Cultivated silkworms grown in a controlled environment produce the finest silk fibers. The worms are fed a diet of mulberry leaves and increase their body size 10,000 times in their short lifespan. After the cocoon is spun and prior to the worm hatching into a moth, the cocoon is soaked in hot water and then unraveled, producing filaments up to a mile long.
CHARMEUSE. When we think of silk, this is the fabric that often comes to mind. The fabric back is a flattened crepe while the front is a shimmery satin weave. With its drape, charmeuse works well for blouses, scarves and lingerie. Look for patterns that are loose and flowing or have soft gathers, but avoid pleats as the fabric is too soft to hold folds. Use a “with nap” pattern layout to prevent color variation.
CHINA SILK is a lightweight fabric with sheen and plain weave. It’s one of the least expensive silks and is commonly dyed in pastel colors for use in scarves, soft blouses and linings. China silk isn’t recommended for fitted garments because seams will tear from the stress.
CREPE DE CHINE is a lightweight fabric made by twisting some fibers clockwise and others counterclock-wise. The twisted fibers are then woven in a plain-weave pattern. The “pebbly” appearance results from the twisted fibers; both sides of the fabric look and feel the same. Crepe de chine drapes beautifully and works well for loose, bias-cut skirts, blouses and dresses. It doesn’t ravel as easily as other silks, but will tear if not handled gently.
DOUPIONI is a plain-weave fabric with slubbed ribs. It has a stiff, taffeta-like hand and is usually dyed in bright colors. Doupioni works well in semi-tailored garments, and holds gathers and pleats. Often made into evening gowns, the fabric needs support at stressed seamlines to prevent raveling.
NOIL is made from the short fibers left after combing and carding, so it doesn’t shine like other silk fabrics. It looks similar to cotton and has a soft feel against the skin. It drapes better than cotton and resists wrinkling, making it perfect for travel garments.
RAW SILK is silk yarn or fabric that hasn’t had the sericin—the natural “gum” that protects the fiber—removed. The fabric is stiff and dull and the sericin can attract dirt and odors.
SHANTUNG. Today’s shantung is usually made from cultivated silk warp yarns and heavier doupioni filling yarns. Depending on the filler yarn, shantung may be lustrous or dull. Because of its firm, semi-crisp hand, shantung gathers and pleats into crisp fullness. It also ravels, so it isn’t appropriate for close-fitting styles.
TUSSAH silk, often called shantung, is made from the cocoons of wild tussah silkworms that eat oak and juniper leaves. Because the worm isn’t grown in a controlled environment, the moth hatches from the cocoon and interrupts the filament length, producing fibers that are short and coarse instead of long and lustrous. Tussah is difficult to dye and is most often available in its natural color, a creamy tan. Perfect for traveling due to its wrinkle resistance, tussah is appropriate for garments where shaping is produced by seaming, rather than gathering or pleating. The ribs have a tendency to slip, so pin or baste well prior to stitching the seams.