different silk fabrics

Silk fabric types

This A-Z guide to silk fabrics – from clothes-press – covers fabric properties, main uses in sewing and washing care instructions.

Silks are generally luxurious, light- to medium-weight fabrics with a shiny, lustrous finish. They tend to be used to make smart clothes, wedding dresses and evening wear. As silks are so expensive, there are many polyester versions available of the different kinds of fabrics – these are cheaper but harder to sew. Silk fabrics tend to be delicate and generally need hand washing or dry cleaning.

Main types of silk fabrics

  • Charmeuse - this is a satin-weave, lightweight silk fabric with a shiny right side and matt wrong side. It’s also sometimes made from rayon, viscose, polyester or blends. Charmeuse is soft and drapes well. It’s main uses are for blouses, delicate dresses and lingerie. Care: careful hand wash and cool iron on wrong side.
  • Chiffon - this ultra-lightweight plain-weave silk fabric is made from tightly twisted fibres and drapes well. It’s semi-transparent or sheer, and has a little bit of stretch and a slightly rough feel, though it’s smoother and more lustrous than georgette. Reduced-cost versions are made from polyester. Silk chiffon is generally used for blouses, lingerie and evening wear. It can be difficult to handle when sewing and hems are best sewn by hand or with an overlocker. French seams are often used for sheer fabrics like this to give a neat finish as they tend to show through to the right side. Care: gentle 40°C machine wash, hand wash or dry clean, cool iron without steam.
  • Crêpe-de-chine - this is a lightweight, plain-weave, smooth silk fabric which drapes well. It has a matt texture and muted lustre. It is used for making lingerie, blouses and evening wear. Care: dry clean and cool iron using a pressing cloth.
  • Devoré velvet – a luxurious, textured, lightweight silk fabric which is treated with an acid to burn away the nap to reveal a pattern. It’s mainly used for smart dresses and evening wear. Care: dry clean, warm iron on wrong side without steam.
  • Dupion - also called doupioni and slub silk. A medium-weight, plain-weave silk  fabric which has a crisp texture. The fabric is tightly woven with different sized weft and warp threads which gives it a textured appearance and highly-lustrous surface. Its edges have a tendency to fray. Dupion is sometimes woven with different coloured warp and weft threads, giving an iridescent look called shot silk. Sometimes it’s woven in stripes, checks and other patterns. It’s generally used for posh dresses, jackets, evening wear and bridal wear. Care: dry clean, warm iron without steam.
  • Habutai - also called China silk. Plain-weave, glossy silk fabric which is woven in both light- and medium-weight versions. Traditionally habutai was woven in Japan, but most now comes from China. The fabric is soft with a lustrous finish, and is used for dresses, lingerie, blouses, jackets, scarves and linings. Care: hand wash or dry clean, cool iron.
  • Georgette - also called crêpe Georgette. This is a lightweight, loosely woven sheer fabric made from highly twisted yarns. It has a crinkled surface and is manufactured in plain and patterned versions. It’s sometimes made from polyester rather than silk. Main uses are for blouses, dresses and evening wear. Care: dry clean, warm iron without steam.
  • Organza - very fine, sheer plain-weave silk fabric with a sheen. It’s woven from highly twisted threads which make it very strong. Though lightweight, the fabric is crisp and is often used for trims, collars, facings and fabric flowers as well as for evening and bridal wear. It can be difficult to sew because it’s so lightweight – one option for hemlines is to roll and hand sew the hem. Seams should be finished neatly as they’ll show through the right side: French seams are often used. Care: hand wash or dry clean, cool iron.
  • Shantung - also called tussah silk. This is a medium-weight, plain-weave silk fabric which is woven from irregular threads and so has a rough texture. It’s similar to dupion but is a lighter weight and more irregular. It’s mostly used for shirts, dresses and trousers. Care: dry clean, cool iron on wrong side without steam.
  • Silk-cotton mix – a soft, lightweight fabric which has a cotton weave combined with the lustre and drape of silk. It’s often used to make blouses and dresses. Care: gentle 40°C machine wash, hand wash or dry clean, warm iron on wrong side.
  • Silk crêpe-backed satin – a light- to medium-weight fabric which is reversible as it has a satin face and a crêpe back. It’s sometimes made from rayon or polyester instead of silk. Crêpe-backed satin drapes well and is often used for dresses, blouses and lingerie. Care: careful hand wash and cool iron on wrong side using a pressing cloth.
  • Silk-linen mix - medium-weight fabric which is shiny and dense. The silk softens the crispness of the linen and adds extra sheen. Used mainly for posh suits, skirts, dresses and trousers. Care: dry clean, warm iron on wrong side.
  • Silk satin – this satin-weave fabric is woven in a variety of different weights and has a smooth, glossy surface on the right side and a dull surface on the wrong side. It’s often striped and is generally used for dresses, jackets and evening wear. Cheaper versions of this fabric are made from synthetic fibres. Care: gentle 40°C machine wash, hand wash or dry clean, warm iron on wrong side using a pressing cloth and no steam.
  • Silk-wool mix – medium-weight soft fabric which combines the softness of wool with the sheen and lustre of silk. Mainly used to make posh suits and jackets. Care: dry clean, warm iron on wrong side using a pressing cloth.
  • Taffeta - a smooth, crisp, plain-weave silk fabric which creases easily and makes a rustling sound when worn in motion. This light- to medium-weight fabric has a finely ribbed surface texture and a lustrous finish. Shot silk taffeta is woven with different coloured warp and weft threads which produces an iridescent appearance. Cheaper versions of taffeta are also produced from acetate and polyester. Taffeta’s main uses are for dresses, jackets, bridal and evening wear. This fabric can be a little tricky to sew as you need to handle it as little as possible and it doesn’t ease well. You can also only stitch it once – any removed stitches will leave holes in the fabric. Care: dry clean, warm iron on wrong side without steam.
  • Velvet - a medium- to heavy-weight silk fabric with a soft, luxurious feel. It’s made with short thread loops that are cut to form a dense pile or nap which lies in one direction. Cheaper velvets are also manufactured from cotton, rayon and synthetic fibres. The colour of velvet can look different depending on which way up the fabric is, so you need to take this into account when cutting out pattern pieces. Stitch velvet with a fine needle, preferably in the direction of the nap. You can only stitch it once as any removed stitches may leave holes. Iron velvet as little as possible during making up. Care: dry clean. Avoid ironing if possible (hang up in a steamy bathroom instead) – if you must iron it, place the fabric upside down on a pile of towels and iron gently with a warm iron on the wrong side to avoid crushing the pile.
  • Washed silk - a light- to medium-weight fabric which drapes well. It’s been washed in fabric softeners to make it soft and slightly faded in appearance, and is used mostly for shirts and dresses. Care: dry clean, warm iron on wrong side without steam.

Note on washing instructions

I’ve included general care instructions for each fabric but please check any information that comes with the fabric you’re buying. Alternatively, test a sample to check that the general recommendations given here are right for your specific fabric. The temperatures given are the maximum suggested for each fabric – obviously you can do lower temperature washes if you prefer. Fabrics made from natural fibres can shrink quite a bit (sometimes 10%) when you first wash them, so do make sure you buy enough fabric to allow for this and pre-wash it before sewing.

Where to find more detailed information on fabric types

Online resources

  • Google images – I find this is the best place to get a quick idea of what any of the fabrics look like

Books for more in-depth information

  • The Sewing Book – of all the general sewing books I’ve read, I think this one has the best guide to fabric with excellent photos

Read more on clothes-press

Photo by LoggaWiggler

Leave a Comment