Sewing with Silk / Slippy Fabrics

Working with slippy fabrics such as silk can be troublesome. The fabric can have a tendency to move during the cutting stage, which makes neat edges difficult to achieve. Sewing can also be difficult; feeding the fabric through the sewing machine and thinking about what stitch to use to create a professional result. So where do you start? What are the important steps to take when sewing with difficult fabrics?

Referring to ‘slippy fabrics’ in this post, we are talking about lightweight woven fabrics. Silk fabrics such as habotai, chiffon, georgette and charmeuse are the best examples, however their polyester counterparts can be equally as troublesome. Why not check out our corresponding YouTube tutorial: How To: Sewing with Silk / Slippy Fabrics.

How do I cut out silk or slippy fabrics?
Let’s start by looking at the first step, cutting out your project in a difficult lightweight, slippy fabric.

There are a number of ways to treat difficult fabrics in the preparation stage. I would always recommend pre-washing or treating your fabric before use. Some fabrics may require hand-washing or dry-cleaning. The majority of slippy fabrics will be difficult and inaccurate to cut as a double layer of fabric. So what is the best method to use?

It is possible to stiffen certain fabrics for the whole of the production process using a fabric stabiliser (example), alternatively try spray starch (however this can build up). I would most certainly recommend testing this on your fabric prior to use, you don’t want to mark an expensive silk! A fabric stabiliser is a great way to manage slippy fabrics if your new to sewing with them and don’t mind spending an extra bit of money on a stabiliser. However you will need to wash the garment after production so that it can be worn!

Although a fabric stabiliser is a great option for those new to working with troublesome fabrics, it can be costly and it will mark some fabrics (please test prior to use). Therefore the method that I use to cut out silk and other difficult fabrics is to sandwich the fabric between 2 layers of tissue paper. You can also use cheap paper or fabric such as calico.

I personally use tissue paper because it is cheaper that paper and fabric, you can purchase it in large sheets to cover your work surface, or simply stick smaller sheets together. Lay the tissue paper onto the table, with the edge of the paper along the edge of the table. If you are working with smaller sheets you will need to stick the sheets together until the table is covered in tissue paper. Stick the paper onto the table using sellotape or masking tape.

In the following images we have pink tissue paper so that you can distinguish the paper from the colour of our table. However we normally use white tissue paper so that the colour doesn’t transfer to the fabric!

Next position your fabric onto the tissue paper. Match the selvage edge of the fabric along the edge of the tissue paper and table. Make sure the selvage is sitting straight, you will need to lay the fabric in 1 layer (RIGHT side facing UP). Make sure the fabric is laying flat and the selvages are true to the edge of the fabric.

Next position another layer of tissue paper on top of the fabric and stick this down to the table. This will sandwich the fabric between the layers of STABLE tissue paper. We will be cutting them out as 1 layer, cutting through the 2 layers of tissue paper and fabric, this will prevent the fabric from slipping. You can position more than 1 layer of fabric in the sandwich if you plan to cut more than 1 layer.

Position the pattern you are working with on top of the top layer of tissue paper, match the grainline to the selvage of the fabric as you would normally. Pin through the layers of tissue paper and fabric. I would personally always recommend using a nap layout. The best explanation of a nap layout is velvet, in one direction the fabric is smooth, in the opposite direction it is rough to the touch. Some silk fabrics can have an iridescent sheen and may look a different colour if the fabric is held up in the opposite direction, therefore it is always best practise to work with a nap layout (the ‘head’ of the pattern pieces must face the same direction).

If you have a pattern piece that is on the FOLD, you will need to trace this out so that you could cut it in 1 single piece.

What pins should I use for lightweight fabric?
I would recommend working with silk 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. Always pin in the selvage of silk or lightweight fabrics, you do not want to accidentally pucker or snag the fabric with a pin.

How to mark difficult slippy fabrics?
When marking lightweight troublesome fabrics you need to stay away from the tracing wheel and carbon paper. You generally find that the tracing wheel will mark and damage lightweight slippy fabrics. Therefore the best method of marking is to use thread tracing and tailors tacks. Use a sharp hand sewing needle such as ‘sharps’ and work with silk thread. Silk thread is very smooth and will glide through the fabric avoiding snags and puckers.

How to sew with difficult, slippy 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). Why not read our blog post on needle sizes for more information: What Size Sewing Machine Needle. 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.

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. However I would always recommend testing both the needle and stitch length on a sample piece of fabric before starting a project. Delicate fabrics do not respond well to back stitching on the sewing machine, instead do NOT back stitch and simply tie off threads with a knot at the start and end of a stitching row.

You may find changing the foot on the sewing machine to a walking foot useful, 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.

You could also try and stabilise the fabric using a tear away or wash away fabric stabiliser; you may require this on the whole seam, or just at the start to get the fabric started. Please test the stabiliser before use on the ‘real thing’ to check that it doesn’t damage the fabric when you remove it. An alternative option is to use tissue paper, this can easily be torn away from the fabric when you have finished sewing; again please test before use.

Choose to work with silk pins to avoid damaging the fabric. I would always recommend pinning parallel to the seam line when working with silk. Pinning horizontally to the seam may cause the point of the pin to snag the fabric. Always pin in the seam allowance whenever possible so that you do not mark the garment fabric.

With regard to the sewing machine thread you are welcome to work with polyester or cotton thread. Generally speaking the thread should be weaker than the fabric so cotton thread is a good choice for 100% silk fabrics. This will allow the stitching and seam to break before the fabric! Man-made fibres will work fine with 100% polyester thread.

How to hand sew difficult, slippy fabric?
For hand sewing be sure to use a sharp fine needle such as a ‘sharps’ needle and choose to work with silk thread. Silk thread is very smooth and will glide through the fabric without causing snags or puckers.

What seams should I use?
Some patterns may require stay stitching, this will need to be completed as normal to stop the fabric from stretching. Sew in the seam allowance using a 1.5mm stitch length.

When sewing any lightweight, sheer or silk like fabric I would recommend using French Seams. These can be completed on the majority of garment seams and on the arms eye, however they don’t work well on sharp curves (curves that you would normally clip into to release). Learn how to sew a French Seam; with our YouTube tutorial: How To: Sewing French Seam and How To: Insert Sleeve with French Seam.

With regard to hemming I recommend using a rolled hem for a neat, barely visible finish. Try sewing a rolled hem on the sewing machine or by hand (should you prefer this method). Learn how to sew a rolled hem on the sewing machine, without a rolled hem foot with our YouTube tutorial: How To: Rolled Hem Tutorial. You can also sew a rolled hem on the overlocker or serger, this method isn’t as neat as the above but is perfect for use on certain garments such as a lining or a layer of polyester chiffon on a bridesmaid dress.

How to press difficult fabrics such as silk?
When pressing silk and other slippy fabrics you must first bear in the mind the fibre content. 100% silk is a natural fibre and can take a good amount of heat from the iron, but does not work well with water. Steam can cause water spots and marks on the fabric, please test before use!

Man-made fibres such as polyester will require a cooler heat and can be made shiny by an iron, so always try and use a pressing cloth or iron on the WRONG side of the fabric.

I would always recommend ironing and pressing a garment on the WRONG side of the fabric or with a pressing cloth (such as silk organza) to protect your project. Silk organza is a great pressing cloth because it is see-through (you can check you are not pressing creases into the fabric) and being a natural fibre it can take a lot of heat.

Hopefully you have learnt something new and feel more confident sewing with silk and slippy fabrics. Why not share your makes with us on Facebook, and Instagram!