Silk sewing: getting down to business

So far we have discussed types of silk fabrics, preparation, marking and cutting. Today we’ll talk about sewing.

Before you start sewing, you need to fine tune your sewing machine.

  • First of all, change your needle to the thinnest and sharpest one, run your fingers over it to make sure there are no barbs.
  • Then check your sewing machine’s throat plate for scratchy bits, and  inspect your hands. Scratchy nails can cause some serious damage to your expensive fabric.
  • Next, adjust your thread tension, stitch length and foot pressure.

Basically, you need to be able to achieve a good stitch with minimal tension and pressure. Why? Here is why.

Tension

Thread tension

High tension pulls the thread very tight (duh). When the stitch is formed the thread springs back to it’s initial length. It is all fine when you are sewing thick and sturdy fabrics, but silk will pucker and gather up along the seam.

Foot pressure

Sewing machine preser foot

Treat fine fabrics like butterfly’s wings. Often your fabric is just as fragile, and strong foot pressure will leave “tractor tracks” from feed dogs all over it.

Stitch length must be short

Stitch length

Practice on a scrap of fabric first, because often same stitch length will produce different result on slippery fabric (it will get shorter, because slippery fabric may move a bit slower. You know, because it is slippery…).

Thread

rasant-thread

They say the best thread to sew silk with is silk. It is also the most expensive one, what a coincidence.

I find that cotton or poly thread works just fine too. Some people report that polyester thread is too bouncy: it stretches while you sew and then shrinks back, gathering the seam. It really depends on your machine and the settings, so I suggest you try it and decide for yourself. I think poly thread has a nice sheen that goes well with silks.

Ok now we have covered the basics, let’s talk about common problems.

My fabric is slipping and moving under the needle

If sewing slippery fabrics is not what you do very often, then you might find that keeping the fabric under the needle and making a straight seam is more challenging than you imagined (that is if the fabric is not gelatined). In this case I recommend basting. Basting is an extra step that will save you a lot of trouble, because ripping out stitches and re-sewing is often not an option.

The bottom layer of my fabric is getting shorter as I sew

Most sewing machines gather the bottom layer. It is especially noticeable on fine fabrics. The feed dogs grab the bottom layer of the fabric, and move it. But because the fabric is slippery the top layer slides a bit and moves slower than the bottom layer.
Often it happens no matter how well your machine is adjusted. There are a couple of solutions to this problem. One of them is good ol’ basting.

If you are too cool for basting, there is another trick, which involves slowing down the bottom layer with your hand and allowing the top layer to catch up. This method is very effective and I use it all the time.
Another solution is a walking foot. I don’t have it, so I can’t comment.

My machine sucks the fabric into the needle hole

An expensive solution is to change a throat plate to the one with a smaller hole.

A cheap skate solution is to cover the opening with a piece of tape and make a small hole in it. Or you can place a piece of paper under your fabric (tracing paper, newspaper and even toilet paper were all used with good results).

This paper thing also works if your feed dogs are damaging the fabric (see “tractor tracks”).

So here are my pearls of wisdom, I hope your fears were addressed and you’ll give your fine fabrics a go :) I’d also love to hear your tips and tricks, please share!

Image sources: april1930s.com, wikipedia, bernina.com,sewingcraft.com

Lena Merrin
Lena Merrin

A dressmaker of many years, I enjoy drafting patterns and create custom garments.

9 thoughts on “Silk sewing: getting down to business

  1. mrsmole says:

    A new thinner needle and cotton embroidery thread works well on my machine along with all the other tips like a straight stitch needle plate…well worth the cost. Mine came with a straight needle presser foot as well.
    Spray starch adds body too for small areas. Thanks for sharing so many good ideas! I make a lot of sheer silk chiffon jackets for clients…and they would be a nightmare without these tools!

  2. Sue says:

    Some good hints, and good reminders. Very tempting to keep sewing with whatever needle is already in the machine, but its a good idea to always check the needle. Or use a new one, each time. (not an extravagance when sewing silk).

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