Caring for Silk Garments

Versatile, comfortable, and elegant, silk is a practical luxury with a place in any wardrobe. With today’s “peace silk,” made without harming silk worms, even those concerned about the environment can enjoy this fabric. Although relatively durable, silk is protein fiber similar to human hair and does require special care to stay looking good. By knowing the right way to clean, dry, press, and store silk, you can keep your silk garments in top condition for years.

Dry cleaning
Care instructions for most for silk items, especially for pure silk, recommend dry cleaning. For dupioni silk, lighter silks like chiffon, China silk, and crepe de Chine, and multi-color or hand-dyed prints, dry-cleaning usually is the best option. For other types of silk, though, while dry cleaning helps maintain the original texture of the fabric, it does carry some risks. Commonly used cleaning solutions aren’t suited to silk and silks can be damaged if placed in the same vat with rougher fabrics. To make sure your silk gets proper treatment, always tell the dry cleaner that your garment is made from silk and make sure they know how to clean silk.

Silk fabric has been produced for over five thousand years, whereas the dry cleaning process has only been around since the 1840s. Clearly, dry cleaning isn’t a must. Even dupioni silk, which is almost always labeled as dry clean only, can be hand washed if the seams have been serged and you don’t mind the fabric losing some of its firmness or color. Although low-quality silk may become rough or dull after hand washing, better quality silk tends to looks better and last longer when hand washed. The natural coating on silk fibers reacts well to warm water, so hand washing also has the advantage of refreshing silk and giving it a better drape. Silk can be hand washed in cool or lukewarm water using a mild detergent such as Woolite, Ivory soap, or shampoo dissolved in the water. Because silk resists dirt and stains, only a small amount of soap should be used. Silk, like most natural fibers, doesn’t tolerate abrupt changes in temperature very well, so stay with one water temperature throughout the wash. Avoid soaking silk as this may fade the dye. To both revive faded or yellowed colors and protect the fabric from alkali damage, rinse the silk in water with a few tablespoons of white vinegar added. While some people prefer a matte finish, this texture is usually a sign of alkali damage, which can eventually make the fabric brittle. The vinegar rinse will minimize this. After the wash and vinegar rinse, rinse the silk thoroughly in cool water.

Machine washing
In general, machine washing is the worst way to clean silk as the agitator and other garments can damage the fabric. Garments made with a combination of fabrics or those that are highly detailed should not be machine washed at all. However, if the instructions for your wash machine state that the machine is safe for silk, there should be no serious problem washing most silks in it. Before washing, make sure there’s no soap or dirt on the inside of the machine that might stain the silk. Place the silk item in a mesh bag or a pillowcase loosely tied closed. Use a small amount of a very mild detergent and wash on a gentle cycle, such as a wool cycle, at a temperature of no more than 86Ã?°F (30Ã?°C). If you use a spin cycle, keep it as short as possible.

Treating stains
A capful of hydrogen peroxide and or a few drops of ammonia added to the wash will help keep white silk bright and rinsing silk in white vinegar diluted with water will help remove yellowing. While recent perspiration stains may be washed out or dabbed with a tablespoon of ammonia dissolved in half cup of water, older perspiration may be removed with a vinegar solution. Unfortunately, though, perspiration stains on silk, as on many garments, may not be completely removable as perspiration causes damage to the fibers. Remember, silk may be strong, but harsh chemicals can cause permanent damage, so avoid using bleach or any product that contains bleach, enzymes, or whiteners on silk.

Even if you machine wash, never use a machine dryer to dry any silk as the friction and lack of humidity and can damage the fabric. Instead, roll the silk item up in a bath towel and gently press the water out. Never wring silk. When most of the water is out, finer silk should be hung up to dry, while coarser varieties, such as bourette, should be dried on a flat surface. Keep the garment away from heat sources or direct sunlight, both of which can turn silk yellow.

Silk should be pressed while still damp, never when completely dry. If the item has dried, dampen it with water from a spritzer bottle before ironing. To avoid damage, turn the item inside out and iron on the reverse side of the fabric on a cotton-covered ironing board. Use a low setting and don’t use steam, which can leave watermarks. Because many silk garments are hand sewn, take care not to apply pressure to the seams of the garment.

For long-term storage, keep silk in a cotton pillowcase or other material that can breathe. Avoid plastic, which traps moisture and can cause yellowing and mildew. Silk, like other natural fibers, is a favorite with moths, so store cedar chips or balls with your silk to keep the bugs away.

Silk may be considered a luxury, but caring for it properly doesn’t cost much in terms of either money or time. Gentle washing, drying away from a heat source, and storage in material that provides air circulation is all silk really needs to stay looking good. Care for your silk garments well and they’ll keep their original softness and sheen for years.

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