Smooth as: how to care for your delicate silks

Legend about silk stretches back to 2640BC. Here’s how to keep it in the best possible shape in the 21st century

More so than other fabrics, the history of silk is shrouded in mystery and folklore, which feels apt for a fibre that is drawn from the cocoon of the silkworm. Its legend begins with the teenage wife of the Yellow Emperor.

Sometime in 2640BC she was in her garden drinking tea beneath a mulberry tree when a cocoon fell into her cup. As she pulled it out, the cocoon dissolved into a long, translucent thread. The teenage empress studied and experimented with the thread until eventually she invented a version of the reel and loom so she could teach the ladies of her court to weave the long strands into fabric. In the thousands of years that have passed, the practice of sericulture has been refined and spread across the globe.

We asked some experts for advice on the best way to care for this ancient fabric.

Keep silk’s special properties in mind

Georgia McCorkill is a fashion lecturer at RMIT University, she says because silk filaments are so fine and delicate they can be woven into very lightweight, sheer fabrics that make beautiful evening wear like georgette, chiffon or taffeta. But be careful, these fabrics can “catch and snag on jewellery or rough surfaces” so it’s important to consider your accessories and what you’re sitting on or leaning against when wearing silk.

Find a good dry cleaner

Most silk garments will say “dry clean only” on their care label. McCorkill says although sometimes you can handwash silk, dry cleaning “is the best way to retain the natural lustre and drape of the fabric.”

Dry cleaning is also the best way to care for silk garments with linings and interfacings “such as a jacket or a structured gown” because it prevents uneven shrinkage, resulting in linings or shoulders that are misshapen. This also applies to garments with beaded embellishment – McCorkill says these should be taken to “a specialist occasion wear dry cleaner as the beads and sequins can be damaged by standard dry-cleaning chemicals.”

Katie Kolodinski, Founder and Creative Director of Silk Laundry agrees, she says dry cleaning is especially important if the garment is made of delicate silk like chiffon or georgette since these fabrics are prone to shrinkage. She adds, “Finding a dry cleaner you can trust is really great for pieces with structure and tailoring like silk blazers and pieces with shoulder pads or detailing.”

More simple pieces can be hand washed and dried in the shade

If you find dry cleaning inconvenient or expensive, McCorkill says, “softer garments like lingerie and blouses can often be hand washed” even if they are labelled dry clean only. But be aware, she says handwashing may cause the fabric to lose some of its lustre, shrink or for the colours to run.

So, if you’re considering handwashing, take into account the care instructions, assess how complicated the construction of the garment is and avoid handwashing finer silks or patterned silk that might not be colour fast.

If you’re feeling brave enough to try handwashing, Kolodinski suggests starting with simple silk pieces. She says to fill a bucket with cold water and the smallest amount of delicate wash, like this one from The Laundress. She advises washing one piece at a time, “starting with the lightest colour moving through to the darkest.” Swish each garment around in the water for a minute or so and squeeze out the excess water, but be careful not to ring it, “as this can break the fibres.” Instead, lie the garment flat on a towel and roll the towel up with the garment to absorb the excess moisture. Then lay it flat to dry or hang it out of direct sunlight, as this can damage silk.

Female hands handwashing garment
‘Dry clean only’ silk garments can be handwashed, but avoid finer or patterned silk that may not be colour fast. Photograph: Getty Images

Iron versus steam

Since silk is such a delicate fibre, it responds well to steam and ironing. Kolodinski says it’s worth buying a personal steamer that doesn’t take up a lot of space or cost too much money. If you’re using an iron she says to “iron on the reverse side and use the silk setting.”

But be careful, McCorkill warns “silk doesn’t need much heat at all to iron out creases and won’t tolerate high heats.” She says, “steam from the shower is a great gentle way to encourage creases to drop out.”

Kolodinski also has a tip to remove wrinkles if you find yourself without an iron or steamer – the steam from a freshly boiled kettle. “Open the lid and put your garment over it. It works brilliantly if you’re at the office and getting ready to go out after work.”

Silk has a complicated relationship with sweat and deodorant

Pay attention to how much you sweat and what deodorant you use when wearing silk, because sweat and deodorant can leave sneaky marks on silk fabrics. McCorkill says, often they aren’t apparent at the time because silk does not hold on to smells the way synthetic fabrics do. “But over time the deodorant or oils in the sweat will damage and discolour the fabric and it’s not uncommon to return to a garment that seemed fine to discover it has some awful sweat rings.” She recommends washing or dry cleaning silk items promptly to prevent stains from damaging the fabric.

Kolodinski believes this can be partly solved by fit and choice of deodorant. She says it’s best not to wear silk “too close to your underarms” and advises finding the right deodorant, she uses one by Dr. Organic.

Do you have a clothing care conundrum you’d like this column to tackle? Email with requests.


Lucianne Tonti

The GuardianTramp

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