Silk is a lot easier to get hold of than it used to be, but still, it’s not as if our closets are bursting with it. Maybe it has something to do with idea that silk is so delicate… so hard to take care of. They say you shouldn’t soak it, or to avoid water altogether, that you have to take it to the dry cleaner, that your perfume will ruin it and the sun too, and ironing… In fact, don’t even look at it sideways. Our advice also errs on the side of caution: Treat silk with care, especially the finer fabrics, and to take your really special silk clothing to a good dry cleaner.
At the same time, we know that you also want to use silk to make everyday pieces that are fairly easy to care for. Since we at Sartor pride ourselves on knowing what we sell, we regularly test our fabrics and for this article we’ve repeated our tests on a representative selection of our silk fabrics. Here is what we learned, complete with photos.
Don’t let silk scare you!
Our results may surprise you. Some silk fabrics are fairly easy to wash and care for. In fact, if you follow a few simple rules, you can care for the bulk of your silks at home. Even fine silk satin and silk chiffon came through the wash unscathed. For most of the silk fabrics we tested, washing softened them and shrank them just a bit – par for the course for more pedestrian fabrics like cotton and rayon.
What you should know before you begin
Here are a few general tips, and a couple of warnings, before you get started.
Silk changes when you wash it
Nearly all types of silk fabric change after soaking in water. Most of them get softer, some may shrink slightly or become less glossy, or stray filaments may rise from the surface. Essentially, laundering changes any fabric. It’s just that when it’s a cotton t-shirt you kind of expect that eventually the seams will start to creep and it will start to pill up. A silk blouse is different – you want it to look good for a long time. That’s one reason why you should treat your silks the way you would your favorite wool suit or tailored cotton party dress and have it professionally cleaned by a trusted cleaner.
Silk is delicate when wet
Reduced tensile strength when wet is a general characteristic not just of silk, but of all protein-based materials (wool, cashmere, alpaca, etc.). For plant-based materials the opposite holds true. That’s why you can put cotton and linen in the high spin cycle and hang them on the line to dry. The strength of wet silk is only 80% that of its dry strength, which means that its fibers can break more easily and stretch out of shape when wet. That’s why you need to be careful when washing, wringing and drying silk.
The garment may be more delicate than the silk it’s made of
You can’t judge the washability of a garment just by what fabric it’s sewn from. Washing (or even soaking) can also damage interfacing, ornamentation, and embroidery. Carefully tailored items like blazers or formal dresses with complex cuts, are often shaped with an iron while sewing and interfacing of any number of woven or non-woven materials may have been stitched in. Even if the outer fabric came through the wash without any change, the garment itself may lose its shape forever and won’t ever look as good or fit as well. For multi-colored items, the colors can run and for clothing made of a mix of fabrics, each may shrink differently. As you can see, your “better” clothing deserves a trip to the cleaners, whether it’s a silk evening gown or a wool suit.
Our recommendation for washing silk
What detergents are safe for silk?
Protein-based fibers like silk are sensitive to alkaline detergents. Most powdered laundry detergent is alkaline, as are washing soda, chlorine bleach, and some soaps. Alkalis weaken the silk filament, causing it to soften, lose its shine, and release stray “hairs.” Strong alkaline solutions will dissolve silk entirely. Weak acids and organic solvents (like alcohol), on the other hand, pose no problem.
Never wash silk in alkaline (normal) detergents!
If you want to wash silk, use only laundry detergents meant specifically for silk or wool (wool is also sensitive to alkaline products). In a pinch, you can use a gentle silicone-free shampoo without conditioner. Before using any laundry product, even those meant for hand washing, make sure that it is marked safe for silk and wool.
To test your laundry detergent, you can use litmus paper (pH indicator), which is available at most pharmacies and drug stores.
The bluer it is, the higher the pH (the more alkaline and therefor worse for washing silk). Ordinary laundry powder is highly alkaline (pH 11) whereas ordinary hair shampoo and laundry gel for silk both have a neutral pH (around 6). Classic laundry gel and hand laundering products are slightly alkaline (pH 7–8).
How to hand wash silk
Be as gentle as possible when caring for silk – that means gentle detergents and gentle handling. Hand washing is best. Find a basin (or a clean bathtub) that will hold the garment with room to spare. Mix a bit of silk-safe laundry solution in tepid water (around 80°F / 25–30°C), submerge your garment and let it soak for 15 to 30 minutes. Then gently stir it around with your hands – don’t scrub or twist it. Drain the dirty water and add clean, fresh water (also tepid) and gently stir to rinse. Don’t use fabric softener – silk doesn’t need it and the film that it leaves on the surface will reduce the natural breathability and absorbency of your silk clothing.
Can you machine wash silk?
Most modern washing machines have a gentle cycle that mimics hand washing, sloshing your clothes around in a fair amount of water. Go ahead and use it. Just make sure to set the temperature to a low setting (80 °F / 30 °C) and fill the machine to no more than half. Depending on the type of material you should turn off the spin cycle entirely (for delicate fabrics like chiffon, satin, duchess, and taffeta) or put it on the lowest setting (max 400 RMP). If your washer has an “extra water” setting, use it. Water acts as a cushion between your silk clothing and the sides of the washing drum, so the more water, the less contact.
If you’re machine washing especially delicate pieces, like scarves and tops, try washing them in a lingerie bag.
How to dry and iron silk
Never, ever, wring silk out. Don’t forget that silk loses much of its strength when it’s wet and wringing it out will damage it. Lay out each wet piece on a clean, dry towel and roll it up. The excess water will soak into the towel. To finish drying, lay the garment flat. Press it while it’s still a bit damp. Damp silk is much easier to iron.
You can refresh silk by airing it out
You can always take advantage of silk’s wonderful self-cleaning property and just hang it out for a refresh. Sometimes that’s all it takes. A dress or blouse you wore for three hours at the theater might only need a couple of hours on a hanger – ideally out of doors (in summer or winter, sheltered from rain and direct sunlight). A good airing can even get rid of the smell of cigarette smoke or strong perfume.
Our test results – what really happened when we washed these silks?
Here at Sartor, we put the bulk of our silk fabrics to the test. The process took several weeks of rigorous testing with photo documentation. We hand washed samples of all of the basic silk fabric types we carry. We really gave some of them the works – submitting them to harsh chemicals and rough treatment. Here’s how it turned out.
Washing silk chiffon
Chiffon is one of the finest silk fabrics around, prone to rips, tears, and snags even when it’s dry. The white chiffon we tested seemed to melt away the second it hit the water – you could just barely see it was there. Once it dried and had been ironed, however, it looked just the same as it had before. The only difference was that it was… softer. The camera couldn’t capture this very well, but it had a noticeably softer hand and a tiny bit more drape than before. The lesson here is, if you want to soften chiffon, just give it a gentle wash.
Take extreme care when washing chiffon. As our second test showed, if you handle chiffon too roughly (scrubbing it, wringing it dry) the weave will loosen in some spots leaving blemishes that can’t be fixed. On the other hand, however, we have to take our hats off to the toughness of silk – the weave may have loosened, but the fabric did not tear. And it’s not as if we didn’t try!
Washing silk organza and crepeline
Organza is a fine, yet stiff, fabric. We were curious whether it would lose its typical stiffness after washing. The answer is no. Organza’s stiffness is not a surface treatment, but rather an inherent quality of the material, it does not soften. It does have a loose weave though, and repeated washing can make it lose its shape. After soaking it also loses any pleats or folds that have been ironed in and you’ll have to press it over again.
Crepeline is similar to organza but has an even looser weave and is not quite as stiff. It won’t soften with washing either.
When we tried wringing out these two materials, both developed slight fractures that we couldn’t iron out. You can see how our attempt to correct the situation with a warm iron (wool setting) and steam turned out on the crepeline sample pictured. We managed to smooth out the puckered strip but its fractured outline remained in the fabric sample for good.
For this reason we don’t recommend washing garments made of organza or crepeline if you want to preserve their original shape (puffy sleeves, structured skirts, sculpted bows). However, if have an organza or crepeline underlayer in a linen or cotton dress where some crimps won’t bother you, go ahead and risk washing.
Chiffon, organza, satin… not sure what these terms mean?
You wouldn’t be the first. Take a quick nip over to our post on “Types of silk fabrics” to get your bearings.
Washing silk crêpe de Chine
For crêpe de Chine, as for other fabrics in the crêpe family (crêpe, georgette, crêpe georgette, crêpe back satin) a good wetting will bring out the crêpe structure. Our sample became a bit wavy and shrank in both directions when we washed it because the water made the twisted crêpe yarns twist even more.
The good news is that ironing smoothed things out and the fabric even returned to its original size because the twisted silk yarns relaxed to their original state. The bad news is that our crêpe de Chine sample lost some of its original smoothness and luster. The choice is yours – if you have a simple summer dress made of crêpe de Chine where a slight change doesn’t matter to you, then washing is fine. Otherwise we recommend dry cleaning.
Washing silk crêpe and crêpe georgette
Matte crêpe georgette with its noticeably pebbly structure delivered similar results in our washing tests – it shrank a bit and its twisted threads popped. Matte crêpe fabrics like crêpe georgette have the advantage that they haven’t got any shine to lose. The only thing to worry about is an increased pebbly texture and a loss of shape. For crêpe fabrics it also holds true that you should avoid scrubbing and wringing out when washing because the resulting fractures may not iron out.
Washing silk charmeuse and silk satin
Silk charmeuse is a lightweight and silk satin a medium weight glossy fabric that at first glance seems like it would be tricky to wash. To our surprise, it came through our gentle hand washing test with flying colors – the only change was a slight softening. This is another case where to wash or not to wash is really your call. For structured garments where you want to ensure that the original shape holds up, your dry cleaner is the clear choice. But for silk satin pajamas, pillowcases, bedsheets, or a simple top – where softening does no harm and may even be a plus – feel free to wash them yourself.
Washing silk duchesse satin
Duchesse is a stiff, glossy, deluxe satin of the kind used for formalwear and wedding dresses, though it also lends itself to use in household items like pillows or “cosmetic” pillowcases for skincare. The question is, can it be washed?
Our duchesse sample came through our hand washing test unblemished. It just got a bit softer. As with silk charmeuse, that may matter if you have a princess skirt that has to hold its shape, but for a pillowcase it doesn’t really make a difference. Just be careful when ironing – water will leave marks on satin’s shiny surface.
Washing silk dupioni
Dupioni is sought after for its brilliant colors and the papery stiffness that makes it so great for sewing full, stiff skirts and gathered dresses. Our sample softened considerably with washing, giving this stiff fabric an almost supple drape. So, unless you want to intentionally soften it, we don’t recommend getting it wet. Even steam will have a softening effect on it, so it’s a good idea to use a dry iron on this fabric. If you decide to go ahead and wash your silk dupioni anyway, note that its deep, brilliant colors may bleed. So wash it separately.
Washing silk taffeta
Taffeta is a fancy, papery-stiff fabric, sought after for wedding fashions and eveningwear as well as jackets and dressy suits. We were curious whether washing would make it lose its stiffness as it does with dupioni. The water did cause it to soften slightly, but not as markedly as dupioni. It even retained its distinctive rustle (or “scroop”). When caring for taffeta, you should keep in mind the character of the garment.
Washing noil silk
Noil, a nubby silk fabric made of spun-silk yarn, looks pretty durable. Our sample survived washing with no change in appearance, but shrank in length by 8%. Paradoxically, this gave it a slightly sturdier feel. So if you’re using noil to sew a garment that you plan to be washing, be sure to pre-wash your fabric or at least give it a once-over with a steam iron.
How to wash silk – the bottom line
The practical tests that we submitted our silk samples to have shown that silk isn’t quite as finicky as it’s made out to be. It does change a bit with washing, however, and it’s important to follow certain simple rules. We cannot whole-heartedly recommend washing your silk fabrics. A good cleaner where they have experience with silk will take the best care of your special garments.
If you don’t mind the slight changes that washing silk can cause, let these test results be your guide. But before you toss your silk in the wash, test a small sample first. Better safe than sorry.
In any case, we do recommend that you label your silk creations with textile labels, which you can order for free from us with your fabric purchase. Our textile tags include care symbols to make sure that your clothing will be properly taken care of when you take it to the cleaners. (And the tag may even catch the attention of your spouse, roommate, or mother in time to save them tossing that beautiful, silk skirt into the wash with a load of cotton t-shirts.)
Have you got a dressy silk item that you'd really rather have professionally cleaned but you're not sure where to go? A bit of caution is always in order – not all cleaners are created equal. See our tips for selecting a reliable dry cleaner.
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