Do you know that it is difficult for even the experts to identify the quality and type of silk? – they need a magnifying glass to inspect the quality of their silk. So you are excused for being confused by all the silk available, as I surely am. When buying fabric to make clothes I am overwhelmed by all the different types of silk fabrics.
Silk is a fabric as well as the fiber it is made of. You have heard the tale of the Chinese empress who first found the silkworm which gives those fine lustrous fibers that make the most luxurious fabric on earth – I believed that only silkworms gave us silk, for a long time since learning about this in school. But later found out that it is like believing that only cow gives us milk. So what do camels, goats and buffalos do, you may ask and you forgot soy.
Related post: What is Silk and How is it made.
You have to take into account other silk fabrics made from Spiders and Mussles. In fact, spider silk is said to be one of the best fibers ever discovered. (Checkout this post on Newyorker which says in the future we will all wear spider silk ) Then there are the different species of silkworms other than the renowned Bombyx mori silkworm – all competing to make the best of the best fabrics.
So now you know where the silk comes from and what it is made of, let’s go on to our business – that of making clothes with it; for that, you need silk fabric -yards and yards of beautiful silk.
But do you know that not all silk is made equal? Silk is categorized according to many factors – But I am mainly concerned about how the fabric looks and how it drapes and its suitability to make different garments/accessories.
Broadly silk from silkworms are categorized as follows
Wild silk (Tusser/Tussore)
This is silk made from wild silkworms that live on oak leaves (oak moth) instead of mulberry leaves. This is coarser in nature and heavier.
The alternate name for this silk is Tussah/ Tusser. There are many types of Tusser silk worms – Indian tusser silkworm Antheraea mylitte Dury, Chinese Tusser silkworm Antherae pernyi Guerin, Japanese tasar silkworm Antheraea yamamai Querin are the different varieties and the silk they produce also vary
Honan silk is a Chinese vareity of Tussore silk.
This Silk is made from fibers given by the domesticated silkworms species knowns as Bombyx mori fed exclusively on Mulberry leaves. Mulberry silk is a general category rather than the name of silk and this category dominates the world silk production by about 80%.
This is the silk produced from silkworm species called Philosamia ricini, which feeds on castor oil plant leaves. The silk is a white or brick-red variety.
This is a golden yellow silk produced by strong silk fibers made from the silk worm Antheraea assamensis found in Assam state in India
The silk fibers spun by the spider are said to be as strong or even stronger than steel and very elastic. The commercial and industrial possibilities of spider silk are not yet fully explored.
This is a silk fabric made from long silky filaments secreted by mussels. This silk fabric is said to be even finer than all other silks and keeps you warm
This is silk fabric which is made with silk fibers which have been cleaned off the gum but to which no additives are added to compensate for the weight lost in boiling and cleaning the fibers. It is the purest and finest of silk
Silk fiber as it comes from the cocoon is coated with a protective layer called silk gum, or sericin which is very stiff. Raw silk is a fabric made from this fiber without removing the gum
The more specific silk fabrics are as follows
Silk Charmeuse ( Silk Satin)
Silk Charmeuse is a soft medium weight silk fabric with a satin-ish and lustrous, very glossy face and a dull back (called crepe backed satin). This is the fabric which comes to your mind as you say silk.
I suppose this is the most preferred fabric for dressmaking because it looks wonderful, is beautifully supple, and drapes well on the figure. You can make lingerie, gowns, loose blouses, scarves, etc with this.
This fabric is a favourite for making wedding clothes- it is suitably heavy sleek, satiny and creamy.
Sewing this fabric is not without its challenges as the fabric is quite slippery and you have to be extra vigilant when sewing it. It is made with a satin weave, hence the shiny look. Some may not like this satiny look and hence skip this one. It is also slightly clingy. (as per the tips given in this post on dressing tips to make one look thin you had better avoid it if that is what you aim for) . One other problem is charmeuse creases easily.
But all said, silk charmeuse is silk in all its glory. So it is most preferred to make all kinds of garments
You can also choose a Stretch Silk Charmeuse, which features 5% spandex which gives it stretchiness in addition to its sheen and softness and suppleness. Then there is the Sand washed Charmeuse which has a toned down satin surface. Sueded charmeuse has a light crepe texture.
When sewing and washing take extra care as it snags and puckering of thread is a common problem on the face of the fabric. If you have a silk charmeuse gown which is very much cherished I would carefully handwash it or dry clean it to be safe.
Chiffon Silk (Crepe chiffon)
Chiffon silk is a soft, sheer fabric with a slightly rough feel (matt, crepe-like feel) because of the use of twisted yarns (in a taffeta weave). Chiffon comes in all colours and prints. It is suitable for making loose flowy clothes. Light to medium weight silk.
The slippery, flimsy and thin feel of the fabric makes it a difficult material to sew. Checkout some of the tips on the sewing with sheer fabric for how to deal with this problem. Remember that you will need to add a lining when making clothes, unless you want the transparent effect.
Silk Dupioni ( Duppioni or Dupion)
This is a medium weight, reversible, crisp silk fabric with a nubby texture and loose plain weave. It doesnot crease/ wrinkle easily and is quite strong (but not very durable).
This fabric is made by weaving two colors of yarns (said to be from two cocoons nested together- considered flawed) and hence has a dull luster and sheen when watched in light – you will find it has different shades. You may see black specs in this fabric- those are part of the fabric and removing them may weaken the fabric.
This fabric is a favourite for sewing clothes, especially as a wedding dress material; it is easier than charmeuse or chiffon to sew with, as it is more sturdy. The lustrous vivid colours of the dupioni silk and it’s shimmery look makes it a very attractive fabric. You can make beautiful semifitted (tailored) as well as loose fitting clothes with this fabric
Prewash dupioni silk before cutting and sewing. Hand wash with extra care (because sometimes the sheen and texture may be lost in washing); usually, it is recommended for dry cleaning.
You can see that most bridal gowns are made in this fabric because of its sheen as well as the fact that it is inexpensive. You get embossed dupioni silk as well as embroidered, beaded and printed dupioni. This fabric does not fray much at the cut edges but the loose weave may cause seams to unravel. The surface also pills easily. Also, be aware that it has no stretch.
This fabric has a very glossy front face and a dull matt and even rough back. It has a nice drape.
Silk gauze is a sheer, thin lightweight open weave silk fabric with a soft feel and beautiful sheen. It is lighter than chiffon and organza.
This is most often used for sewing as facings, interfacing or lining. This fabric is not difficult to sew with.
This medium weight and inexpensive silk have a soft luster and great drape. It is used for lining.
Silk Noil is a low sheen and slightly bulky silk fabric with a nubby texture (matte surface and rough finish). It is made from the short fibers left after combing and carding, which is why it does not have the shine of other silk fabrics. It is not raw silk.
The short fibers with several knots are used in weaving this fabric – this results in slubs on the surface of the fabric which results in the nubby texture. They also have subtle specs on it which are cocoon remnants.
This fabric looks like cotton but is soft like silk and has a good drape and does not wrinkle easily. It is easy to sew and easy to care for; The cut edges fray easily; This fabric is not as durable as other silks but is in demand because of its easy to care nature and wrinkle resistance.
Silk noil is prone to shrinkage in wash so prewash. It is hand washable
This is a medium weight to heavyweight slubbed silk with a crisp feel. Basically Tussore silk in a taffeta weave. This wild silk is made from silkworms fed on oak tree leaves. It is a very shiny, coarse but delicate fabric. It is lightweight and airy and do not wrinkle much.
The Indian silk shantung is called Tussah silk
Silk organza is a sheer crisp lightweight strong and durable silk fabric with a loose weave and smooth texture, made of non-degummed plain weave silk. It looks like silk gauze but silk organza is heavier and stiffer. The fine yarns that make this fabric see-through. This fabric creases easily.
It is nowadays mostly used for making linings and for making veils and undergowns. You can also use this to make facings for sheer fabrics. This fabric is also the base for embellished fabrics (embroidered applique pieces, beaded fabrics etc)
Silk Broadcloth is a soft, lightweight silk fabric with a smooth surface and dull luster. Medium-weight silk.
It feels almost like cotton and is easy to sew. It is suitable to make tailored clothes and shirts with the fabric as it holds creases well and has a tight weave, but wrinkles less. It is a delight to make clothes with this fabric.
These are silk blend fabric with Jacquard patterns woven on a heavyweight twill/satin base. This is mostly used in home furnishings, for making wedding gowns and costumes and to make jackets. You need lightweight brocade for making clothes. May have rayon fibers added.
Crepe de Chine ( pronounced Krape dee sheen)
Crepe de china is a lustrous silk fabric (means chinese crepe) with a smooth but slightly matt surface and slippery feel and great drape. The sheen of this fabric is subtle and is heavier than a silk habotai fabric.
It is a very comfortable fabric so used a great deal for dressmaking. Crepe de chine comes in many different varieties like Moroccan crêpe and crêpe georgette.
Silk crepe is a lightweight textured silk fabric with a good sheen. Canton Crepe silk is a soft fabric with a fine crinkly surface; it is heavier than Crepe de chine. Crepon is a heavier crepe in silk.
This is medium to heavyweight silk fabric with a crepe finish and beautiful luster. In fact, this is a heavier version of silk crepe. The heavyweight version of 4 ply silk is the most coveted silk fabric for dress making. The fabric is called 4 ply because 4 individual yarn strands are twisted to make the single yarn of his silk.
This fabric can be hand washed but it is preferable to dry clean it to maintain the sheen and luster.
Silk/metal tissue is a rather stiff, crinkly and translucent and lustrous gauze made with silk and metalized threads. Very difficult to maintain as it can’t be dry cleaned nor hand washed as it shrinks very much.
This is a dressy smooth twill weave silk fabric with a distinct diagonal line on the fabric. Faintly lustrous, it has a beautiful drape; The fabric resists wrinkles. Durable and crisp, it is most often used for making skirts, slacks, and suits.
Handwash (shrinks more than most), drip dry.
This is a sheer and strong silk fabric with a dull creped surface and a grainy texture.(Taffeta weave) It is a durable fabric but when sewing you have to be very careful as it snags easily. The flowy thin nature of the fabric makes it difficult to sew with. It is also less lustrous and heavier than chiffon and is great for dressmaking.
Taffeta is a plain weave silk fabric with a crisp (even stiff) texture. It has a fine crosswise rib pattern and is reversible. The surface is smooth and finely fluted. It can be soft or stiff according to its make and has a rustle.
Peau de Soie (Duchess Satin)
This is a medium weight smooth and silky fabric with a satiny, lustrous finish. This fabric looks a lot like silk charmeuse but Peau de Soie has a moderately stiff drape. This fabric is also very easy to sew with. It is a preferred fabric for making gowns ( also nicknamed bridal satin)
Dry Cleaning is preferred to keep the sheen.
Habutai Silk / Habotai Silk
Habutai is a fine, soft and lustrous lightweight silk fabric with a great drape. It does not crease /wrinkle easily and sews easily enough. It is also known as Japanese silk because it is from Japan. It is usually used for lining garments and also to make light tops, dresses, and shirts. Very similar to China silk; both are breezy, lightweight, and inexpensive. Also called Parachute silk
This is a silk fabric with a textured surface (raw silk) and has a sheen. This fabric has a soft drape. Pongee silk is very fine and light, even lighter than silk habutai. Usually, the names silk pongee and silk habutai are used interchangeably. It is inexpensive to buy. The fabric is available in many weights. It is a favourite fabric for silk painting.
China silk is similar to Habutai in all aspects other than that china silk is smoother. It is a somewhat thin silk. You can use it as a lining for gowns, rather than making gowns with it.
This is a thick silk with the diagonal twill lines.
A wonderful piled fabric with great drape for making gowns.
This is a silk fabric made with very short fibers; Hence the surface is rough and feels like cotton
Silk Damask / Jaquard silk
This is silk woven with elaborate jacquard patterns.The patterns shimmers in the light when fabric moves.
This is silk with a design woven into the fabric . The design looks like a watermark on the fabric.
A silk fabric with an iridescent look because of the use of different colored warp and weft fibers in weaving.
A tightly woven silk fabric from Thailand. It is a lot like silk shantung but much better.
This is a crepe silk with a distinct crimped surface texture. Hitokoshi Chirimen (not as much wrinkles), Futakoshi Chirimen and Kawari Muj are different varieties of this fabric.
This is a silk with a rough texture like Tussah silk ; but still it is lightweight and soft.
A double sided iridescent silk with beautiful patterns.
A very fine crepe silk
Different types of Indian Silks
India is famous for its silk fabrics and an average Indian woman possesses many silk saris. The following are silk fabrics made in India.
- Silk Matka
Matka is a heavyweight tightly woven silk handwoven from very thick yarns in India. It has a homespun look. The poor quality Matka silk may have an uneven surface. The fabric, which feels somewhat like tweed, is used for making suits and jackets as it holds the shape well; sews easily.
Drycleaning preferred because of possible shrinkage in wash
Tussah (also Tussar) silk is a medium to heavyweight loosely woven silk with a rough uneven surface with distinct crosswise ribs. It is said to be made from wild silkworms and is usually coarser than cultivated silk. Tussah silk is available only in limited colors. This fabric sews easily but may unravel at cut edges. Colors available are limited .
Tussar silk can be handwashed , but it does shrink ; drip dry.
- Surah is a soft lightweight silk originally made in Surat. This is a very supple fabric with a dull luster
- Garad Silk – This is a very fine silk with red border and small paisley motifs
- Kashemere silk – Soft silk fabric with a twill weave
- Jamawar – Pashmina silk which contains a blend of cotton and wool.
- Matka Silk – A rough handloom silk fabric made from the waste Mulberry Silk without removing its gum (sericin) part
- Banarasi/Benarasi Silk – A fine silk evolving with gold and silver brocade and zari work
- Bangalore Silk – Very pure silk produced in the silk farms of Bangalore.
- Angora Silk– Soft silk made from the fur of Angora rabbit
- Pochampally/Pochampalli Silk – A special type of silk from Pochampally, Indian
- Mysore Silk – This is silk fabric woven from hard spun silk yarn
- Sournachuri Silk– This silk has gold thread woven along with the silk fibers
- Kosa Silk- This is a type of lightweight Tussah silk fabric with a soft texture and dull-brownish look
- Muga Silk– this is a silk made from yellow silk fibers from a special silk worm found in Assam
- Dharamavaram Silk– This silk fabric has gold plated borders
- Narayanpet Silk – This is a silk fabric with a checked surface design with embroidery and the border or pallu have intricate ethnic designs
- Pat/Paat Silk– This is a durable and fine silk fabric in white colour
- Kanchipuram-Beautiful shiny silk fabric made in Kancheepuram
- Bhagalpuri Silk
- Uppada Silk
- Khadi Silk – This is silk fabric made from handspun silk yarns . Khadi silk is usually 50% cotton and 50% silk. It has a very crisp and neat look and a soft lightweight feel
- Kora Silk – A silk fabric made from undegummed and untwisted silk fibers. It is usually available in printed form.(Organza silk is also known as Kora silk)
Learn more about Indian silks used in Saris in this post on the different types of saris .
This is a blend of cotton and silk; It has less sheen than silk and is very inexpensive when compared to silk. It is not slippery like silk and is heavier.
A blend of wool and silk fibers creates a fabric with most of the features of both the fibers like warmth without the added weight, breathability, moisture absorption, drape, resistance to wrinkles, suppleness. Silk wool is not as scratchy as pure wool. Silk cashmere, silk merino wool
This is an artificial silk made from rayon fibers which look like silk; With the sheen of silk but with less drape and durability. This is a very inexpensive alternative to silk