Silk and its substitutes: Luxurious practicality or practically luxurious?

2014 is the year us ladies can actually come up for air. Literally. Tight-tighter-tightest has now left for the outlets and glorious, elegant, body-skimming silk is back by popular demand.

Regardless of what price level you shop at, racks everywhere are filled with fluid silhouettes, but very rarely made of actual silk. Manufacturers are promoting silk substitutes as hardier, more practical and cheaper, but should we believe the hype or stick to a fabric that has been loved and adored for over 5000 years?  This two part article will first look at authentic silk and secondly at silk’s popular substitutions.

The majority of silk is a product of a snobby worm who insists on dining exclusively on mulberry leaves. Although discovered about 2500 BC in China, today silk production exists even in Europe. As with most things, it is not without controversy: animal rights activists are not fans of killing caterpillars in the name of sexy undergarments.

Raw silk thread. © Boss1418 |

Raw silk thread. © Boss1418 |

Like many luxury items, silk is precious and appeals to several of our senses. Naturally we assume that a synthetic version would be more economical and practical. Or is it?

Silk’s tensile strength is actually comparable with steel yarn of the same dimension. Its elasticity keeps it from binding and sagging, hence quite wrinkle resistant. Do keep in mind that short-staple spun (read: cheaper) silk obviously will have less resilience and elasticity.

Silk is hypoallergenic, does not attract dust mites and is a natural fungal repellent. It also contains cellular albumen which speeds up skin renewnal, thus delaying the ageing process. This revelation alone is enough to make me wear so much silk that I resemble an extra from Downton Abbey.

Another reason for its enduring popularity is that it is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. This absorbency also allows it to be printed and dyed easily, but even more interestingly, it helps skin and hair retain its proper moisture balance. Silk bed sheets always seemed so Tom Jones to me, but since it decreases hair breakage and is apparently very soothing for those of us with skin conditions, do like me and ask your dermatologist for a silk bedding prescription.

The major complaint about silk is that must be dry cleaned – costly and not very ecological. Obviously lined and structured pieces will need to be sent to the cleaners, but simple pieces definitely can be hand-washed (as people have been doing for millenium!). Do note that its smooth surface will not attract dirt as cotton and synthetics do, but silk needs to rest, so don’t wear one piece several days in a row. Perspiration must be washed out immediately as it deteriorates the fibres and affects the colour(ditto for sunlight). However, this holds equally true for silk substitutes.

Do not fear the beautiful. A little respect goes a long way:

  • always wash by hand, never in the machine
  • for stains, only use a non-bleach product specifically for silk
  • it is extremely fragile when wet. To avoid yarn-breakage, use a net bag and do not mix with heavier items, e.g. no sweaters with blouses
  • use a small amount of delicates detergent in lots of 30°C water. Avoid soaking, rubbing or twisting. Squeeze the water out and roll up in a towel to extract moisture, then dry flat or hanging at room temperature
  • it will not shrink, but if it does, it can be restored by ironing (trickier with silk crepe)

Always iron it damp, so spray it very liberally with water to prep it. Decomposition of silk starts at 165°C so use no higher than the silk setting (150°C) with no steam. If it is not newly washed but creased, the lazy can hang their silk up in a steamy bathroom.  One of my favourite aspects of silk is that unlike its substitutes, silk does not conduct static electricity. Few things are more embarrassing than a fake silk skirt clinging to your legs like a 2 year old with abandonment issues.

Stay tuned for the second part of this article which explores the multitude of options that – for better or worse – are quickly replacing silk in the fashion world. From old school polyester to the new guys like modal and viscose, there are now a multitude of options and it pays to get informed.


 By Kristina Svensson, June 2014



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