Stitching with Silks

First, it is a myth that silk is fragile. Pound for pound, silk is stronger than steel. Our silk threads are made by silkworms. Learn a little more about how silk is harvested in this article. Because of its properties, many examples have survived centuries so that we can enjoy and study them today. This includes samplers and ecclesiastical embroideries, or the beautiful Chinese and Japanese silk embroideries. Another reason to use silk thread is because of its bright sheen and rich color. The sheen comes from the fact that the fiber is triangular shaped, which acts like a prism, reflecting back the light.

Here is a very close look at a cross-section of silk fiber from microlabgallery.com.

Silk
This is a cross-section of silk fiber from the sample-set provided by Textile Fabric Consultants, Inc.

Silk is more expensive than some other threads. If you are making an heirloom, such as a wedding dress, would you make it of cotton when you could use silk or satin? That’s how we should think of our stitching projects. When you are spending hours on that perfect gift, use the best threads you can afford, since it will make a difference!

Not every strand of silk is created equal. There are actually two types: filament and spun. Filament is the highest quality silk that is “reeled” as it comes from perfect cocoons in very long lengths. Filament thread is created by twisting the long strands of silk. The resulting thread is white and very shiny. This thread is softer and more likely to snag on everything. In addition, it is usually the more expensive of the silk threads. Some examples are Vineyard Silk, Trebizond Silk, Silk Bella, Silk Serica, Soie Perlee, and Gilt Sylke Twist.

The second type is spun silk. This silk is created from the less desirable cocoons and leftover pieces from the filament process. The resulting thread is off-white and less shiny, and generally less expensive. Spun silk can become fuzzy as you work with it. Spun silk includes Caron Collection Soie Cristale, Au ver a Soie Soie D’alger, and Silk Mori. Let’s compare the shine between four threads: Vineyard versus Soie Cristale and Trebizond versus Mori. On the spool silks will look different than on the skein, since spooled silks are tightly wrapped around the core, and in this photo the spool silk is running the opposite direction than the skein silks, but this gives you somewhat of a comparison on the depth and luster of each type.

Stitching with Silk
Left to Right: Vineyard Silk, Soie Cristale, Trebizond, Silk Mori

If you are not sure which type of silk thread you have, here are a couple of ways to tell. The filament silk is more likely to get caught on your hands. A more scientific method is to untwist an inch or so of one strand of the thread. If it separates into individual threads, it is filament silk. If instead it is fuzzy and pulls apart, it is spun silk. It is important to note that sometimes the distinction is hard to make. Even descriptions on various websites do not agree on some threads such as Needlepoint Inc. Silk and Rainbow Gallery Splendor.

No matter which type of silk you are stitching with, the secret to successful stitching comes down to one word: preparation.

Silk snags on everything, which causes it to fray and show wear. So, a little preparation will make your stitching experience much better! Silk also likes to cling to things, so it will pick up lint and tangle with other threads. Start by keeping your work area clear and clean. If your project gets dirty, it can be dry cleaned or carefully washed. Silk does not like water, heat, friction, or sunlight. If you do wash your silk in water, please be careful to ensure the silks are colorfast. Darker dyes may bleed when exposed to water. As a reader shared with us, “A seller in Hong Kong once said to my mother about silk fabric, ‘Madam, there are no dry cleaners in China.’ That was back in the 1970s, so I suppose there are some now, but silk has been successfully washed for thousands of years. It’s not the material, it’s the dyes.”

Take some time to prepare your hands. In addition to making sure they are clean, you may even want to treat yourself to a manicure. Silk thread seems to find every little nick in your nails. Next moisturize your hands with a good protective lotion.

Lotion Lotion
Protective Lotion

For the best results, put the lotion on and let it set for a couple of minutes before stitching. Learn more about hand health.

Now make sure your fabric is prepared. If you are working in a hoop or frame, reduce the number of things your thread will snag on. A great way to cover the hoop screw or canvas tacks is with a Frame Cover. This also allows you to tuck excess fabric out of the way and keep the edges clean.

Frame Covers
Frame Cover

Finally, use a good quality, new needle! Needles wear out and the oils from our hands can even cause the shaft to corrode slightly. Also, not all needles are created equal. Eyes are stamped out of the shaft, therefore, they can have little nubs or divots. Those imperfections will irritate the thread, weakening it. Use a needle designed for your project, blunt or sharp. Choose a needle that will make a hole a little larger than your doubled thread width. You do not want the thread to drag on the fabric as you stitch. To help reduce the drag, use a thread no longer than 18″. Do not guess! Be sure your stitching basket has a tape measure.

Tape Measure Tape Measure
Tape measures don’t have to be boring!

Sometimes, silk (especially filament silk) has a mind of its own. Don’t be afraid to use a laying tool to make sure all the fibers lie flat which will help the light bounce off making it “shinier”. If you are using a thread with several strands, like Rainbow Gallery Splendor, separate each strand and then put them back together. This will allow them to lie side by side and they will have better coverage. If you are having trouble with them being a little unruly and twisting, don’t be afraid to use a thread conditioner like Thread Heaven.

Now that we understand a little more about silk threads, let’s look at some thread options available at Nordic Needle. NOTE: we have indicated whether the thread is spun or filament depending on their company websites and other resources. Again, not everyone agrees!

Dinky-Dyes

Stitching with Silk
Top Left to Right: Splendor #S854, Elegance #E854
Bottom Left to Right: Grandeur #G1002, Silk Lame Braid #SL77

Rainbow Gallery

Caron Collection

Stitching with Silk
Top: Mori #5097; Bottom Left to Right: Bella #8000, Serica #5055

Kreinik Silks

Stitching with Silk
Left: Soie D’alger #115; Right Top to Bottom: Perlee #710, Soie 100/3 #313

Au ver a Soie

Gloriana

After all this, does it really make a difference in your stitching? Using the Boughs of Holly free pattern offered by Needle n’ Thread, each side of the leaves are stitched with different threads. See what you think!

Stitching with Silk
Click Photo to Enlarge

Leaf 1, stitched with Rainbow Gallery Splendor #S906

  • Left side stitched with 4 strands that have been separated and laid back together.
  • Right side stitched as it was in the 4-strand bundle, still twisted.

Leaf 2, Pearl Silk versus Pearl Cotton (Size 5)

Stitching with Silk
Click Photo to Enlarge

Leaf 3, Silk versus Wool

Stitching with Silk
Click Photo to Enlarge

Leaf 4, Silk versus Linen

Leaf 5, Silk versus Cotton Floss

The holly berries have also been stitched with different threads.

Stitching with Silk
Click Photo to Enlarge

As you can see, there are subtle differences between the silk and other threads. Silk can add a distinctive look to your project. You will also enjoy the feel of silk as you stitch, just remember to get prepared first. Have you stitched with silk? Which is your favorite and why? Please write to us with your silk experiences!


We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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