Caring For Silk Clothes
Silk has been a status symbol synonymous with elegance, taste and style for centuries, but this valuable fabric can be ruined in an instant when it’s washed or stored incorrectly. Knowing what it takes to care for your silk clothing properly will extend the life of your favorite pieces and keep them looking pristine all year round.
Identifying Pure Silk and Silk Blends
Do you know where silk comes from?
Naturally strong and unbelievably soft, it’s amazing to think that silk in its purest form is extracted from the cocoons of the mulberry silkworm. The process that takes the raw cocoon and turns silk thread into a panel of delicately woven fabric involves a number of steps that must be performed with expertise and precision to produce the right result.
Considering how tedious the production of silk is, it’s no wonder that clothing made with silk needs to be treated with extraordinary care in order to preserve the integrity of the natural fiber and its distinctive sheen. How you choose to clean and care for your silk garments will depend on a number of factors, but most importantly on whether your item is purely or partially made of silk strands.
It can take time and practice to tell whether a piece of clothing is made of pure silk or not at a glance, but knowing one or two tricks of the trade can help ensure you’re purchasing authentic pieces at the right price.
- Look for a shimmer. Real silk reflects light in a unique way given the molecular structure of its strands, which means it will shimmer and shift color as light moves across it. Fake silk will reflect only white in the light.
- Rub it between your fingers. Pure silk is a natural fiber and will react differently when rubbed between your fingers than a synthetic fabric would. You should feel it become warm after a little rubbing.
- Listen for a textural crunch. When bunched together, real silk creates a distinct sound that some describe as similar to stepping on fresh snow.
It’s important to know that commercial textile standards allow for some wiggle room when it comes to claiming something is pure silk or a silk blend. Pure silk does not mean 100% silk in every case since the fabric need only be 95% or greater to earn a label as pure silk. Any fabric whose silk content is between 20-50% can be called a silk blend or blended silk. However, these standards are not always accurately monitored, so make sure you’re purchasing your garments from trusted sources that are known to produce quality pieces.
When to Dry Clean Silk Garments
Is silk part of the clothes you can dry clean?
Contrary to what the name suggests, dry cleaning does submerge your clothes in a liquid bath — but instead of water, a chemical solvent is used to clean and remove stains. The type of solvent used is chosen according to what fabric needs cleaning and what type of staining may be present. In the case of silk, a vast majority of garments made from this natural fiber will require dry cleaning in order to maintain their beauty and longevity.
The label on your clothing is always the best place to start when you’re trying to figure out the most effective and safe way to clean silk pieces. If your garment lacks a label or care instructions, you can ask your local dry cleaner to assess the piece and advise you on the best course of action for care. Some types of silk clothing are pretreated during manufacturing and do not respond well to dry cleaning.
When appropriate, dry cleaning is often considered the best method even if your silk piece can withstand hand-washing at home. Dry cleaners have access to special solvents that can target stains with different products according to the nature of the stain. Their steaming equipment is also more robust than at-home clothing steamers and often safer to use to get that wrinkle-free result you want.
Washing Silk Clothes Clean at Home
Whether you’re just trying to clean a silk piece in a pinch between visits to the professionals or your label expressly prohibits the use of dry cleaning solvents, it’s handy to know a few tips to washing silk at home that will keep it looking as gorgeous as the day you bought it.
For being one of the strongest natural fibers known to us, silk is quite vulnerable when wet. Up to 20% of its natural strength is lost when it’s saturated and because it has poor elasticity, it can become misshapen easily when stretched.
When you’re hand-washing your silk at home, keep these guidelines in mind:
- Use detergents and stain removers that are clearly labelled as safe for silk fabric.
- Wash silk garments separately from one another and other delicates to prevent color bleeding.
- Turn clothing inside-out prior to washing.
- Submerge in a tub or sink filled with cool water and enough mild, silk-safe detergent to cleanse the material.
- Agitate the water by stirring gently; do not attempt to scrub or stretch silk fabric as it can lose its shape permanently.
- Allow the material to soak for up to 30 minutes so that the fabric has enough time to release dirt and oily substances.
- Rinse by gently running cool water through the material until the water runs clean and clear of suds.
- Do not twist or wring the fabric to release excess water; squeeze the fabric together or against the edge of the sink carefully to press water out.
- Lay flat to dry; avoid hanging or draping wet silk in order to help it keeps its shape.
If your garment’s label allows for machine-washing, it will likely instruct you to follow steps like these for the best results:
- As with the hand-washing method, turn the garment inside-out prior to washing.
- Avoid snags to your silk fabric by using a mesh washing bag meant for delicate clothing.
- Choose the cycle meant for delicate washes and make sure to use a cold water temperature.
- A slow spin cycle is safest for silk fabric since faster spin cycles can cause inadvertent stretching.
Once dry, silk fabric can be steamed in order to remove wrinkles. Be careful not to stretch the garment too much while steaming since this can damage the fibers and alter the fit of the clothing permanently. Instead, hang the garment upright and use the steam wand in downward strokes to relax the fabric and straighten any wrinkles.
You can also try looking at your washer's hand wash instructions to see if you can use it for washing your silk clothing.
Getting Rid of Stubborn Silk Stains
If your silk garment has a stain, you’ll want to remove it prior to washing the fabric to avoid setting the stain. The process of removing stains can be tricky depending on the substance that caused the stain. If you take your garment to a dry cleaner, they may ask you this, as well, since the type of stain will determine which solvent they use to remove it.
Most stain removers made for in-home use on silk garments may be all-purpose, but make sure to read the labels on the bottle to check for warnings or notes about how to mix the product for the best results. Once the solution is applied, you may need to rub the fabric gently to work the solution into the stain — but avoid scrubbing it vigorously or scratching at the surface.
Silk fabric can trick you, so be careful — you may not realize it’s stained until after it’s been cleaned since the natural fibers can absorb substances like sweat and body oils whose stains may not appear until they’ve been exposed to solvents or heat from steaming.
Even if your silk garment’s label advises against dry cleaning, it may be worthwhile to visit the dry cleaner for stain removal services in particular. The solvents they use for stain removal may still be safe even for garments that cannot be submerged in professional cleaning solutions. This can be a lifesaver for your garment if a stain proves too stubborn for at-home solutions to tackle.
Protecting Silk Against Damage
Silk clothing can be damaged in a number of ways, but one of the most common causes of damage to this expensive fabric is mishandling it while cleaning. This is particularly true when attempting to remove difficult stains. Because of its vulnerability to strong chemicals, bleach should never be used on silk fabric. This includes detergents that use color-safe bleach or bleaches that are oxygen-based instead of a conventional chlorine bleach.
Tumble drying silk, even on low or no-heat settings, can also cause the fibers of the fabric to break or stretch out of shape. If you want to speed up a silk garment’s natural drying process, you can lay it out flat on a cotton towel and place another cotton towel on top of it. Then, gently roll it into a spiral so that the slight pressure between the layers helps the towels to absorb moisture from the silk fabric.
Solutions for Dull Fabric
If you find that the sheen of your silk clothing has lost its luster or shimmer and appears to have a white film or looks dull, the silk fibers may have become damaged due to improper cleaning or exposure to too much light or heat. A solution of 1/4 cup white distilled vinegar for every gallon of water used can help restore the fabric’s natural shine. Follow the steps you would with hand-washing, where you submerge the garment but do not scrub or stretch it, and be sure to rinse it thoroughly and dry the garment flat.
Steaming vs. Pressing
While steaming is the safest way to remove wrinkles in silk clothing, it is possible to use an iron on a low heat setting for items whose labels indicate pressing is a safe practice. Even then, you may want to consider using a specialty pressing cloth that acts as a barrier between your garment and the iron’s plate. Be sure to turn the garment inside-out before ironing, as well.
Overexposure to sunlight and heat can also cause damage to the texture and color of a silk garment, so avoid placing them near heat sources or windows that let in a lot of daylight. Use opaque garment bags if you need to hang your clothing in the car and try to remove the silk garments as soon as possible to minimize the time they spend inside of the car on a hot day.
Repelling Silk’s Worst Enemy: Clothes Moths
Clothes Moths can make quick work of eating through silk garments and the damage they cause can be expensive to repair or, worse, completely irreparable.
A moth infestation can spread quickly from one garment to the next, especially if the garments are stored incorrectly and left unchecked for a long period of time.
Strong chemical treatments, like those used in commercial mothballs and moth crystals, may pose a risk to your silk garments or to yourself if they’re not handled correctly. These treatments release a type of gas and must be used in a tightly sealed space or container in order to be effective. Clothing that has been exposed to these chemicals must be aired out or cleaned before it can be worn again and a distinctive scent from the fumigant may linger on the material for some time.
Natural alternatives like lavender and cedar wood oil are traditional but not always effective moth deterrents. If they are used, they must be replenished frequently in order to continue working consistently. While cedar oils might kill young moth larvae, it is ineffective against eggs that have not yet hatched or moths that are full grown. Existing infestations must be eradicated before cedar or lavender can be effective.
Traps for Clothes Moths are both natural and will help control the moth population rather than just attempt to repel adult clothes moths. Use Clothes Moth pheromone traps to monitor for signs of clothes moth activity. For more tips on Clothes Moth prevention, check out our blog!
If you plan to store a silk garment for a long time, you should still take it out of storage and inspect it and the storage area for any signs of clothes moth infestation regularly. If deep cleaning does not rid your space of these pests, consider our Delicate Fabrics Moth Killer Kit.
Proper Storage Techniques for Silk Clothes
Cool, dry and dark are conditions that suit silk in storage the best. As a natural fibre, it needs to breathe, so storing silk in tightly sealed plastic can often do more harm than good. It’s better to store silk between layers of cotton fabric or in breathable cotton bags when folded, or hung in zippered garment bags to help your silk clothing retain its shape and keep it wrinkle-free for when you’re ready to wear it again.
However you plan to store your silk garments, always make sure they are fully clean and free of stains before you put them away. Leftover dirt from a day’s wear or the natural oils of your body can degrade the fabric as it sits or hangs in storage, which may result in permanent staining or damage to the silk fibers. It’s a good idea to check on your stored garments periodically, too, in case dormant substances show up as stains or the integrity of your storing method is compromised by accidental damage of pest infestation.
When properly maintained, silk clothing can last a lifetime and beyond, justifying its expense by becoming an heirloom piece that can be passed from one generation to the next. Take care of your silk clothing and it will repay your efforts with timeless style throughout the years to come.