Helpful tips to avoid frustration when sewing silk
(and what tools and notions to use)
In previous articles, I wrote about the benefits of silk, most common types of silk fabric, and how to cut chiffon (and other slippery fabric). Now let’s talk about interfacing, threads, needles, sewing machine settings for silk fabric – basically the specifics of the tools and notions used for sewing silk.
Silk fabrics especially chiffon, organza, georgette, gazar, gauze, charmeuse have a reputation of “difficult to work with”.
In my opinion, it is not the material itself that is creating problems. Most of the difficulties have as the main cause either the lack of adequate tools ( sewing machine, needles, threads, etc. ) or the lack of experience – I believe I can help on both fronts. It’s just amazing what these simple tricks can do for your silk sewing projects.
It is important to choose the proper type of interfacing for your silk fabric. In instructions for your sewing pattern, you can usually find information if interfacing is required and what type you need. Interfacing is often necessary to stabilize seams at necklines, armholes, waistbands, to add firmness to collars, cuffs, pockets, etc.
For most silk fabrics we use fusible interfacing with an adhesive on one side which bonds permanently to the fabric when applied with an iron. I use very lightweight thin fusible knit interfacing which has a certain amount of stretch in it. It doesn’t add any weight or bulk to the fine silk fabric.
There is also woven fusible interfacing for silk which is delicate, semi-transparent and slightly elastic.
NOTE: This post contains affiliate links for your convenience in finding the products you need to sew with silk. Meaning, if you purchase these products after clicking through these links, I will make a small commission.
I just fuse with interfacing a bigger piece of silk first and then cut pattern pieces from it, and this helps to prevent distorting of small pattern pieces.
Usually it happens with close-fitted garments in some curved areas or where a lot of movements happens.
We can stabilize seams of fluid slippery silk fabric also with stay-stitching, and I see it is always recommended in McCalls, Butterick, Vogue, Simplicity pattern instructions.
But I like to use strips of silk organza instead of stay-stitching. How to do it? Cut narrow cross-grain strips of silk organza about 2.5 cm wide and unravel a little their edges. Actually, you can just tear them from the fabric piece instead of cutting and they will unravel enough in the process of tearing.
This unraveling will make the edges softer so they are not going to be uncomfortable for your skin. And use these strips to stabilize neck lines, armholes, and shoulder seams. Baste them in place and afterwards do the stitching. These strips will stay in the garment permanently. If the seams you need to stabilize are curved you can shape these organza strips with a steam iron.
Selection of needles
While I am working with silk fabric I always baste pattern pieces together by hand, because it gives me more control of the slippery fabric.
Stitching by machine becomes more manageable because pattern pieces will stay in place. Silk is easily damaged by a needle (there are always traces of punctures).
I even found size 55/7 recently. I didn’t know they exist. I didn’t read about these needles on any sewing site. I used one of the needles to sew silk chiffon (with silk thread) and it works so nice! I took stitches out ( just to try the needle) and there were no holes in the chiffon as you can see in the right image.
Choice of threads
From my experience 100 weight 100 % silk spooled threads are the best. They are smooth, quite strong, yet delicate, have lustrous sheen and glide through the silk fabric with amazing ease.
Remember that your thread shouldn’t be heavier than the fabric. Silk threads are just amazing! Here are some affiliate links where you can buy 100% silk threads for your projects.
Cotton threads are preferable to use for silk garments, because if your garment gets caught on something, the cotton seam would break more easily than the expensive silk. Seams sewn with polyester thread, on the other hand, are more durable. If the silk garment gets caught, the seam would hold and the fabric itself would tear.
Preparation of the sewing machine
Check your machine before sewing – it has to be clean and free of lint.
It is very important to adjust the tension for threads and needles you will use for sewing silk. Consult your machine manual and practice on scraps. Then practice some more!
Stitch length should be short, set it to 1.5 – 2 mm. Backstitching on lightweight silk should be avoided. Manually tie thread ends to secure the stitches. Lightweight silk is prone to get “swallowed” in the needle plate opening when the needle moves up and down.
So some seamstresses when sewing silk set a special needle plate with a smaller opening for the needle. It is called Straight Stitch Plate and used for straight stitching in the far left position.
This special plate prevents puckering, bunching up, skipping stitches, and also prevents the fine fabric from being pulled down to the bobbin area.
It is a little bit different for every sewing machine. I have one for my Janome 6600 but for Brother and Singer and other brands they will look different. Here is the image. And you can buy it on Amazon through this link (just make sure it fits your model)
I have to confess I am not a big fan of this trick, but lacking all else, it might work. You can also use a special Straight Stitch Foot with a smaller hole.
This will also help you to avoid getting the silk fabric pulled down into the feed dogs.
By the way, this will also help to prevent distorted seams, stretching the fabric and eliminate the sliding of the fabric. When you finish stitching, just rip off the paper. If the tearing will get tedious dampen the seams and it will come off quick & easy.
Before I bought the Straight Stitch Plate and Straight Stitch Foot I used 5 cm strips on the bottom and narrower strips on the top (I put them even with the edge of the fabric). After a little practice, it is really easy!
If your sewing machine will “swallow” the fabric then use these tricks. If not – then forget about them ( until next time ).
And always hold the ends of the threads behind the needle as you start sewing to prevent the fabric from getting under the needle plate and also to prevent bunching of threads as you can see in the image below.
The foot pressure for chiffon, organza, georgette and other very lightweight silk fabric has to be different than for thick coat wool and denim. So look in the manual of your sewing machine and find the pressure adjustment knob and how to move it for very lightweight fabrics. It is usually marked with an image of a presser foot.
Again, practice ( on scraps ) will help make a perfect garment! This image is showing how it looks like in my Janome 6600 sewing machine manual.
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