Silk: The Queen of Fibers

A bouquet of silk yarns

Silk is my favorite fiber. It's so gloriously soft, smooth, and shiny. Not to mention that it has beautiful drape and is deceptively strong.

Way back in 1999, Interweave Knits did an article on silk, and it's as relevant today as it was then (it was only thirteen years ago!). Here's some of that article, from the new Interweave Knits 1998-1999 CD Collection.

Knitting with Silk

Handknitting with silk comes with its own set of advantages and challenges. On the positive side, silk yarn is lusciously smooth, drapes beautifully, and is extremely strong. Like wool it is also hydroscopic, which means it wicks water away from the body so that it is relatively warm when worn in the winter and cool when worn in the summer. On the challenging side, silk is fairly unforgiving; even a slight change in tension can look like an error. It is also inelastic—it does not have any of the bounce of wool—and because of its fineness is subject to pilling.

Designer Pam Allen, who created the Indian Floral Vest (shown below right) recommends pure silk for garments with simple silhouettes and smooth surfaces, such as a stockinette-stitch vest or tunic, as well as small objects like purses. Robin Russo, a handspinner and knitter who raises silkworms at her home in Vermont, advises using smaller needles with silk than with wool to get the same gauge because the slippery stitches do not draw together. She also suggests avoiding ribbing, which contradicts what the inelastic silk wants to do naturally, and, if shaping is crucial, knitting it into the garment (such as with increases and decreases or short rows).

Caring for Silk
To prolong the life of a pure silk handknit, it should be washed with special care. Robin Russo suggests the following hand method unless the yarn manufacturer advises otherwise: Place the silk article in a basin of lukewarm water to which a small amount of a nonalkaline soap or shampoo has been added. Gently swoosh the article around in the water, and then rinse it in fresh water several times to remove the soap completely.

Pam Allen's Indian Floral Vest from the Winter 1999 issue of Interweave Knits, is knit from silk and then embroidered with silk yarn. It's now available as part of the 1999 Interweave Knits CD Collection.

If there is a chance that any soap remains, add a few tablespoons of vinegar to the second-to-last rinse; the vinegar will break down the soap and bring the pH factor, if there is one, back to neutral. Remove excess-water from the article by gently pressing on it, then rolling it up in a towel.

To dry, place the article on a rack or screen away from direct sunlight or heat sources. Although it is a good idea to limit the frequency with which you wash a silk handknit—odors can often be removed by simply airing out—when there is a stain (including residue from underarm deodorant or antiperspirant), it is important to wash the article promptly, because the longer the stain remains the more likely it is to deteriorate the fiber. If blocking seems necessary to set the stitches, do so very carefully by either pinning the article out to size and letting it dry naturally or applying a very low heat (high heat will weaken the fibers).

Knitting with and wearing silk are truly luxurious experiences. As you dream up your next project, consider this possibility: To celebrate the end of one millennium and the beginning of the next, spoil yourself with, the Queen of Fibers. She's a brilliant lady-over forty—five hundred years old—and she's still shining bright.

—Sabrina Klein, from the 1999 Interweave Knits CD Collection

This is just one of so many interesting knitting techniques and patterns from 1999 that reel back the years! Go back in time with the 1999 Interweave Knits CD Collection! It's available on CD or as an instant download.


P.S. What's your favorite fiber? Leave a comment and let us know!

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Knitting Daily Blog
Kathleen Cubley

About Kathleen Cubley

Hello daily knitters! I'm the editor of Knitting Daily. I've been obsessed with knitting for about ten years now and my favorite projects are sweaters. I like the occasional smaller project, but there's nothing like yards of stockinette with a well-placed cable or a subtle stitch pattern here and there. I crochet a bit now and then—especially when I need to produce a baby blanket in time for the baby shower. I've been in publishing for 20 years and I'm finally exactly where I want to be: at the crossroads of knitting and communication. I live in Spokane, Washington and when I'm not knitting I enjoy gardening, snuggling with my dogs, swimming, reading, and playing in the snow in the winter. But, really, I'm pretty much always knitting!

8 thoughts on “Silk: The Queen of Fibers

  1. Do knitted silk garments grow? That’s my greatest concern with knitting with silk. Am out of my mind or is this a realistic concern? I also wonder if you can make your own silk yarn (aside from growing silk worms ala Robin Russo). I’m thinking you could cut very narrow strips using a wheel cutter (like what I have from my rug-hooking days for cutting wool strips). It would be fun to use a patterned silk to see what happens. What about cutting up strips of silk jersey? That has some elastic in it. Would that work too?

  2. In washing silk and other fine fibers, as well as stockings and lingerie, I recommend baby wash. There are so many nice scents available. Most do not contain petrochemicals, so they are safe for fine washables, and they will not ruin elastic in lingerie! This cuts down on the rinsing. I save old towels to lay in drying racks to prevent rack lines, and to absorb excess moisture. If you have a yarn that runs when washed, by all means add a little white vinegar to the rinse and it will set your dye!

  3. I’m currently knitting with a blended yarn of silk and rayon. The feel is wonderful to work with, and the drape is awesome. However, I’m experiencing shedding, and find my lap is covered with sort of a fuzz. Could that be the silk?
    This is my first experience knitting with silk. Spinning it is a very slippery and challenging adventure.

  4. With a $44 skein of silk yarn I was foolish enough to try to wind it without help of any kind — it became a tangled mess, which took me double-digit hours to wind into a ball.

    Luckily, I can enjoy focusing on such things – but emailed the yarn shop and made her laugh – and she said ‘bring the other skeins back and I’ll wind them for you.’

  5. I do love silk and your article reminded me of my childhood many years ago. My grandmother had been a hair stylist, in those days called a ‘beautician’ and when we washed our hair she would always rinse it with a tiny bit of apple cider vinegar to get all the soap out. It would leave our hair so shiny and healthy looking. Hair, animal fibers, silk … all protein fibers that would certainly benefit from a little vinegar rinse. I may just have to try this.

  6. I love silk blended with other fibers — it seems everything I choose to knit these days is alpaca and silk or merino and silk or cotton and silk. I love the strength and sheen, but even more the tactile qualities — it just seems to enhance everything. I’ve been lucky so far that I’ve never had it pill.

    I must add a wordsmith’s comment here: Silk’s quality of attracting moisture from the atmosphere is “hygroscopic” or “hydrophilic” but never hydroscopic (turns out that that is an instrument for viewing far below the surface of water). I think this is one of those times when “hydroscopic” became used accidentally and then its meaning became accepted in general usage, but actually the dictionary says it ain’t so! 🙂 I love to preserve the beauty of language as well as the great tradition of knitting!