Silk Fabric Types & Textures

What exactly is Silk and how is it produced?

Silk is a protein fiber, similar to wool or to human hair produced by the silk worm. The finest silk fibers, and most of what we use today, are produced by "cultivated" silkworms grown in a controlled environment. The worms are fed a diet of mulberry leaves and increase their body size 10,000 times in their short life span. Once the cocoon is spun and before the worm hatches through the silk into a moth, the cocoon is soaked in hot water then unraveled, producing filaments that can be up to a mile long in size.

The raw silk is then processed to remove the sericin - the natural "gum" that protects the fibers and causes them to stick to each other as the cocoon was spun. It is only natural for silks to have some irregularities -- sometimes called "slubs". This is the nature of the 100% silk fabric. 

Silk that has been processed can be woven or knit into a variety of fabrics. Silk will shrink, so if you are using it to construct clothing, be sure to preshrink it. Silk often has a wonderful feel and an almost iridescent sheen that makes us think of luxury. The weight of silk is shown as "mm" (pronounced "mommy") and varies within the different types of silk.

Silk Fabric is Finished in Many Textures

The following list of various types of silk may help you understand some of the qualities of each.

Charmeuse. Generally, when we think of traditional silk, this is the fabric we have in mind. The back of the fabric is a flattened crepe while the front is a shimmery satin weave. Charmeuse has even more drape than crepe de chine and works well for scarves, blouses, pajamas, robes, nightgowns, and other lingerie and underwear.

Silk Charmeuse Nightgown in Aqua by Linda Hartman
Silk Charmeuse Nightgown w/Lace
Silk and Lace Chemise in Teal by Linda Hartman
Silk Charmeuse Chemise w/Lace Trim

Women's Silk Charmeuse Pajamas with Lace Trim
Silk Charmeuse Pajamas w/Lace Trim

 Chiffon. Often the lightest weight and most diaphanous of the silks, Chiffon is also the most see-through. It creates the "billows" of fabric that add dimension to garments, but generally requires some kind of lining or backing unless you want it to be "see-through" sheer for sexy lingerie!

Silk Chiffon Keyhole Pullover Sleep Shirt

Silk Chiffon & Stretch Lace Cami-Set
Silk Chiffon Empire Waist Chemise
Crepe de Chine. A lightweight fabric made by twisting some fibers clockwise and others counterclockwise. The twisted fibers are then woven in a plain-weave fabric, but it's the twisted fibers, not the weave, that gives crepe its distinctive "pebbly" look and feel rather than a shiny luster. Both sides of the fabric look and feel the same. When purchasing ready-made clothing or considering this fabric for sewing, avoid using it in tailored styles because the fabric is too soft to hold a structured shape. Crepe de chine doesn't ravel as easily as other silk fabrics, but it will tear if not handled gently.   Pink crepe de chine silk

DouppioniA plain-weave fabric with slubbed ribs. It has a stiff, taffeta-like hand and is usually dyed in bright colors. Douppioni is often made into elegant evening gowns or semi-fitted vests and garments. But the style shouldn't be too fitted, because the fabric doesn't stand up well to stress and ravels easily. It's often recommended that douppioni be dry cleaned to resist abrasions. However, as with most silk, you can generally wash douppioni with positive results. Just be sure to serge the raw edges first to prevent raveling. Washing will make the fabric lose some of its stiffness, which may be your preference, and the color will soften as the excess dye is washed away.

Douppioni silk swatch.
Habutai Silk. A lightweight, sheer, plain-weave fabric. It's sometimes referred to as  pongee. It is one of the less expensive and more commonly available silk fabrics. Habutai can often be found as light as 5 mm and as heavy as 12 mm. Scarves are usually made of 8 mm Habotai. When purchasing for clothing construction, or purchasing ready-made clothing, this fabric is not recommended for fitted garment styles because the seams will tear from the stress. Silk Habutai - Ivory

Jacquard. This type of silk offers various woven patterns, using matte and reflective threads to create a light and dark effect in the fabric. This effect is similar to brocade, although the Jacquard is originally created in one color. These are generally heavier weight and more densely woven. Patterns are often florals, paisleys, or stripes. This added dimension (pattern) makes this fabric perfect for abstract for free-form dyeing. It can have a shimmery satin weave similar to Charmeuse, or it can have a matte finish. 

Men's Silk Jacquard Tailored Pajamas
Men's Red Silk Jacquard Striped Pajamas
Men's Mahogany Silk Jacquard Pajamas
Men's Silk Jacquard Black Stripe Pajamas
Men's Silk Jacquard Stripe Pajamas
Noil. Silk noil is made from the short fibers left after combing and carding so it doesn't shine like many other silk fabrics. Noil looks similar to cotton, but has the soft feel of silk against the skin. It also drapes better than cotton and resists wrinkling, so it's the perfect choice when traveling. It can be machine washed on gentle and dried on low, but this will cause a faded, "weathered" look. If you prefer bright colors, dry-clean or hand wash.  Silk nail swatch
Raw Silk. This is silk yarn or fabric that has not had the sericin, the natural "gum" that protects the fiber, removed. The fabric is stiff and dull and the sericin tends to attract dirt and odors. Raw silk swatch

Shantung. Once made from hand-reeled tussah silk, today's shantung is usually made with cultivated silk warp yarns and heavier douppioni filling yarns. Depending on the filling yarn, shantung may be lustrous or dull. It has a firm, semi-crisp hand and tends to ravel, so avoid close-fitting styles.


Shantung silk swatch

Silk KnitSilk knit fabrics are produced on huge knitting machines that “knit” the yarns together. This medium-to-heavyweight knit is ideal for cold weather garments such as tank tops, t-shirts, lounge pants, and briefs. Although similar to knit cotton in appearance, silk knit boasts superior insulation & absorbency. It's warm and pliable with natural stretch and it has that skin-soothing feel that only silk can offer.

 Women's Silk Knit Red Cami-Boy Shorts Set
Silk Knit Cami-Boy Shorts Set
Men's Black Silk Knit Crew-Neck T-Shirt
Men's Silk Knit Crew-Neck T-Shirt
Men's Cobalt Blue Silk Knit Lounge Pants
Men's Silk Knit Lounge Pants
Tussah. Often called shantung, is made from the cocoons of wild tussah silk worms that eat oak and juniper leaves -- their "natural" food. Because the worm isn't grown in a controlled environment, the moth hatches from the cocoon thus interrupting the filament length and making the fibers short and coarse instead of long and lustrous. Tussah silk is difficult to dye and most often available in its natural color, a creamy tan. Because of its irregular slubs and the fact that it ravels easily, tussah should be dry-cleaned. It is a good choice for traveling as it doesn't wrinkle easily. Tussah silk swatch

The History of Silk

Caring for Your Silk Fabrics