An overview of how to sew silk, satin, taffeta and other formal or party dress fabrics
Hey y’all, today we’re going to talk about how to sew silk, how to sew satin, and other formal fabrics. Fancy fabrics are part of what make formal dresses look formal – but these aren’t always the easiest to sew with. So today let’s talk about how to sew satin, silk, and other commonly used party fabrics.
I’ve made a video discussing the top tips for sewing silks and satins, which you can watch below or on YouTube here.
What are the Differences Between Silk, Satin and Taffeta?
First of all, let’s clarify what these fabrics are. Taffeta and Satin actually refer to the weave of the fabric, while silk is a specific type of fiber. So silk thread can make silk fabric in many different weaves – you can actually have silk taffeta and silk satin, among others.
Taffeta fabric has a sheen on both sides, is tightly woven and is very crisp. Commonly available and affordable types of taffeta include acetate taffeta, nylon taffeta, and polyester taffeta. Silk taffeta is also available, but much more expensive. Nylon and polyester taffeta is machine washable and durable. Be careful with acetate based taffeta – this is prone to water staining and even major shrinkage if it gets wet. I avoid it. I used nylon taffeta for the Tulip Skirt shown below. You can see how the crispness of the fabric helps support the petal shape and make it stand out from the body. Taffeta would be perfect for a “swishy” dress – taffeta also makes that characteristic swishing sound.
Satin, like taffeta, also refers to the weave of a fabric. It is characterized by fabric that is very glossy and shiny on one side, and (unless it is double faced) dull on the wrong side. It is commonly available and affordably made of polyester and rayon blends. More expensive is silk satin. Depending on the thickness of the fibers, it can be very fluid and drapey, like the sleeves on the Cutwork Dress, or stiffer and more full bodied like the pink side of the Amaryllis Dress. Both of these are polyester satin, which is generally machine washable and usually machine dry (though you should check your care info to make sure).
Now let’s talk about silk. As I said earlier, silk is a type of fiber, spun by silkworms, and can be woven into taffeta, satin, and many other types of fabric. Some common delicate fabrics are silk charmeuse, silk habotai, silk crepe de chine, silk chiffon and silk organza. Silk dupioni tends to be thicker and stronger and even appropriate for suiting. Silkworm fibers can also be blended with other fibers. Silk is prized for being very strong while also being lightweight. It can also be warm with less weight than many other fibers.
I love to work with silk cotton blends, as these often have the sheen and softness of silk combined with the machine wash and easy sew properties of cotton. But I’ve also made 100% silk projects, like this Christening gown I made for Baby Girl.
Even though silk has a reputation as a very difficult fabric, I actually like it a lot, and I think most silk is easier to work with than polyester taffeta or poly satin. And contrary to popular belief, you CAN wash it. It’s just important to wash BEFORE you start cutting out your project if you want it to be washable, so that any shrinkage happens before you do all your sewing. I wash mine on the delicate cycle in cold water and hang to dry. You should also know that preaching silk charmeuse will give it a little bit of a sueded feel, and it won’t look as lustrous and liquid-y as if you dry clean only.
Where to Buy Silk Fabric?
As I mention in my post about my favorite places to shop for fabric online my favorite place to shop for silk is Dharma Trading Company, which is actually more well known as a dyeing supplier. I do buy dye supplies from them as well, and if they don’t have the exact color of silk you want they have the supplies to dye your own.
Tools for Sewing with Silk and Satin
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Here are my favorite tools to help with sewing satin and silk; note that commissions are earned if you purchase through the links here. These are all tools I personally use.
- A pinking blade for your rotary cutter or pinking shears for cutting
- Glass head silk pins – these are very thin
- Sewing clips to use instead of pins
- Microtex Sharp 70/10 Sewing Needles
The tools listed here are ones that go beyond the sewing basics like your sewing machine and thread. I don’t typically change threads for sewing silk and satin. I still use polyester all purpose thread, though cotton thread is often recommended for silk as well.
Tips for How to Sew Silk and Satin: Before You Sew
My BIGGEST tip before you touch your silk or satin is to know what you’re sewing and how it goes together! The less you touch your silk, the nicer your finished silk garments will be.
Washing and Pressing
- If you’re going to wash your finished garment, pre-wash the fabric BEFORE starting. You can machine wash on the delicate setting or hand wash. I prefer to wash in cold water.
- It’s also a good idea to run an overlock or faux overlock stitch along raw edges before washing, as these types of fabric are really prone to fraying. Alternatively, you can cut the edges with pinking shears or a pinking blade.
- Press on a low heat setting, and with a clean iron. You may want to press from the back side or put a pressing cloth over especially delicate (or expensive) fabrics.
- If you want to use water or steam on your fabric while pressing, test on scraps first. Some silks and satins will retain water marks, and the last thing you want is a spray droplet stain on your lovely silk dress.
Cutting Your Pattern
- Make sure you have SHARP scissors or a new rotary blade. And know that they might end up dull if you cut a whole lot of any of these fabrics. Silk fibers are very strong, and since nylon and polyester taffeta and satin fabrics are made to mimic silk, they are also pretty strong. So it’s always good to know where your local knife sharpening shop is. If you’re serging with a lot of silk or satin, this can also dull your serger blade.
- Silk, particularly thinner types of silk fabric, can shift very easily off grain. It can be easier to control if you place the fabric between sheets of tissue paper, and then cut right through the all the layers of tissue paper and fabric. Using this tissue paper trick won’t dull your scissors any more than the fabric will in this case.
- Pinning these fabrics should be done with Silk Pins (affiliate link) , which are sharp and thin. Keep pins in the seam allowances to prevent holes from showing on the finished product, since these tightly woven fabrics will show pin and needle holes. Or consider using Wonder Clips (affiliate link) or even binder clips to hold your fabric together.
- Lay pattern pieces out the same way – all these fabrics have a little bit of sheen to them, and it will shine differently from different directions. If your pattern comes with a cutting layout for napped fabric, use that one.
- Consider cutting pattern pieces in a single layer instead of on the fold. This does require tracing out the pattern piece, but can be worth it so that the folded silk doesn’t slide off grain. If you’re working with a bias cut pattern, single layer cutting is essential.
Sewing Silk and Satin
So let’s move on to sewing! Below find my best tips on how to sew silk for a successful finished sewing project.
General Sewing Silk Tips
- Use the smallest, sharpest needle you can – a 60/8 or 70/10 Microtex needle will help prevent runs in the fabric.
- Check the tension on scraps before you begin sewing.
- You might also want to increase your presser foot pressure.
- I also suggest a shorter stitch, from 1.5-2mm
- With very slippery fabrics, you may want to employ hand-basting, particularly curved seams
- It might help to hold fabric in front of and behind the needle on the sewing machine as you sew to avoid puckering – this is particularly a problem with taffeta, but can happen to any of these fabrics
- If you absolutely must seam rip, go very slowly and pick out the stitches individually.
- After seam ripping, rub firmly over needle holes with your fingernail on the wrong side, then wet and iron to minimize holes. Make sure you’ve wash fabric first if you’re going to get it wet while ironing.
Seams and Hems
All of these fabrics tend to fray easily, so don’t skip seam finishing.
- French seams work really well on many of the types of garments typically sewn with these fabrics.
- Though it’s low tech pinking – pinking edges with a pinking blade or shears – can work really well too. If your pinking shears want to chew on the fabric instead of cut it, it can help to hold the fabric taut and just use the middle part of your scissors, not the entire blade length.
- Rolled hems often work well with silk. If you do one on a serger, test the stitch length and width on a scrap first. Lightweight silks might shred the hem right off if you put too many stitches per inch without enough width to the rolled hem.
Further Reading: How to Sew Tulle and Lace
Now that you know how to sew silk, tulle and lace are two more fabrics very often found in formal dresses, and they each have their own posts. Find out how to sew tulle here and my tips for sewing lace here.