Working with Fabric: SILK / SLIPPERY FABRICS

Working with slippery fabrics such as silk can be a real pain. The fabric has a tendency to move while cutting, which can cause issues with getting a neat edge. Pinning can be tricky, and of course sewing can be very difficult.

Silk fabrics such as habotai, chiffon, georgette and charmeuse are the best examples of slippery fabrics, though their polyester counterparts can be just as troublesome. Hopefully I can provide some tips and tricks to working with slippery fabrics.

How do I cut slippery fabrics?

There are several ways to treat fabrics in the prep stage. Of course you should pre-wash your fabric before use, though some fabrics will require hand washing or dry cleaning (I’m looking at you, silk). Most slippery fabrics are difficult and inaccurate to cut as a double layer of fabric, so what would be the best method to use?

Tissue paper / silk sandwich!

It’s possible to stiffen some fabrics for the whole process by using a fabric stabiliser. You could also use a spray starch, but that can build up. And always test on a small area of fabric before you go either route! You don’t want to ruin an expensive piece of silk! If you do use a stabiliser though, you’ll have to wash the garment after it’s made so you can wear it.

Fabric stabiliser is a nice option, but it can be expensive AND it will mark some fabrics (thus, the swatch test). Another option you can use is to sandwich the silk between two layers of paper or fabric (such as broadcloth or calico). Tissue paper is another fantastic option because you can buy it in large sheets, and tape it together as needed. Sandwich only ONE layer of fabric (right side up) between the paper. If you have a pattern piece that needs to be cut on the fold, you’ll have to trace it out so that it can be cut out as one piece.

What pins should I use for lightweight fabric?

I would recommend working with silk/satin pins when you are working with any lightweight fabric. Silk pins are sharper and finer than normal pins, so will prevent snagging on the fabric. Silk, satin, taffeta, etc are very fragile and pinning with a larger pin will create a pull/snag on two sides of the hole. 😦 Always pin in the selvage or seam allowance of silk or lightweight fabrics, you do not want to accidentally pucker or snag the fabric with a pin.

How to mark slippery fabrics?

When marking lightweight troublesome fabrics you need to stay away from the tracing wheel and carbon paper. Again, you can ruin your fabric. The tracing wheel will mark and damage lightweight slippery fabrics. The best method of marking is to use thread tracing and tailors tacks. Use a narrow, sharp hand sewing needle and work with silk thread. Silk thread is very smooth and will glide through the fabric avoiding snags and puckers.

How to sew silk/slippery fabrics?

If you are working on the sewing machine you will need to choose the correct machine foot and needle for your particular fabric. Generally speaking silk fabrics and other lightweight counterparts will require a smaller needle such as a 60/8, 70/10 (fine silk, georgette, chiffon) or 80/12 (medium weight silk). For some very densely woven fabrics you may find you require a Microtex Needle, a Microtex Needle has an extra sharp point that will pierce through the weave and avoid snagging closely woven fabrics; it is great to use on difficult closely woven man-made fabrics (poly taffeta).

Example of a walking foot.

In terms of stitch size I would recommend sewing the seam with a smaller stitch length. The lighter the fabric, the smaller the stitch length required. Silk and other lightweight fabrics work best with a 1.5mm to 2mm stitch length. But before you start sewing, always always always test the needle, the stitch length, and the tension on a scrap piece of fabric. Delicate fabrics do not respond well to back stitching on the sewing machine, but if you do it manually it does tend to behave a little better.

Another tip is changing the foot on the sewing machine to a walking foot. This will help to pull the fabric through the sewing machine, as it can be difficult to start sewing with lightweight fabrics. Alternatively pull gently on both the top (needle thread) and bottom (bobbin thread) as you start stitching to help move the fabric through the sewing machine. Another great option is to use a tear away stabiliser or tissue paper while sewing. That way you can keep your fabrics together a little easier and then just remove the paper once you’re done.

Finishing the item

I recommend using French Seams when sewing silk, though you can run fabrics through the serger. Always test a scrap piece if you decide to go the serger route. French seams are clean and work well on most areas (except sharp curves). For hemming, a small rolled hem could create a nice clean hem. You could also serge the hem, press it, and then do a small blind hem.

The silk organza was pressed for the front piece.

Pressing silk/slippery fabrics

Always note the fabric content. 100% silk fabrics are of course a natural fabric and will require more heat than a synthetic. However, water/steam use is not advised on silk because it can create water spots / damage on the fabric. As always, do a fabric test first!

I also recommend pressing from the wrong side of the fabric/garmen, and always use a pressing cloth!

If you’re also pleating the silk fabric, I recommend pinning with silk pins (with metal pin heads), and pressing as before. That way you don’t have to worry about melting plastic on top of your expensive silk!




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