October 30, 2011

Care and Maintenance: Silk

For Part 3 in my Care and Maintenance series I am covering silk, one of the trickiest fabrics to care for and one of the easiest to permanently stain. You may be tempted to avoid silk because of its difficulty, but it is one of the most versatile and luxurious fabrics, from ties, pocket squares, and scarves to jackets (or even pants!)—and not just for women.

The first thing to know about your silk garments is whether the silk has been washed, and is preshrunk. As a natural fiber, heat will cause the strands of silk woven together to tighten, thus shrinking your garment. When something is preshrunk, it means the fibers are already tightened before construction. This isn’t to say that it can’t shrink further, but it drastically limits the possibility of a substantial shrink, so be sure to only wash your preshrunk silk in cold water on the shortest gentle wash cycle and flat dry or tumble low.

I would also recommend that even if your silk piece says machine wash, that you consider hand washing. Hand washing will help it last longer and remain in better condition than the harshness of a machine.  If you do decide to machine wash, try using a lingerie bag, which will help protect the silk from damage that spinning in your washer can do. Also, never use bleach (color-safe or otherwise) on silk as it will irreparably deteriorate the delicate fibers.

Most silk is hand wash only, so if this is the case with your garments, make sure to be gentle when washing and use cool or room temperature water, never hot. Be sure not to twist or wring your garment as you wash it or it will lose its shape or stretch out. For detergent, I recommend using a gentle alkaline-free detergent or dish soap that does not contain oily ingredients like lanolin that will leave a residue on your clothes. You can also try adding a tablespoon or two of white vinegar to your wash water, which will help dissolve any residues from the garment. Be sure not to leave the fabric in water for too long either. To dry, you’ll want to wrap it in a towel and press to remove the water then leave the garment to dry flat. You do not want to hang dry your garment or the weight of the damp silk will stretch the fibers.

Silk can be labeled dry clean only for several reasons. Some cannot handle water, were not preshrunk during production, or were dyed without colorfast dye. For example, Dupioni silk, found in a lot of vintage pieces, cannot be exposed to water or it will water stain and alter its texture and sheen. As with all your clothing, be sure to read the care label carefully.

For all your silks, avoid long periods of direct sunlight or your garment will begin to fade. Alcohol will also damage silks, so don’t spray any perfumes, colognes, or hair products onto the clothing and let them dry on your body before putting on your silk.

When pressing silk, make sure to set your iron on a low setting or you will damage or fade the fabric. It is best to iron it while damp, but do not spray the silk itself with water or you could end up with water spots. You should also iron it from the reverse side of the fabric to prevent dulling.

An even better option is to use a steamer on your silk garment. Remember keep the steamer head from direct contact with the fabric or you risk damage. If you don’t have a steamer, hang your wrinkled silk piece in the bathroom while you take a shower. Close the door and let the steam from your hot water do the work for you. This is an especially handy trick for traveling and can be applied to many other fabrics as well. 

Silk can be a little intimidating, but if you take care of it properly it can take your style to new and unexpected places.

Stay stylish,
- JJ

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