Sewing and Quilting with Silk – 5 Lessons Learned

Last summer I dyed a yard of silk charmeuse in an indigo vat using a shibori pole-wrapping method.  So far, it has lay folded at the bottom of my hand-dyed fabrics drawer. Every time I go looking for fabric to use in a project, I push it to the side because I have never sewn with silk before.  I don’t want to “mess it up.”  Well, I have decided to move past my reservations and try a silk art-quilting project with this piece of fabric.

But first up, is a bit of practice and experimentation.  I do LOVE sewing experimentation!  So, I cut 6 x 4″ swatches from one end of the fabric for practice.  I wanted to maximize my use of the fabric, so before getting started I made a mental list of the techniques I wanted to try:

  • piecing
  • free-motion quilting
  • raw edge applique to cotton
  • fusing to interfacing

After lots of cutting, sewing, fusing and quilting, this is what I learned:

    1. Some silk has a directional sheen.  For my first sample, I pieced together strips of silk cut vertically and horizontally from my sample. The front of silk charmeuse has a satiny sheen to it.  But, what I didn’t realize was that the sheen varied based on the direction of the fabric.  As you may not be able to see as well as I hoped from this photo,  the middle strip cut from one orientation have a different sheen from the rest of the fabric. While this may work in some projects, I could also see it being distracting or problematic in others.
    2. Silk is very difficult to cut and piece.Silk is much harder to cut and manipulate than a quilting cotton. Pieces would not lay straight for cutting.  (I make be trying in the future!)  and the more I worked with the fabric, the more it frayed.  I found that, unlike cotton, raw edges looked too messy for my liking  unless well fused and stitched over. Silk has nowhere near as much structure as cotton, and in piecing together my first sample, I had a hard time keeping my seams straight and flat. They wanted to pucker and move around a lot. If I was going to do a silk piecing project, I would definitely stabilize the fabric before sewing.
    3. When stabilized, silk is pretty easy to sew. Once I fused the silk to interfacing or layered it on other fabrics, I had no problem piecing, sewing and stitching. It pretty much sewed and quilted just like cotton. In one of my samples I fused cut pieces of silk to a piece of light-weight interfacing, and then quilted it. The interfacing gave it lots of missing structure, but did not affect the way the fabric quilted up.
    4. Mixing cotton and silk for applique can look great. Before trying, I was concerned that silk fused to cotton would like off because of the different weights and textures to the fabric. But in one of my samples, I fused silk hearts to cotton backing and then stitched and quilted them.  Once fused and stitched, the silk  incorporate nicely into the cotton background fabric.   The sheen of the silk was a nice contrast to the matte cotton. I think this could be used in a project to highlight an area, or add a little shimmer.
    5. Quilting needs to highlight the silk. My favorite sample that I stitched, was the one I did not fuss with. For my last sample I layered silk on batting and only quilted to enunciate the shibori dyed pattern. The contrast of stitching with cotton thread on a solid piece of silk had a very nice read to it  when I worked with the sheen and pattern of the fabric.  I really like the look of the unbroken sheen and organic shaped.   In great contrast, the free-motion quilting “ocean doodle” failed to read well, as did the straight line quilting.  I think part of the problem was that they detracted from the silk, instead of highlighting its qualities. This is pretty much true for all free motion quilting, but I felt like some of my samples really “fought” the silk, more so than with cotton. Maybe because of the sheen?

I have the rest of my large dyed silk hanging on my design wall.  Some ideas for my project are starting to perculate and these silk sample swatches have helped me push me towards the right direction!