Clothing basics: caring for silk

How to care for delicate silk clothing items.

Prized for its shimmer and natural beauty, silk has been a highly coveted fabric for thousands of years. Silk is a natural protein fiber. However, unlike other natural fibers such as wool and cotton, the silk fiber is smooth, which helps to make silk soft to the touch. It comes from the cocoon of the silkworm, which can give forth up to 5250 feet of continuous silk thread. The method of producing silk was originally developed by the Chinese and remained a closely guarded secret for centuries. Eventually, the secret of silk production spread throughout Asia and into Europe, however to this day China is considered the leader in silk production.

To keep luxurious silk looking its best, make sure to follow instructions for care. Dry cleaning is best for most silks, although many can also be washed at home. When bringing silk to a dry cleaner, be sure to notify the cleaner that the item is made from silk so it will receive proper care.

If in doubt as to whether a silk item can be washed at home, check with the manufacturer. Only colorfast silk should be washed. Check for colorfastness by wetting a small area of the garment with cool water then placing it on a white towel (or other fabric) and ironing it with a warm iron. If the color bleeds out onto the towel, the silk is not colorfast and should not be washed at home.

For hand washing, use cool water and mild liquid detergent. Gently swirl the silk in the water, then rinse it thoroughly in cool water. If white silk fabric has yellowed, adding around three tablespoons of vinegar to the rinsing water can improve the color. After rinsing, roll the item up in a clean, dry towel to absorb excess water. Do not twist or wring the silk, since it will weaken the fabric. Hang the silk item to dry, but do not dry silk fabric in direct sunlight because it will fade and weaken.

Some silks can be washed in a washing machine. Check the machine's instructions to make certain it can handle silk. Make sure the machine itself is clean then, using a small amount of mild liquid detergent, wash on the gentle cycle in cool water. Powder detergents might not dissolve completely and can abrade the delicate silk fabric. Do not wash with rougher fabrics, which might abrade the silk. Never use bleach or hot water, which can damage the fabric. After washing, hang the silk item to dry. Do not machine dry.

If something is spilled on the silk, blot the stain and then take the garment or fabric to a qualified dry cleaner and explain what caused the stain. Do not attempt to scrub out stains yourself, since rubbing wet silk can cause loss of color.

To press the silk, use a cool iron on the wrong side of the fabric while it is still slightly damp. Do not use the steam setting or squirt water onto the silk, or it could become water-stained. If water-staining occurs, rinse the entire silk item in a tub of cool water and hang to dry.

Although, silk requires special cleaning, its unique qualities of luster and softness make it well worth the effort. With proper care and attention, your silk will look beautiful for years to come.

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