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Don't be afraid to wash your silk!

Dec 11, 2013

Silk delivers shine and drape, warmth, and strength all in one beautiful package.

Silk on the spool Spacer 10x10 pixels
A spool of reeled silk. Reeled silk is made of long, single fibers unwound from cocoons.  

It's a very special fiber that's meant to be worked with, and especially worn! I have several items knitted from silk yarn, and I've always been wary of laundering it.

The January/February 2014 issue of Handwoven focuses on silk, and there's a fantastic article about washing your silk garments. Here's an excerpt for you:


Washing Silk

Although you may be accustomed to buying silk clothing labeled “Dry Clean Only,” you can wash silk. After all, silk has been in use for over five thousand years and the modern-day dry-cleaning process didn’t begin until the mid-eighteenth century. Washing silk requires a bit of care but is not difficult.


One reason silk manufacturers recommend dry cleaning is that silk can lose its characteristic sheen with incorrect washing. Silk fibers are sensitive to abrasion, which can occur when the silk rubs against itself or other, rougher fabrics or against a metal washing machine drum. An abraded silk fiber will appear whitish or as though sprinkled with powdered sugar because the outer layer of the silk, which provides the light reflectivity, has been roughed up.

Spacer 10x10 pixels Silk yarn
  A trio of lovely silk yarn.

When you wash silk, use a lot of lukewarm water (70°–90°F) in proportion to the silk. If the silk is floating freely in the water, it will be less likely to rub against itself or other surfaces, minimizing damage due to abrasion.

Washing can also affect the drape of silk. How many of us have washed a luxurious silk blouse or scarf only to be horrified by the stiff fabric that emerged from the wash? Well, fear not. Your silk fabric is not ruined. Here’s an easy fix that I learned from Treenway Silks’ founder, Karen Selk.

Step 1: When the silk is slightly damp, move the piece around in your hands for a few minutes. This will bring up the sheen and minimize the stiffness when the silk is completely dry.

Step 2: Take your dry silk item and whack it against the back of a chair a couple of times. Feel how soft your silk is again? It’s that easy!

Here’s what just happened. Even on degummed silk, there is a bit of residual sericin (water-soluble proteins that glue the cocoon together), and these proteins stiffen when the wet silk dries. Whacking softens the sericin, restoring the luster and hand of the silk. With use and washing, the residual sericin will come out of the silk over time and less finishing will be needed.


—Susan Du Bois, from the January February issue of Handwoven magazine


So fear not, silk knitters, your fabric is tougher than it looks. Much tougher—I want to wash something silk right now just so I can give it a whack!

Weaving and knitting are such kindred spirits; I encourage you to treat yourself to a subscription to Handwoven magazine. It's a wonderful publication that I know you'll enjoy.


P.S. Are you a weaver? Leave a comment below and tell us why we should take up the craft!

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iteursi wrote
on Dec 14, 2013 1:42 PM

The only time that I think you really should dry clean silk is if you are talking about silk printed fabric where the pattern is not woven in but printed onto the fabric.  There are times when the dyes are not as color fast as they should be, and you could get bleeding issues with water washing.  Other than that, the other main problem with water washing silk is if you are trying to spot treat rather than was the entire garment.  I've been taught that it's better to have the entire garment be one giant "water stain" than just one spot which sticks out.

on Dec 14, 2013 1:14 PM

What about when the silk is mixed with other fibers ... like cashmere or merino wool????

Killeana wrote
on Dec 12, 2013 10:00 AM

I am a new weaver.  All my life, I have been attracted to yarn and especially the making of cloth.  However, life got in the way and only in the last 2 years have I been able to pursue this dream.  Weaving may seem (and still does!) a daunting task to undertake, but as I actually DO IT, it becomes ever more clear.  I look forward to the many wonderful hours and projects I can undertake in my fast approaching "golden years."  I definitely do not want to see the art of weaving become a dinosaur, and I am fervently hoping my step-daughters, nieces, and granddaughters will take an interest and that I can teach them.

Teri C.--Ohio

RobynMay wrote
on Dec 11, 2013 10:13 PM

It is the special effects of the patterns that can be woven in to the fabric that originally caught my attention. Now it is the beautiful fibres that can be woven in to the warp, making double weaves, and how quickly it can all be done that appeals to me. To take up this craft is to meld colour and texture and lace. It is to make big  things quickly and to finish well.  Weaving is very forgiving when mistakes - even big mistakes, are made and restarting has to happen .... Weaving helps my weaknesses look OK. I like that!

bessT wrote
on Dec 11, 2013 5:30 PM

Wash silks as you would wash your hair. Both are proteins. Silk will shine like hair.

EvelyneL wrote
on Dec 11, 2013 2:26 PM


I think dry cleaning, as we know, it was developed in the mid 19th century in France not the 18th century.  It was an accidental observation when a maid spilled kerosene on a table cloth that it was cleaner than washing.

I teach my students that silk is washable and that the dry clean label is sometimes, not always, a marketing tool.

Kathi Reyes wrote
on Dec 11, 2013 1:46 PM

Dry cleaning as we think of it in modern terms comes from the use of kerocene in the

mid-19th century, that is 1800s. Not the 1700s, mid 18th Century.