Characteristics of Silk Textiles

Most silk cloth is made from cultivated and degummed smooth filament and therefore displays the smooth, lustrous qualities associated with the concept "silky." Silk textiles vary from very soft and fluid satins and crepes to extremely stiff and bouffant taffetas and organzas and sumptuous silk velvet. Interior furnishing textiles often produced in silk include ottoman, bengaline, repp, and tapestry.

Duppioni silk is made from the fibers of twinned cocoons growing together; the resulting thick and thin yarns are used to best advantage in a textured, linen-like

Horace Bristol
Silkworm cocoons. A Japanese girl examines silkworm cocoons with the help of an illuminated table. © Horace Bristol/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

fabric called shantung. Wild silk and silk noil are spun yarns that often have sericin left in the fiber, resulting in fabrics with the appearance of a rough linen and a soft, somewhat gummy feel.

Examined microscopically, cultivated silk fibers have a triangular cross-sectional shape that contributes to a soft, deep, luster and smooth feel typical of silk. Silk has long been considered the ultimate in luxurious feel on the skin. Many synthetic fibers are engineered to emulate the look and feel of silk. Raw silk fibers are more ribbon-like, with a nearly rectangular cross-sectional shape so textiles are not as lustrous or as smooth. With removal of sericin, cultivated silk is almost white while raw and wild silk range from tan to light brown.

As a protein fiber, silk is somewhat warm and very absorbent. Silk can absorb 30 percent of its weight, and dries quickly. Since it is fairly lightweight and typically smooth, silk is often more comfortable than wool for next-to-the-skin apparel or furnishings. Like wool, silk bonds with dyes and supports a wide range of long-lasting colors. In filament form, silk is the strongest natural fiber with greater durability than cotton and fine wools. Silk has a natural elasticity that allows 20 percent elongation. Since silk is subject to water spotting and perspiration stains, silk is often dry-cleaned to avoid potential detergent and bleach damage. Silk resists dirt but can be damaged by perspiration if not cleaned often enough. Silk can also be damaged by prolonged exposure to sunlight. Filament silks wrinkle less than spun silks; both must be ironed with moderate, moist heat to avoid damage. Though resistant to fire, mildew, and moths, silk is eaten by carpet beetles.

Anna Silk Actress
Silk lounging robe. Actress Anna May Wong in an embroidered Chinese lounging robe made of silk satin. Silk was first cultivated in China and continues to be associated with that country. © Conde Nast Archive/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

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