In addition to using silk for my handmade work blouses, I also made my wedding dress out of silk! The dress has a princess-seamed bodice and a three-layer circle skirt made from hand-dyed silk satin, chiffon, and gauze. Each type of silk required a slightly different treatment, as will the fabric you’re sewing with – but with the right preparation, your project can be a success!
- Stabilize silk fabric with starch, gelatine, or tissue paper to make cutting and sewing easier.
- If your silk fabric has a subtle nap, cut your pattern pieces in the same direction so the colors don’t look different.
- Cut shifty silk’s 1 layer at a time. Sandwich a single layer of silk between 2 layers of tissue paper to make the fabric more stable. Block-fuse interfaced pieces before you cut your pattern pieces.
- If you’re cutting silk with scissors, try placing a piece of suede, canvas, or denim on your table. These fabrics gently grip delicate fabrics and keep them from shifting during cutting. Don’t cut through these fabric table layers though.
- Transfer pattern markings using tailors tacks or a sliver of bar soap (it washes out). Don’t use a tracing wheel. Some firmer chalks may bruise shiny silks.
- Use a finer sewing machine needle (try sizes 60/8, 70/10, and 80/12), and try microtex needles. A good general hand sewing needle for silk is a “Between”.
- Sew shifty silks with a shorter straight stitch length like 2mm. Or use a narrow zig zag for drapey and bias-cut garments that need to stretch a little at the seams.
- To stop fabric shifting as you sew, try hand basting the seams first, pin basting, or adding a single layer of tissue paper between the feed dogs and fabric.
- If your silk gets stuck inside your machine, try using a straight stitch throat plate, holding both top and bobbin threads taut behind the foot as you start sewing, and decreasing your needle size.
- Popular seam finishes for silk fabric include french seams, bias bound seams, and hong kong seams.
- Press silk fabric from the back and use a pressing cloth like silk organza.
- Before hemming a silk dress or skirt, level the hem first.
- Hemming options for silk include machine rolled hems, serger rolled hems, hand rolled / handkerchief hems, and pick-stitched hems.
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- Is silk hard to sew?
- Step 1: What tools you need for sewing silk
- Step 2: How to prepare your fabric
- Step 3: How to place your pattern pieces on silk fabric
- Step 4: How to cut silk fabric
- Step 5: How to machine sew silk
- Step 6: How to hem silk by hand or machine
- Tips for pressing silk
- Tips for working with bias-cut silk that stretches
- Tips for sewing buttonholes on silk
Is silk hard to sew?
Sewing with silk isn’t an impossible task, but it can be harder to work with. Some common challenges include getting the tension right, puckered seams, the fabric shifting around as you cut and sew, and the fabric getting sucked into your machine. I’ve suggested ways to avoid these issues below. Be prepared to slow down and spend more time on prep work than you would with a more stable fabric like quilting cotton or denim.
Step 1: What tools you need for sewing silk
- While you can stick to your favorite all-purpose thread for sewing silk, there are other options to consider.
- Extra-Fine thread is thinner than all-purpose thread, so it creates less bulky-looking seams on sheer fabrics like silk chiffon.
- Silk thread can also be used (I prefer it for hand sewing) as it glides easily through the fabric and doesn’t snag easily.
Silk is prone to snagging, so invest in a high-quality box of extra-fine or silk pins. I’ve found that cheaper alternatives have been through less rigorous quality control, so some pins have small burrs that can snag delicate fabrics.
Look for a label like “extra-fine” or “fine”. The Dritz Extra-Fine Glass Head Pins are my go-to for all delicate fabrics.
Ballpoint pins also work well for silk and are more versatile as they can be used for jersey fabrics as well.
Sewing machine needles
There’s such variety in silk fabrics that it’s worth testing a few different needle types before you begin your project. Some densely woven silks perform better with a microtex needle, but if you’re working with a delicate weave, a microtex needle is more likely to snag your fabric.
In general, remember that finer fabrics require finer needles. Sizes 60/8, 70/10, and 80/12 are good places to start.
Hand sewing needles
As with machine needles, you’ll want to choose a finer option. Your choice will depend on what type of hand sewing your project requires, but a good general needle to start with for silk is a “Between”. They’re a bit shorter than you may be used to, but this means they’re easy to maneuver for multiple stitches at a time (like a hem) and they’re small, sharp, and fine – which means there’ll be less friction.
Sewing machine feet
The right foot for your fabric will likely require some trial and error.
- Your regular sewing machine foot is a fine place to start – in most cases, this will work without issue.
- If you notice seams puckering or if the fabric is feeding unevenly, try switching to a walking foot.
- Depending on your machine, you may also have a straight stitch foot or a patchwork foot, which can help with visibility if your standard foot is too cumbersome.
- Lastly, your machine may have a rolled hem foot which is useful for single-step hemming some types of silk fabrics – see below for more on this.
One of the key priorities when sewing with silk is stabilization – both before and during sewing. Assorted stabilizers, including tissue and freezer paper, starch, and gelatine can be useful, along with the interfacings required for your specific project.
With wash-in options, it’s always best to test on a swatch (and wash it out again once dry!) as some treatments may affect the “hand” of the fabric (“hand” is the word we use for the way a fabric feels to touch!)
Step 2: How to prepare silk fabric
Success when sewing with silks is all in the preparation!
Pre-wash & dry your fabric
First, you’ll want to pre-wash your fabric. Make a note of any care instructions on the tag when you purchase silk, as silks vary widely in their care requirements. Finish the cut edges of your fabric with a wide zig zag or a serged edge to prevent unraveling during the wash, and then wash according to the care instructions.
If instructions are unavailable, either wash your fabric on a cool, delicate setting in your washing machine, or gently hand wash it in a tub of cool to warm water with a bit of hand soap.
It can be helpful to think about how you plan to wash the finished item. If it’s a blouse you plan to use in your regular office rotation, you’ll likely want to wash that with similar items in the machine on a delicate cycle. If it’s a formal dress that you’ll only be wearing occasionally and spot cleaning, hand wash will be fine!
Either way, keep an eye on the pre-wash to check for bleeding colors. If you have color-catcher sheets, put those in the wash to absorb the dye.
Stiffen your fabric
After pre-washing, you can decide whether you want to stiffen your fabric. Starch spray or gelatine can be used to make shifty silks like chiffon or crepe easier to work with during the sewing process, and then they can be washed out once the item is completed.
If your fabric is particularly drapey or shifty, either spray the freshly washed and dried fabric with a light layer of starch and then press with your iron on a low setting (If it’s a satin, press the reverse side), or you can soak your fabric in a gelatine mixture to stiffen it.
How to stiffen silk using gelatine
This treatment will give your fabric a paper-like stiffness, making it easier to cut and sew.
- To stiffen silk using gelatine, follow a ratio of 1 teaspoon gelatine to 1 ½ quarts (1.4 liters) of water.
- Mix the gelatine in a small amount of boiling water to help it dissolve evenly, and then add this mixture to a larger container with the rest of the warm water. I don’t suggest boiling the entire mixture, as this can adversely affect some fabrics. You should still be able to submerge your hand in the water.
- After the gelatine mixture has been added, soak your fabric for about 30 minutes, then remove the fabric, squeezing the excess out.
- Roll the fabric in a towel to remove additional water, and then hang it out to dry.
- Once your garment is complete, simply wash it with a bit of soap and it will be restored to its previous drape!
Step 3: How to place your pattern pieces on silk fabric
Don’t let your fabric hang off the table
If you’re using a cutting table, letting extra fabric fall off the sides can cause distortion. Pile your fabric up on the edge of the table, and use a couple of pattern weights to keep it from sliding off during cutting.
Keep the pattern pieces “on grain”
Align your grain and crossgrain with a ruler – re-checking whenever you need to shift your fabric – to ensure that pattern pieces are straight.
Keeping pattern pieces aligned correctly with the grain will ensure the fabric hangs well in the final garment. Crookedly cut pieces can lead to twisting in sleeves and skirts, but we can avoid this with some careful setup.
Be aware of the fabric’s nap
Your pattern likely includes a cutting layout to follow, but in general, make sure that all of your pieces are facing the direction you’d like them to be when wearing the garment. For example, blouses should be cut with all bodice and sleeve pieces facing the same direction, in case your fabric has a visible nap.
Silk satins often have a subtle nap, so their colors can appear slightly different if pieces are cut in opposite directions.
Pins vs. pattern weights
You likely learned to sew using pins to hold pattern pieces in place. Personally, I never use pins when cutting out any type of fabric – it can lead to distortion of both the pattern piece and the fabric, and snags are more likely when pinning through paper. Some people recommend pinning only through the seam allowances when cutting out and sewing with silks to reduce snagging, but this increases the risk that you may catch a pin with your scissors.
I prefer to stick to pattern weights. You can use a set of large washers, bean bags, or even canned goods from your pantry as pattern weights – anything that will hold the fabric and pattern down to your cutting surface as you cut out your pattern pieces.
There’s no single right answer here. If you’re more comfortable pinning pattern pieces to your fabric, just take your time, making sure everything lies smoothly and that your grain lines aren’t distorted. And use high quality pins to reduce the risk of snags.
Step 4: How to cut silk fabric
Cut shifty fabric 1 layer at a time
When cutting shifty fabrics – especially bias cut pieces or larger pattern pieces – cut a single layer at a time. Don’t fold or stack fabrics to cut two at the same time. You won’t be able to see the bottom layer, so the chance of distortion is much higher.
How to transfer pattern markings
If your pattern pieces require you to transfer markings that aren’t inside the seam allowance (such as darts or pocket markings), use your hand sewing needle and silk thread to make tailor’s tacks.
Don’t use a tracing wheel, as this can snag or damage delicate fabrics. If you’re unsure about your marking tool, test it on a scrap first to ensure it will wash out completely.
Some firmer chalks will bruise satin and charmeuse, but a sliver of bar soap leaves a similar mark with a lighter touch. As a bonus, soap-chalk marks will wash out with your gelatine!
How to stop your fabric shifting whilst cutting
Beyond gelatine, there are a few tricks you can try to keep your fabric from shifting during cutting.
Sandwiching a single layer of silk between two layers of tissue paper will keep it more stable. This is the only exception to the rule of not using your fabric scissors to cut anything other than fabric. Tissue paper is more delicate than regular papers, so it won’t dull your scissors significantly (unless those scissors are working a full-time job cutting silk, but if they are you likely have a scissor sharpening schedule already!)
If you’re struggling to cut smaller pieces of silk, here’s a handy quilting trick my mom taught me: You can temporarily fuse the back of your fabric to the shiny side of Freezer Paper (this is not the same as waxed or parchment paper, but it’ll be in the same aisle at the supermarket). Then cut it out, and peel the freezer paper off. I don’t recommend this for larger pattern pieces like shirt fronts or sleeves, but it’s perfect for small, shaped pieces like collars or flounces. Test first to ensure it doesn’t leave a residue (it never has in my experience, but all fabrics are different) and be sure to keep your fabric on-grain while fusing.
On the subject of fusing, if you’re sewing an item with interfaced pieces, it can be helpful to block-fuse (that is, fuse a large piece of interfacing to a section of your fabric) before cutting out pattern pieces, instead of fusing after cutting.
Scissors vs. rotary cutters
The biggest decision you’ll make when it comes to cutting your silk is whether to use scissors or a rotary cutter. There are pros and cons to each.
If you use a rotary cutter, you’ll need a self-healing mat underneath your project that is large enough for your pattern piece. With shifty fabrics like silk, you don’t want to shift that mat while cutting a pattern piece, so I’d advise only using this method if you have a large rotary cutting mat. Use a fresh blade, and you can still use the tissue paper sandwich trick if needed. Take it slow on curved sections, as you’ll still run the risk of shifting fabric here, and be sure to lift your cut pieces up slowly in case there are any remaining un-cut threads.
Personally, I almost never cut with rotary cutters. Due to some wrist problems, they don’t work for me, so I always cut with scissors. There’s a particular trick I love for cutting silk with scissors that you won’t be able to use with a rotary cutter. Instead of sandwiching my silk between two layers of tissue paper, I have a special fabric cover for my cutting table that I use for cutting silk. The concept is basically a fitted, elastic tablecloth made from a suede-type fabric that gently grips delicate fabrics and keeps them from shifting during cutting. It has to be stretched tightly over the table so you don’t accidentally snip into the cover while cutting, but it can be done with almost any other piece of fabric to the same effect.
If you don’t want to make a special table cover, you can start with a piece of canvas or denim, ironed flat and placed on your table – just be careful not to cut through it!
Even if you don’t use a fabric base layer, cutting silk with scissors isn’t impossible. Cut in a single layer, use the tissue paper trick, and when you’re cutting, don’t use the full length of your scissor’s blade, just use the tip half. This will keep your fabric from lifting too far off your cutting surface, which can lead to distortion.
Step 5: How to machine sew silk
When sewing shifty silk by machine, select a slightly shorter straight stitch length than you would for a stable cotton. 2mm instead of 2.5mm works well to start with.
If it’s a particularly drapey (or bias cut) garment, switch from a straight stitch to a narrow zig zag so the fabric can relax at the seams.
Sew a test swatch and assess the quality of the seam before making any tension adjustments. If the stitched seam appears to constrict the fabric, you may need to reduce the tension slightly. This is normal, especially for lightweight silks.
There’s a huge variety in silk fabrics so the best tension and stitch length will likely take a bit of trial and error.
At this stage, it can also help to switch to a walking foot.
How to stop the fabric layers shifting when you’re machine sewing
To keep the layers of fabric from shifting while you’re machine sewing, you can hand baste seams (especially curved seams like armscyes) before taking them to the machine.
You can also use pins to control everything, but don’t sew over the pins. Remove them when they get to the toe of your machine’s foot to prevent puckers and broken needles.
If your silk is quite delicate, you can add a single layer of tissue paper (the pieces leftover from cutting work well) underneath your fabric, on top of the feed dogs. This will add a small layer of cushioning between your fabric and the feed dogs, preventing fabric bruising and allowing you to control the flow of fabric through your machine more manually.
I wouldn’t recommend adding a layer of tissue paper on top. This is a great trick for leather because it can stick to the bottom of your machine’s foot, but silk doesn’t have this problem, and it’ll obstruct your view.
What to do if your fabric gets sucked into the machine
If you find your fabric is getting sucked down into the machine – especially at the beginning of a seam – switch to a straight stitch throat plate, if one is available with your machine. Most machines come standard with a zig-zag throat plate, and the opening for the needle is much larger which means the fabric is more easily “eaten”.
If you don’t have a straight stitch throat plate, you can try holding both top and bobbin threads taut behind the foot when you take your first few stitches – carefully pulling back to encourage the fabric to stitch successfully.
You may also need to decrease your needle size if the problem persists. Larger needles can push fabric down into the machine.
What seams to use & how to finish the raw edges
Your pattern most likely includes some seam finish recommendations for your project, but if not, french seams, bias bound seams, and hong kong finished seams are all great options. Silk tends to unravel, so it’s important to finish your raw edges, especially if your project is unlined.
In most silk projects, I use french seams everywhere I can, and bias bind the rest, but my wedding dress was a bit different. The seams on the skirt of my dress were cut on the bias, and I wanted to preserve their behavior. A french seam was more likely to constrict the silk gauze fabric I used, so instead I used a narrow zig zag stitch to sew the seam, and then a wider zig zag just inside the seam allowance to finish the edge. I then trimmed the fabric as close to the second line of zig zag stitches as possible. The resulting seam behaved well on the bias, and was nearly invisible which was important for my sheer fabric!
I don’t recommend serging to finish silk fabrics as it can be bulky.
Sometimes lapped seams may be appropriate but these involve topstitching, which isn’t suitable for silks in many cases.
Step 6: How to hem silk by hand or machine
The hem – the final part of your project! Don’t rush through your hem, and try a few methods before deciding what the best one is for your project.
How to level a hem
If you’re sewing a garment like a dress or skirt, you’ll likely need to level it before hemming. The fabric needs to settle into its new position as a garment.
- To level the hem, put your nearly-finished garment on a dress form, if you have one, or hang it on a hanger.
- Leave it to hang for at least 24 hours so the fabric can settle. You’ll notice that the hem is longer and shorter in some spots.
- If your fabric is particularly drapey (or your skirt is full) you may wish to take extra steps: you can steam the skirt to help the fabric settle, or bring the garment – dress form and all – into your bathroom while you have a hot shower to let the steam do its work there.
- After the settling period, you’ll need to trim the excess length off to level the hem. Place a few pins in the hem of your garment along the line you’re trimming to use as guides. Either do this on a mannequin, or enlist the help of a friend to do this for you while you’re wearing the garment.
- Next, trim the excess fabric away. I like to do this in two passes, especially if the length variation is more than five inches. The excess fabric can cause distortion on the rest of the skirt, so first roughly cut off the excess about an inch under your pins, and then re-measure the level of your pins before completing the final pass.
What hemming options you have for silk
Once your hem is leveled, you’re ready to sew again! Some firmer silks can take hems other than those described below (I usually finish silk blouses with a bias binding, for example) but we’ll cover the hems you’re most likely to use when sewing with most silks.
Machine Rolled Hem
It’s one of the quickest ways to hem delicate fabrics. A machine rolled hem is a great option for silks that have a bit of body, and are especially easy to execute on a hem that is cut on the straight grain.
I wouldn’t recommend this hem for circle skirts and bias garments, as the fabric becomes difficult to feed on the bias.
The machine rolled hem rolls and stitches a narrow hem, all in one step, and is done using the “rolled hem foot” for your machine.
If you don’t have this foot, you can double-fold the hem at ¼” and press, and then use a straight stitch to complete a rolled hem without the foot. With slinky fabrics, a line of stay stitching at ¼” helps with pressing. The result is slightly wider but gives more control in some cases. This is what I used for my wedding dress’s satin layer.
Serger Rolled Hem
This hem really is the quickest, but it encases the edge of your hem in thread (it’s basically just a narrow, serged edge) so it may not be aesthetically pleasing in all scenarios.
Use a matching thread, or a fun contrasting one, to make this hem pop! You can also create a “lettuce hem” using this technique by increasing the stitch density to create a frill. Take it a step further, emphasizing that frill by stitching a fishing line into that hem to make it really stand out.
Hand Rolled (Handkerchief) Hem
Traditionally, this hem is what we think of when we talk about couture finishes on silk. The handkerchief hem is the hand-stitched equivalent of the machine rolled hem, and when done correctly there will be almost no visible thread. This is the technique I used to hem the silk gauze in my wedding dress (I machine rolled the lining fabric though). The finish is gorgeous, floaty, and doesn’t alter the movement or drape of the silk.
Pick stitching is useful for sewing silk projects. It’s often used in place of topstitching when installing zippers, but it’s equally useful in hems.
This hem finish isn’t suitable with a chiffon, georgette, or lightweight crepe. It’s perfect for crepe de chine, satin, charmeuse, and other silks that have a bit more weight.
This is a double-fold hem that is pressed and then hand stitched in place with pick stitches, making it nearly invisible from the right side of the fabric.
Tips for pressing silk
Delicate fabrics are often fussy to press, and silk is no exception.
Press from the back
Avoid touching the bare metal plate of your iron directly on the satin side of fabric, as this can cause bruising. In general, try to press from the back as much as you can.
Use a pressing cloth
Use a pressing cloth when ironing silks. Silk organza is ideal because it protects fabric, but it’s sheer so you can still see what you’re pressing. In a pinch, a clean tea towel is preferable over a polyester organza, which is likely to melt at the silk setting on your iron.
How to iron polyester vs. silk satins
Keep an eye on the composition of your fabric. Silk can withstand a bit more heat than silky polyesters, but you should use a pressing cloth with both.
Polyester usually benefits from the addition of steam, whereas this causes water spots on silk, so a dry iron is best.
In either case, allowing your garment to cool on the ironing board before moving it will yield the best results.
Tips for working with bias-cut silk that stretches
Bias-cut garments are gorgeous to wear, but they can be tricky to sew. In addition to paying extra attention when cutting out these projects, there are a few sewing tips to keep in mind.
Stay stitch everything
Before constructing your garment, stay-stitch the edges of your fabric just inside the seam allowance. You can do this at your machine, or even carefully by hand before you lift your garment up from the cutting table. If your fabric is particularly shifty (like a silk chiffon), you can even staystitch by hand before cutting out your pattern piece – but be careful in your alignment here!
Zig Zag seams
Bias garments drape gracefully over the body, but this means the fabric will stretch a bit as it follows those contours. Using a straight stitch can stop the seams from gently stretching, so switch to a narrow zig zag to help the seams mimic the stretchy behavior of bias-cut silk. To finish these seams, I recommend a second row of slightly wider zig zags, as described in the machine sewing section above.
Don’t stretch and sew
Bias cut silk has a tendency to relax and stretch, but your goal is to construct the garment before allowing this to happen. When you’re sewing, be careful not to stretch the fabric as this can lead to puckers. You can keep gentle tension at the back of the garment as it comes out of the machine, but don’t pull the un-stitched fabric towards you as it goes into the machine, as tempting as this may be!
Tips for sewing buttonholes on silk
If your project requires buttonholes, sewing them in silk isn’t much different from any other fabric.
Be sure the buttonhole area is interfaced well. If it doesn’t have interfacing fused in, a small square of silk organza works well for this.
If your sewing machine has an all-in-one buttonhole attachment, I recommend placing a piece of tissue paper (or dissolvable stabilizer, if you have it) over the area to be stitched, as the fabric grips on these feet can sometimes crush delicate fabrics.
If your fabric is lightweight, use extra-fine thread in both the bobbin and upper thread to reduce bulk, and finish your buttonhole with a small dab of fray-check before cutting it open.
What to read next…
- 19+ sewing project ideas for silk fabric
- How to dye silk fabric (4 ways)
- How to dye silk fabric naturally
This article was written by Kat Waters and edited by Sara Maker.
Kat Waters (author)
Kat has been sewing since her feet could reach the pedals, starting with quilts she made with her mom and eventually graduating to garments. She now makes everything she wears, occasionally teaches classes, and shares her projects on social media. Highlights include her wedding dress, shoemaking, and a love for almost any fabric that comes in hot pink! Read more…
These sources were referenced in February 2022.