Silk fabrics can be broken down into 3 main categories: by silkworm, by processing method, and look-a-likes that aren’t made from silk fibers. First, silk is produced by several species of silk worms and all in slightly different ways. These are outlined below, but the key difference is whether the silkworm is allowed to emerge from its cocoon as a moth – thus breaking the cocoon’s fibers apart – or whether the cocoon is unraveled with the worm still inside in one continuous filament of silk. The first doesn’t require the worm to be killed, but the second method allows for finer and more delicate fabrics to be created so it’s more common. Next, the processing method – once the cocoons are acquired, they can be treated, spun, and woven (or knit) into a virtually endless array of fabrics. We’ve covered the most common ones below. Lastly, the lookalikes category, which are recreations of silk fabrics that are made from fibers that behave similarly to silk (such as rayon and polyester) but don’t come from the silkworm’s cocoon.
In your hunt for the perfect silk, you may come across the term “momme” – often abbreviated to “mm” and not to be confused with the millimeter! Momme – pronounced “mommy” – is the traditional weight measurement for silk, whereas GSM (grams per square meter) is common for most other textiles. Momme measures much larger quantities – it’s the weight (in pounds) of silk that’s 100 yards long by 45 inches wide. You don’t need to do this calculation while shopping. Just keep in mind that a higher momme means a heavier fabric. For example, the silk gauze I used for my wedding dress was 6 momme, and the satin I used was 18 momme.
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Types of silk fabric by silkworm:
Types of silk fabric by processing method:
- Crepe-backed satin
- Habotai (aka. china silk)
Types of artificial “silk”:
Types of silk fabric by silkworm:
What is Eri silk? Eri silk is native to Assam, India – like Muga silk below. Eri silkworms don’t spin their cocoons in a continuous thread like Mulberry and Tasar. They leave their cocoons before the silk is spun which makes this type of silk popular with vegans (as it doesn’t require silkworms to be killed) but also creates a thicker, slubby textured fabric. The resulting silk is either naturally milky white or reddish orange, depending on the food the silkworm eats.
Uses: Eri silk has a moderately slubby texture and is usually woven into thicker fabrics since the silk fiber is broken when the moth emerges. It can still be made into delicate fabrics and used for garments, but it’s most frequently seen in traditional shawls, scarves, and knitting fiber.
What is Muga silk? Muga is another silk-producing moth that only exists in the wild, so Muga silk is classified as a “wild silk”. Its cocoons are collected after the moth emerges, so the fabric is slubby, textured, and thick. It’s native to Assam in India and has a natural yellow tint.
Uses: Muga silk is seen most frequently in sarees and lehengas but can also be used to produce yarn and fiber for the home spinner and weaver. It can be dyed but is often left its natural yellow color.
What is Mulberry silk? Mulberry silk is not only produced by a particular type of silkworm (Bombyx mori) – but by placing the worms on a specific diet of mulberry leaves. This diet allows the worm to create a cocoon of very fine and even silk fibers, so the resulting fabric is extremely delicate, durable, and smooth.
Uses: Mulberry silk is used to create a huge range of fabrics and garments. It can be made into very fine, delicate silk gauzes as well as heavier satins with a luxurious drape. Mulberry silk starts off as a pure white fiber but it takes dye well so you’ll see it in a huge range of colors.
What is Tasar silk? Tasar silk – also known as Tussar Tussah and sometimes Kosa – is one of the most common “wild” silks. Its habitat can’t be replicated in captivity so its cocoons are collected and processed after the moth emerges. It has a naturally deep golden color. Its cocoons are collected from the forest with the moths still inside so that the fiber can be unwound and processed. Compared to other silkworms, Tasar silk has a shorter silk fiber so it’s usually used for more textured weaving styles.
Uses: Tasar silk’s texture provides a gentle, floating fabric that traps warmth exceptionally well. It has a homespun look, especially when left undyed. It’s used for lightweight garments like blouses and dresses.
Types of silk fabric by processing method:
What is Brocade? Brocade fabrics are woven in intricate designs (often floral) using different combinations of colors, warp and weft threads. The resulting fabric is quite dense and heavy. They also sometimes include metallic threads.
Uses: These fabrics are often seen in an upholstery context as well as in heavier and more structured garments. Silk brocade makes a beautiful tailored jacket, and single-color or tonal woven patterns also lend themselves well to more structured, full bodied evening gowns and wedding dresses.
What is Charmeuse? Charmeuse is a luxuriously drapey silk with a “liquid handle”. It has a satin finish on one side and a peachy soft reverse side. It’s made using a creped silk yarn – meaning the silk fiber has been spun into a yarn with a high twist – and satin weave.
Uses: Charmeuse is used in drapey garments like bias cut dresses, cowl neck tops, and drapey blouses. It’s delicate but very strong, and its shiny satin surface makes it ideal for evening wear.
Sewing tips: Use a thin needle when sewing with charmeuse (like a Microtex). Reduce tension especially when stitching on the bias so the seam doesn’t pucker. Be sure to allow a full 24 hours (if not more) for hems to drop as the fabric is so drapey, and be careful when leveling hems as they may spring up when excess length is removed.
What is Chiffon? Chiffon is a lightweight and sheer fabric that’s made using a plain weave of creped fibers – this means additional twist is added to the fibers during the weaving stage. The resulting fabric has a soft crinkle and is delicately floaty.
Uses: Chiffon is a common fabric in floaty blouses (or accents on blouses) as well as skirts and ethereal, layered dresses. It’s sheer so it should be layered or lined in a garment.
What is Crepe-de-chine? Now increasingly common, Crepe de Chine’s unique construction used to be a heavily guarded secret. The fabric is woven using a plain weave, but the weft yarns are creped and alternate between Z and S twists (which is just a technical way of saying they’re spun either clockwise or counterclockwise) – the resulting fabric has a unique textured finish that’s difficult to replicate.
Uses: This unique fabric can be made in a variety of weights. It’s often seen in delicate scarves as well as blouses and dresses. It’s a strong fabric but still has a floaty and delicate drape.
What is Crepon? Crepon, or “crinkle silk”, is a lightweight fabric that can be semi-sheer or opaque. The yarn is creped (similar to charmeuse), and the crinkled texture is usually applied after the weaving process using heat (and sometimes chemicals) to set it.
Uses: Crepon can be used to add a unique texture to light and medium weight blouses and delicate skirts and dresses. However, it’s often used sparingly as the crinkle texture doesn’t hold up well to regular washing or dry cleaning, it can’t be pressed with an iron, and must be treated delicately to avoid crushing it.
Sewing tips: When ironing Crepon it’s best to use steam and gentle teasing rather than directly ironing it as this will distort the textured crinkle of the fabric. If you do crush it with an iron, you can often bring back the texture with a light spray of water followed by air drying.
What is Crepe-backed satin? Crepe-backed satin is a satin fabric on one side and a crinkle textured crepe on the other. These fabrics are usually quite heavy, liquid in their drape, and perfect for garments that will show off both sides.
Uses: A popular choice for evening gowns or wedding dresses with a lot of drape. Crepe-backed satin is useful anywhere that a fluid drape from a substantial fabric is required. Since both sides of the fabric are equally lovely, dresses that show off both the matte crepe finish and the shiny satin can be very elegant.
What is Damask? Damask fabric, like Brocade, is a woven fabric created with a complex weaving pattern on a loom with multiple thread colours to create complex motifs. It’s also generally a stiff, densely woven fabric with a full body and less drape than plain woven silks. Generally, damask silks have a higher thread count than brocade, but the key difference is that a damask fabric is reversible (with the back of the fabric showing inverted colors) while a brocade shows a more clear “wrong” side with long thread floats which are sometimes trimmed to keep them from snagging.
Uses: Damask fabrics are best suited to more structured garments and can be used for tailoring, upholstery, and evening gowns where a liquid drape is not desired. Since they’re reversible, damask garments often show off contrasting sections like a lapel or waistband using the back of the fabric.
What is Duchesse? Duchesse silk, or Duchesse Satin, is a particular category of silk satin that’s heavier and thicker than usual. It’s made from silk that has been yarn-dyed, which means it’s dyed before it’s woven into fabric, and it’s not quite as shiny as satin although it does have a beautiful luster.
Uses: Duchesse is extremely popular in bridal wear for its heavy, luxurious but steady drape. Wintery wedding gowns with heavy skirts and trains are often made of Duchesse, and its moderate shine makes it beautiful to look at but not so shiny that it’ll reflect in flash photography.
Sewing tips: Duchesse is an easier silk to work with due to its heft and stability, but be sure to leave extra time for hems to drop so they remain even. And avoid snagging the delicate weave by using a fresh, sharp needle.
What is Dupioni? Silk dupioni (sometimes called dupion) is woven using filaments from silkworms that have created a double cocoon – the nature of 2 silkworms building cocoons that are partially intertwined is a filament that tangles in some places for a uniquely textured, irregular finish. The fabric feels almost papery, and has a crisp drape. Compared to Shantung, it’s a more delicate and finer fabric but shares many of the same characteristics.
Uses: Dupioni is extremely popular in wedding dresses and eveningwear due to its crisp body and beautiful shine.
Sewing tips: Dupioni is one of the easier silks to work with as it’s quite stable and crisp. It presses well but also wrinkles easily. Use a pressing cloth to ensure you don’t crush the texture.
What is Gauze? Of all the fabrics listed here, silk gauze is the lightest weight and most transparent option. It’s a plain weave fabric that’s nearly indistinguishable from chiffon, except that it’s much lighter in weight.
Uses: Silk gauze isn’t structurally strong enough to support construction seams that are under tension so it’s usually layered with other fabrics to achieve a sheer, ethereal effect. I used one layer each of silk gauze, chiffon, and satin for the skirt of my wedding dress to provide depth of color and movement.
Sewing tips: Silk gauze is very drapey and will stretch on the bias quite easily. Use a walking foot, steam seams to set them, and allow each seam to drop before proceeding to the next one for minimal wrinkles in the finished item.
What is Georgette? It’s easiest to think of Georgette as chiffon’s heavier and less transparent cousin. It shares a similar weave and structure but is more substantial with a more liquid drape.
Uses: Georgette is frequently used in blouses and garments where drape, semi-sheerness, and layering are desirable. Its heavier weight makes it better suited to garments where transparency may not be ideal.
Habotai (aka. china silk)
What is Habotai (aka. china silk)? Silk habotai is a very versatile, multipurpose fabric that you’ve likely come across before. It’s made using a plain weave but it’s more densely woven than chiffon, and comes in a range of weights from tissue-thin to a medium weight suitable for dresses and blouses. It’s less delicate because of its dense weave.
Uses: Habotai is more frequently seen in casual clothing or everyday items (like silk pillowcases and eye masks) as it’s so versatile, but it can also be used for couture dresses or even quilts.
What is Jersey? You’ve encountered jersey fabric before – it’s a stretchy knitted fabric rather than woven fabric, and if you’re wearing a t-shirt, you’re wearing jersey right now! Silk jersey has been constructed in the same way using a silk yarn. It has the beautiful, soft drape of a mid-weight silk, it’s quite heavy and has a delicate sheen, but it’s usually less stretchy than the cotton and blended jersey fabrics we’re used to wearing.
Uses: Silk jersey is remarkably strong for its weight and can certainly be used to elevate your favorite t-shirt pattern, but its beautiful drape makes it equally perfect for casually elegant dresses or even lightweight, unstructured jackets.
What is Marocain? Marocain – also called crepe marocain – feels like a mix between a satin and a crepe de chine. It’s a heavy, creped fabric densely woven from very fine threads, so it resembles a pebbly, subdued satin. It has a very fluid drape and a matte finish. It feels soft and almost peachy to the touch.
Uses: Marocain is luxurious and soft – ideal for bias-cut evening wear and fluid, drapey styles where a matte finish and a little bit of texture is desirable. It can also be used for beautiful lingerie and intimatewear and if you’re really going to splurge, a truly elegant pyjama set.
Sewing tips: Treat Marocain like Charmeuse or a mid-weight silk satin – use a small, sharp needle and stay-stitch to reduce stretching. Use a pressing cloth when ironing from the front to avoid damaging the surface of the fabric.
What is Noil? Silk Noil is made from the short fibers that are left over from the combing process during silk weaving. These short lengths of fiber aren’t as strong as a longer length would be, so the resulting fabric must be made thicker. It’s sometimes called “raw silk” but the two are not mutually exclusive – raw silk noils may be used to make noil fabric, but it can also be made from silk that isn’t raw. The fabric is dense, textured, and thick – but is drapier and more fluid than canvas.
Uses: Noil resists wrinkles and is thick and drapey, so it’s useful for heavier garments like shirts for cooler seasons as well as textured jackets.
What is Organza? Organza is a very lightweight, plain weave fabric that’s sheer and has a crisp, bouncy body. When laid flat, it looks similar to Georgette (but more transparent) and also to chiffon (but has much more body).
Uses: Organza is often used in bridal and evening garments, especially those with more structure. It’s also frequently used as a base for beadwork and other embellishment due to its strength, and can be used as an interfacing in couture garments.
What is Pongee? Pongee is Habotai’s lighter weight, more semi-transparent cousin. It’s soft, bouncy, and lightweight but it lacks the strength required to hold up to the wear and tear of life as a garment. It’s popular with silk painters because its plain tight weave and delicate sheen creates a perfect base for color absorption.
Uses: As a more delicate silk, it’s best reserved for accessories like scarves, or finishing touches on garments that won’t find themselves under stress. It would be well suited to grecian drapes on a delicate gown, but wouldn’t be ideal for life as a blouse or skirt.
Sewing tips: Pongee’s dense weave makes it prone to snagging. If you find that a small and sharp needle like a microtex doesn’t work, try switching to a ballpoint needle – this will push the fibers out of the way during stitching and limit snagging. You may also want to use a lighter weight thread, such as 60wt, to reduce bulk.
What is Satin? The satin weave skips a few warp threads, allowing for longer threads of weft to sit on the surface of the fabric. This creates a luxurious shiny surface that’s smooth to the touch. Silk satin can be made in a variety of weights which will impact its drape, but it generally has a very liquid drape.
Uses: Silk satin can be used for a variety of luxury garments from blouses to eveningwear and wedding dresses, although it is a delicate fabric that should be treated with care.
Sewing tips: Satin is easily damaged, so avoid touching the front surface directly with your iron – use a pressing cloth, a fresh sharp sewing needle, and ballpoint pins to avoid snagging.
What is Shantung? Shantung is a densely woven, coarse fabric that ranges from medium to heavy weight with a lot of body. It’s quite different to what most of us think of when we think of silks as it lacks the liquid drape of satin and charmeuse. It’s made using a plain weave construction, but it’s made using spun wild silk so it has slubs that give it a unique texture.
Uses: Shantung’s crisp, structured hand makes it perfectly suited to garments with a lot of structure or body, as well as tailored garments.
What is Taffeta? Taffeta is a plain woven silk fabric that’s very densely woven to create a smooth, crisp fabric that feels almost papery. Although not quite as shiny as a satin, it still has a beautiful luster. It’s similar to Dupion although it doesn’t have the irregular slubs that Dupion is known for.
Uses: Taffeta is perfect for bridal garments and evening gowns that require structure without adding too much extra weight. For example, it was quite common in 1980s puffed sleeves and large gathered skirts, and is perfect for anything that needs a dramatic silhouette.
What is Twill? The most common example of a twill weave is denim – you’ll be familiar with the subtle diagonal pattern that occurs in this weave, and it’s more durable than a standard plain weave. Applying this weaving pattern to silk gives the same effect – a fabric that has a bit more structure and is also very durable.
Uses: Silk twill can be used for blouses, dresses, and skirts where a heavy drape is desired. It’s also a popular choice for screen printed scarves called foulard.
Sewing tips: Silk twill can be prone to snagging, so be sure to use a fine sharp needle and sew a test swatch before you stitch your final garment. It presses well, but it can be crushed so use a pressing cloth (silk organza works well) to protect the surface of the fabric.
What is Velvet? This fabric is most commonly seen as a silk/viscose blend, where the viscose is the fluffy “pile” of the velvet, and the silk is the base fabric into which everything is woven. Silk velvet is drapey and luxurious, and as an added bonus it can be printed using a medium that dissolves the viscose but leaves the silk, creating a “burnout” fabric called devoré.
Uses: Silk velvet can be used for softer tailored items like jackets, but its beautiful drape works equally well for winter blouses and long, sleek cocktail gowns. It shouldn’t be used for upholstery or anything that requires strength – cotton velvets are better for this application.
Sewing tips: Silk velvet crushes easily, so iron your garment gently from the back whenever possible. If you’re having trouble with the fabric feeding easily in your sewing machine, a walking foot will help to control both layers of fabric.
Types of artificial “silk”:
What is Acetate? Similar to rayon and viscose below, Acetate is made from reconstituted cellulose fibers using a different chemical process. The resulting fabric is smooth, luxurious, and can either be drapey or crisp. However, it’s also delicate, easily ripped, and sensitive to heat.
Uses: Acetate is useful for special occasion garments – like wedding gowns and evening wear- that are full bodied with dramatic shapes and plenty of poof. But it’s not a great choice for everyday garments as it’s delicate and can be difficult to care for.
Sewing tips: Acetate melts very easily, so be sure to check your iron heat before pressing this fabric! It’s susceptible to “bagging out” – stretching itself out of shape – so it’s best used in a garment where this isn’t an issue, or where it can be supported by a foundation.
What is Polyester satin? Polyester satin is woven from polyester fibers in a satin weave, which allows the weft threads to sit on the surface of the fabric. The resulting fabric is luxurious looking, shiny, and can be very drapey (although not all polyester satins are equally drapey, and silk almost always has more drape). It’s stronger, more stain resistant, more wrinkle-resistant, and less expensive than silk. It does retain moisture though, making it feel sweaty in hot weather.
Uses: Polyester satin is a popular choice in wedding gowns and evening dresses due to its availability and price point. The versatility of polyester means it can be manufactured to be as matte or as shiny as desired, and also woven in a variety of thicknesses which create fabrics with more or less drape. This versatility provides a huge range of options!
Rayon (aka. viscose)
What is Rayon (aka. viscose)? Rayon is a fiber made from chemically processed cellulose derived from wood, bamboo, and other fibrous plant products. It was introduced in the early 1900s as an “artificial silk” and although it’s easier to care for, it has the same fluid draping properties as silk. In terms of appearance, it can be shiny or only have a subtle sheen. It also tends to wrinkle.
Uses: Rayon can be produced in a range of fabric weights, from lightweight gauzes to heavier twills. You’ll find it in drapey garments like skirts and dresses, and it’s useful for everyday garments as a low-maintenance alternative to silk.
What to read next:
- How to sew silk
- 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 July 2022.
- “Complete dressmaking” book by Jules Falon
- “Fabric for fashion: the swatchbook” by Clive Hallett and Amanda Johnston