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Fabric Guide: What Is Silk? How to Use and Care for Silk Fabric

Written by MasterClass

Jun 10, 2019 • 4 min read

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Silk is a natural fiber known for its luster, shine, strength, and durability, and it has a long trading history across the world. Silk is the epitome of luxury due to its high cost to produce, soft feel, and elegant appearance, and it is thus a popular textile in high-end and couture fashion design.

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What Is Silk?

Silk is a natural fiber produced by insects as a material for their nests and cocoons. There are several types of insects that produce silk, including silkworms (the most common type of silk), beetles, honey bees, bumble bees, hornets, weaver ants, and many more. Made primarily of a protein called fibroin, silk is known for its shine and softness as a material.

What Is the History of Silk Production?

The earliest example of silk fabric comes from China when it was used in a child’s tomb to wrap the body. China dominated the silk industry for many years, and initially the material was reserved for the Emperor. The Chinese used silk as a form of currency, and cost was measured in lengths of silk. The Silk Road, which connected industries from the East to the West, was a popular trading route named for the material, and that region of the world, still maintains the name today.

Eventually silk production moved to Korea, Thailand, India, and Europe. The material finally made its way to the U.S. in the seventeenth century. King James I introduced silk to the colonies, but many of the country’s early settlers couldn’t afford the material. Patterson, New Jersey and Manchester, Connecticut both became centers of silk production in the United States, until the trade and production was disrupted by World War II, leading to the creation of synthetic fabrics like nylon.

How Is Silk Made?

The process of making silk is called sericulture, and it involves harvesting silkworms for the material.

  1. Larvae are fed mulberry leaves.
  2. After they have moulted several times, they spin a cocoon. The silk solidifies upon contact with air. This process takes about 2 to3 days.
  3. Once the cocoon is formed, it is dropped into a pot of boiling water effectively killing the pupae.
  4. The silk filament is extracted by brushing the cocoon.
  5. The raw silk is woven or knit into a fabric or spun into a yarn.

Note that it takes about 2500 silkworms to spin a pound of raw silk. Each cocoon contains about a mile of silk filament, and one thread of silk is made of 48 silk filaments. Different weaving processes result in different types of fabric, including crepe (a rough crinkled texture), organza (a thin, sheer fabric), and chiffon (a lightweight, plain-weave fabric with a slight stretch).

What Are the Pros and Cons of Silk Fabric?

Silk is known for its beautiful drape and absorbent nature, along with other positive factors, including:

  • Texture. Silk is incredibly soft with a flattering sheen, giving it a high-end and luxurious appeal.
  • Strength and durability. It is also one of the strongest natural fibers, though some of its strength diminishes upon getting wet. Silk is often blended with other fibers, such as cotton, for added sturdiness.
  • Elasticity. The material’s flexibility makes it ideal for garments and upholstery.
  • Absorbency. Silk is one of the most absorbent fabrics, therefore it handles moisture well in clothing items.

However silk has some drawbacks as well, including:

  • Static cling. Since the material does not conduct electricity well, it can experience a lot of static.
  • Shrinkage. The fabric shrinks in the wash so a silk clothing item should always be dry-cleaned or the material should be washed before the clothing item is constructed.

8 Primary Uses for Silk Fabric

Silk is primarily used in garments and household items, but it is also employed in unexpected ways, such as in bicycle tires and in medicine. Silk is great for summer clothing because of its absorbent nature and how it wicks moisture, and it is also a staple for winter wear since it has low conductive properties. Here are some examples of the material’s many uses.

  1. Bridal and formal wear. Silk is a staple of many gowns and dresses thanks to its beautiful drape, and the long floats of yarn on one side create a dressy and lustrous appearance.
  2. Ties and scarves. The material’s strength and nuances with color make it ideal for accessories. Many high-end ties are made from heavy silk, which allows for tightly woven patterns, rich colors, and durable material. Silk is also a great material for scarves for both decoration and for warmth.
  3. Bedding. Silk sheets are the height of luxury and the material’s softness and absorbent nature makes it truly shine in the bedroom.
  4. Parachutes. Silk was originally used for parachutes for its strength and elastic properties; however nylon is more commonly used today.
  5. Upholstery. Silk is used to cover furniture and pillows, and thanks to its strength and durability, it provides a long-lasting covering.
  6. Wall hangings. Decorative wall hangings are often woven from silk, as the material is beautiful and dynamically reacts with colors and dyes.
  7. Bicycle tires. The material is sometimes used in the tire’s casing because of its lightness, durability, and flexibility. Since silk can be expensive, the casings can also be made from nylon and cotton.
  8. Surgical sutures. Since silk is a natural material, it has amazing uses in medicine. The material does not cause an autoimmune response and cannot be absorbed by the human body.

Learn more about fashion design in Marc Jacobs’s MasterClass.