true. In the late 19th and early 20th century, bulletproof vests were made of silk! Yes, you heard it well! Even today police forces in some Asian countries use silk vests because they can stop most common bullets and they are cheaper than kevlar vests.
Silk fabric allows your skin to breathe, so it’s a perfect choice for hot summer days. It also insulates. Silk is thin so silk garment alone can’t keep you warm, but it’s perfect as a middle layer in cold weather. Furthermore, it is lightweight and it doesn’t wrinkle easily. With so many qualities, it is obvious why silk enjoys such a great popularity.
History and Fun Facts
Legend has it that Chinese empress Leizu has discovered silk in the 27th century BC. While she was enjoying her afternoon cup of tea, a cocoon fell into her cup. The heat unraveled the silk across the entire garden. The empress loved it and she noticed other cocoons on a nearby mulberry tree. She planted the whole garden with mulberry trees and that’s how it all began. The empress domesticated silkworms and invented the silk loom.
Leizu is deity even in today’s China alongside her husband the Yellow Emperor. Historians are not sure if this couple really lived or they were gods who were later depicted as historical figures. Anyway, the earliest pieces of silk are more than 8,000 years old!
Production of silk spread throughout China in ancient times, but China managed to keep it secret for several thousand years. Most ancient Romans believed that silk came from tree leaves. Silk was so important and highly sought after that the main trade routes between China and Europe became known as the Silk Road.
By the way, silkworms aren’t worms at all! They are caterpillars of some specific moth species.
Silk can protect you from mosquitoes! Mosquitoes can penetrate through most fabrics like cotton, but not through silk.
And silk is hypoallergenic. This natural protein won’t irritate even the most delicate and sensitive skin.
Types of Silk
There are several types of silk. Several kinds of insects, even some spiders can produce silk. But, the silk of moth caterpillars covers more than 90% of commercial use. Silk is not only beautiful and luxurious, but it is also a versatile fabric. Silk is great material for clothing, bedding, home furnishing, sleeping bags, parachutes, and more.
Mulberry silk is the most common type of silk. It is produced by mulberry silkworm. These silkworms are entirely domesticated. They eat mulberry leaves exclusively and produce lovely, delicate, and very breathable silk. Cultivation and production are basically the same as they were thousands of years ago. It takes about 35 days from hatching to the beginning of silk production. Each caterpillar produces a mile of filament in a couple of days. After that farmers use heat and boiling to kill the caterpillar and allow the cocoon to unwind. Some caterpillars stay alive to transform into moths to start the next generation.
Compared to other types of silk, mulberry silk is more lustrous and more breathable.
Tussah silk, also known as tussar, tassar, and a couple of more similar names, is produced by several different species of silkworms. These silkworms eat oak and juniper leaves. Tussah silk production has a tradition in India, China, Japan, and several other Asian countries. Each country has a slightly different variety. Most of the cocoons are still collected from the forests, so it is considered to be wild silk.
It is more textured than mulberry silk. Also, it has shorter and coarser fibers. Because of short fibers, it is not as durable, but it is still very gentle and popular. Tussah silk has a natural deep gold color. It is very difficult to dye but its natural color is very appealing. Tussah silk doesn’t wrinkle easily, which makes it a great material for a number of garments and items.
India is one of the largest producers in the world. Tussah silk is traditionally a fabric of choice for sarees.
Two species of caterpillars produce eri silk. These silkworms are entirely domesticated. However, these caterpillars leave the cocoon before the harvest and stay alive in the process. For this reason, some people call this fabric ‘non-violent silk’. Northeast India, some parts of Japan, China, and Thailand produce most of the eri silk.
This type of silk is very specific. It is not continuous, but a staple fiber. Because of that, it is denser, thicker and more elastic than other types. Eri silk has a wooly feel, only softer. It is also very durable.
Eri silk is a great choice for making shawls, curtains, bed covers, and many other things.
Muga silk is a variety of wild silk related to tussah silk. However, it is a variety typical for the Assam region in India. Muga silk is an important part of the local culture. In the past, only royalties could wear it. Assam silkworms eat sualu tree leaves and produce characteristic golden yellow silk.
It is very durable and very glossy. As for maintenance you can hand-wash it, and its luster increases with each wash. You can probably guess, it is the most popular material for making sarees in the Assam region.
Spider silk is not in common use, but it’s worth mentioning. Spiders are only non-insects to produce silk. And spider silk is extraordinary. Each spider can produce up to 7 different silk fibers, and they all have outstanding properties. They are stronger, tougher, and more durable than other silk types. Unfortunately, it is impossible to domesticate spiders.
It is very difficult to collect enough fibers, which makes it very expensive to manufacture and virtually unusable in the textile industry. However, it is used in optical instruments, such as microscopes and telescopes, for making bulletproof vests, and parachutes.
Types of Silk Fabric
Depending on the origin and technique of processing, there are more than 50 different kinds of silk fabric. Identifying each type may seem to be a ‘mission impossible’. Even the experts can’t tell them all apart without a magnifying glass.
However, there are roughly 8 to 10 most common types. Others are sort of subvarieties and you will rarely see them, if ever. So, let’s take a closer look at these types, their properties and ways to recognize them.
Charmeuse silk is silk at its best. Or at least, it’s the most popular silk fabric. It is woven with a satin weave. This technique allows for extra shine and luster on the front side, while the backside is matte. So, it is a beautiful choice for items that don’t require showcasing of both sides. This kind of silk drapes great and looks luxurious. It is delicate, smooth and shiny. You can use it to make all kinds of garments. Dresses, scarves, blouses, and lingerie are the most common choices. Charmeuse silk is a fabric of choice for wedding gowns as well.
It is not the easiest fabric to sew, though. It is slippery and creases easily. However, it is worth the effort.
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Chiffon is a lightweight sheer silk fabric. It is made of twisted yarns. This technique of weaving produces a slightly rough feel (compared to charmeuse and other very smooth silk fabrics). However, it has an amazing floating and elegant appearance. It is also slightly translucent. Usually, you will need lining or backing to make garments with chiffon silk. Being so thin and delicate, it is even more challenging than charmeuse to sew.
It also frays easily. To prevent fraying you should use French seams. Hand wash and dry-clean are methods to take care of this delicate fabric.
Crepe de Chine
Crepe de Chine is a special kind of silk. It is made of specifically twisted fibers before they are woven with a plain weave. The final product of this process is more textured fabric with a matte and pebbled look. It is very durable and doesn’t wrinkle easily. Crepe de Chine is a great material for elegant skirts, slacks, lingerie, and evening wear.
It is not as lustrous and shiny as charmeuse silk, but many people prefer its appeal and unpretentious elegance.
Shantung is a silk fabric that came from Shandong province in China. It is made from tussah silk which means that this is wild silk. It has a sort of crisp texture because of its irregular threads. Shantung is a medium-weight, plain-weave silk fabric. Compared to other silk fabrics it is pretty easy to sew.
Shantung is often a fabric of choice for silk home decorations and quilting projects. Of course, you can sew shirts, dresses, and pants with this fabric as well.
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Taffeta is another wonderful, luxurious silk fabric. It has a beautiful iridescent sheen and it is often the favorite fabric for gowns and wedding dresses. Taffeta is smooth and lustrous, resembling charmeuse silk from the distance. However, it is easy to recognize. Taffeta has a stiff feel and it holds its shape well. Moreover, it produces a characteristic rustling sound.
It is a little bit tricky to sew and you can’t remove stitches unless you want visible holes in your fabric. Taffeta is also heavier than most silk fabrics.
Dupioni or douppioni silk is similar to shantung silk. However, it is heavier and thicker than shantung. It is produced by two or more entangled cocoons. It can be woven with threads of different colors, producing iridescent appearance like taffeta, little less accentuated, though.
Dupioni silk is reversible. Small black specks may appear on this fabric. They originate from the cocoon so it is not a defect. If you try to remove it you will weaken or even ruin the fabric.
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Habutai silk was traditionally produced in Japan. Nevertheless, today most of it comes from China. It is a plain weave of silk fabric. Habutai is lightweight, breezy, and reasonably inexpensive. Because of its lightweight and high breathability, it is a great choice for the lining.
Habutai silk is pretty easy to dye so you can use it for shirts and summer wear.
Organza can be synthetic, but traditionally it is made from silk only. Actually it looks pretty much like cotton organdy, but it’s smoother and fully transparent. Even though it’s thin and delicate, organza silk is very strong. It is so because it is woven from highly twisted threads.
Organza silk is quite challenging to sew, though. It is lightweight and seams and hems may be visible on the outside of the fabric. I recommend the use of French seams for best results.
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Georgette is a sheer and crepe silk fabric. It is named after Georgette de la Plante, French fashion dressmaker from the early 20th century. Highly twisted threads are responsible for a characteristic crinkly appearance.
Georgette silk is similar to chiffon, but it’s stronger and not so transparent. Chiffon has more luster, it is softer and lighter. On the other hand, Georgette is more durable and more affordable.
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- 10 mm Mommes (mm) is the unit used to measure weight and quality of silks. Be sure to check the mm of silk fabrics when comparing qualities.
Noil is actually a residue from spinning silk. Some people call it ‘raw silk’ but it’s an inaccurate term. Because of short fibers, it is not as strong as other silk fabrics. However, it is very affordable and it can be blended with other fabrics. It has a low luster and it’s a little bit bulky. While noil can’t match other silk fabrics quality it still holds several advantages over cotton.
Because of its low price and silk qualities noil silk is gaining popularity. It is also easier to sew and maintain than other silk fabrics.
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