Superb Characteristics of Silk

The characteristics of silk give this elegant fabric a luxuriously soft, yet springy 'handle', resulting in it being one of the most desired fabrics for clothing - including for scarves!

Properties of silk include a high tensile strength and good elasticity so that it resists creasing, drapes beautifully, dyes well and keeps its shape.

Enter the heroes - Bombyx Mori silkworms

What is silk? Are you looking for a few silk facts, its history and methods of production?

Silk is a natural fibre (ie not man made) and is classified as a protein fibre (as are wool, mohair, alpaca, angora and cashmere, all derived from animal or insect sources - oh, yes, and human hair). By comparison, cotton, flax (linen) and bamboo, although also natural, are classified as cellulosic fibres.

How is silk produced?

Raw silk is a protein filament fibre, often hundreds of metres in length, extruded  through a triangular slit in the silkworm's head as it weaves a cocoon around itself. Raw silk (which usually has a rough 'handle') is composed of two fibroin strands encased in a gummy substance, sericen. When the sericen is removed with a mild alkaline solution, fine silk, which is a regular, translucent protein fibre, with a triangular cross-section, results.

Rearing silkworms

Images courtesy of Everything Silkworms, Australia, from whom you may purchase silkworms or eggs.

white seductress silkworm eating mulberry leafLunch for White Seductress
Zebra silkworm starts to spin its cocoonZebra Spinning Cocoon
completed cocoon, moth developing insideCompleted Cocoon

As a child, did you keep silkworms and feed them on mulberry leaves? The pale yellow silk thread that resulted held a fascination for me, although I don't remember doing much with it, except to wind it onto a card. Its color could be changed to pink by feeding the silkworms grapevine leaves.

With commercial silk production, in China for example, the silkworms' cocoons are treated with very hot air or steam before the chrysalis emerges, thus killing it. Otherwise, the chrysalis would chew/dissolve a hole through the cocoon in order to emerge as a moth - but the thread would be decimated and of little use to humans!

Before fine silk is spun, the cocoons are treated with hot water to 'de-gum' them. Some cocoons are kept for breeding purposes; these turn into chrysalises, which emerge as moths, which then lay their eggs on mulberry leaves, thus beginning the cycle again.

Characteristics of silk enhance its dyeing capabilities

Because of the triangular cross section of silk filaments, which are often twisted around themselves, light is reflected from different angles thus producing an attractive lustre, which varies according to its weave.

Pure silk is easily dyed and can appear to be brighter in colour than other dyed fabrics because of this structure.

By the way, have you ever wondered what 'mulberry silk' is? All silk which has resulted from silkworms being reared on mulberry leaves (the vast majority of commercial production) can be thus described, so claims that this silk is somehow better than fine silk are false.

Another amusing term is 'Art silk'. Sounds arty and special, doesn't it? Ever thought what 'art' is an abbreviation of in this description? Yes, 'artificial'!

Other characteristics of silk include its ability to absorb moisture readily, thus making it cool to wear in Summer and assisting with the dyeing process. Various classes of dyes may be used, such as acid dyes, fibre reactive dyes or natural dyes.

Silk does not like to be in full sunlight for long periods or to be subjected to harsh alkalines, eg chlorine in swimming pools or nasty laundry detergents. Treated with love and care it will last a lifetime.

How silk is made - types of silk

The way in which silk is woven classifies various types of silk. For example, habotai silk is smooth and even on both sides, the warp and weft being evenly woven (one thread under, one over). Twill is woven with the spun silk passing over two threads and under one, while, with silk satin, the thread passes on top of four threads then under one. Silk satin is also known as charmeuse, surely one of  the most luxurious types of silk in existence.

Although  rather too sturdy to use for scarves, one of my favourite silks is fuji, which uses a plain weave, as does habotai, but its lustre is more subdued. I have made many outfits from this fabric (after having painted or printed it with dyes) and can attest to its supreme comfort and durability. Eventually, after years of constant wear and of being washed in the washing machine (luke warm water, gentle detergent and the 'delicates' cycle) I usually only stop wearing these garments when they become thinner and thinner and eventually fall to pieces!

Chiffon silk is very fine and transparent, a beautiful fabric for 'floaty' scarves; wisps of colour to complement any outfit.

Crepe de chine is another silk, often used for scarves. It has a slightly rougher 'handle' than other silks but transports dyes beautifully, holds its shape and is easy to drape around the body, without being too soft and 'floppy'. Highly durable, it has a pebbly, matte surface, caused by twisted silk yarns, which reflect light, and resists creasing wonderfully well.

So the main characteristics of silk, such as its beauty, lustre, draping ability as well as its toughness and receptiveness to dyes, stand it in good stead, whatever its style and weave.

Do you have a favourite?

Why wear silk scarves?

There are so many reasons but you might be interested to read an irresistible urge that overcame a visitor to Paris, the 'home' of the silk scarf here.  

Why do you enjoy wearing silk? 


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