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TUTORIAL-- How to "Distress" Silk

 ~Casual Mens "Distressed" Silk Shirt  ~

I love to work with silk when making shirts for men or women. I prefer to use Dupioni Silk...a shiny silk fabric woven with crosswise irregular threads that form uneven "slubs" across the fabric's width. Dupioni silk can be quite hefty in weight or very light-weight.  Directly off the bolt, Dupioni silk is too shiny and crisp for my designs. While fine "as is" for garments like prom gowns and wedding dresses, it is much too formal for my purposes.  So I wash it in a specific way until it softens and fades.

Oh yes, there can be surprises along the way, but to me that's part of the fun !  The slubs will swell, the color will fade, cross-dyed silk may become a totally new color, and it will definitely shrink. When purchasing silk to distress, I try to buy the 54" wide dupioni, and I buy more than I need. If I need 2 yards, I buy 3. If I need 3 yards, I buy 4.5.  Better to have a little more, than not enough...I can always make a scarf ;)

Here are some lengths of Silk Dupioni  as they came off the bolt.

^ CLICK to enlarge and see details ^
Each piece is 4.5 yards long. Notice the high sheen of the fabric and how the colors are very saturated.

My distressing process of these silks was to wash and dry each piece separately in a particular order, using different laundry products along the way. Here is how I "distressed" the silk pictured above, based on their unwashed lengths of 4.5 yards.

1. Wash the fabric on a regular cycle in HOT water this way--Place a length of dupioni into the washer, along with a scant tablespoon of a special textile detergent called Synthrapol   .   Synthrapol cleans the fabric very thoroughly, suspending any "free" dye in the water so it goes down the drain and does not settle back onto the fabric.
2. Place the washed fabric into an empty clothes dryer set on HOT, until thoroughly dry. (Note--this is the ONLY time during this process that you will dry the silk on the HOT dryer setting)

3. Look at your fabric in good light.  If it has the "hand", drape, and color that you like, it is time for step 4.
If you want a more faded look, repeat the washing directions in step 1 & 2...however this time wash in HOT water, BUT DRY on LOW.
Keep washing (hot)/drying (low) until your silk looks the way you want it to...this is not exact science :)  As a frame of reference, I rarely choose to "Hot wash/dry Low" (after Step 1)  more than 4 times.

4. Shampoo and condition your silk. Yes, really!  Use a good quality shampoo and conditioner, because after washing as described above your silk will look nice, but it might be scratchy if you have put it through more than 2 of the wash/dry cycles.  I like to use the products pictured below, because I can usually find them on sale.  This last time, Wash your silk on the DELICATE cycle in COLD water with a teaspoon of shampoo. Dissolve a Tablespoon of conditioner in some water, and add it to the COLD water of the final rinse cycle.
^ CLICK to enlarge and see details ^

This is what my silk lengths looked like after 1 cycle of  "Step 1" and 2 cycles of "Hot wash/ dry Low --
^ CLICK to enlarge and see details ^

The colors had changed and/or faded, the slubby grain was raised, and the silk was less shiny.  It shrank between 18" to 27" in length and 2" to 4" in width (each piece was a little different).

But I wanted to roughen it up even more. So I put it through 2 more cycles of  "Hot wash/ dry Low" (for a total of 4 wash/dry cycles after step 1).   After "shampooing" as described in Step 4, this is what my beautifully distressed silk dupioni looks like...soft, supple, and ready for the needle !
^ CLICK to enlarge and see details ^

These silk pieces did not shrink any more after the first 2 wash cycles or after their "shampoo". When sewing with distressed silk dupioni, you can cut it on the cross-grain like I prefer (so the slubby grain-line runs lengthwise on the finished garment). When possible, use french or felled seams to discourage "seam slippage". 
Wash the finished garment by hand, or on a very delicate machine cycle using shampoo in cold water. I usually dry distressed silk garments in the dryer on a very low/delicate setting until just slightly damp, and then hang until completely dry.  Distressed silk dupioni is surprisingly strong, and can take the heat and steam of an iron set to wool to high wool.

Other Sewing Notes-- Use regular sewing thread (silk thread is not necessary).  Use the best quality interfacing on your silk-- Pro-Sheer Elegance Fusible Interfacing for the softest, most supple results on light to medium weight silks you plan to use for blouses or dresses, or 
Pro-Weft Fusible Interfacing for the best flexible stability on medium weight silks that you plan to use to for jackets, etc.

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Anonymous Stephanie said...

I am going to have to try this. I love the look you achieved, as well as the idea to cut on the cross grain. Thanks for sharing this information :)

2:54 PM  
Blogger sewbluetiful said...

This sounds very interesting, I love using Sild Dupioni in making smocked dresses, they are so light and crisp,, but I have never seen this before,, I was wondering, how did you learn this...

3:23 PM  
Blogger Rose said...

Thanks for the tutorial. I have some aging silk dupioni in my stash that is waiting for a formal occasion that may never arrive.

4:03 PM  
Blogger meredithp said...

Thanks so much Pam. This is really useful. I would never have thought of distressing using so many cycles. Very nice for shirts.

4:52 PM  
Blogger LC said...

Love your idea! I love sewing and wearing silk, but I have always thought dupioni was too stiff, can't wait to try it. Thank you for the tutorial.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Bobbie said...

Thank you so much for the tutorial!!.....can't wait to try it!

6:29 PM  
Anonymous Theresa in Tucson said...

Lovely fabric, Pam and thank you for including the source for the fabric cleaner. I've been wanting to try the silk dupioni for a camp shirt so I may just have to look around for some. The silk shirt in the picture is very good looking.

7:25 PM  
Anonymous phyllis said...

Ahh! The light bulb went off! There is more to this process than I imagined. I've been using Color Catchers to collect loose dyes, but I think Dahrma's product might be the better choice. Thanks Pam!

8:49 PM  
Blogger Pam Erny said...

Hi Sewbluetiful,

I started "distressing" Silk Dupioni quite accidentally, way back in the 80's when my husband tossed my white silk blouse into a load of white towels, and washed the load in hot water !

Although the blouse shrank beyond wear, I loved what washing did to the fabric. So, over the years I have been washing silk, and refining the technique.

I "distress" countless yards of Dupioni over the course of a year, and this newer refined method that I have been using for the past 2-3 years has given me the most favorable consistent results. My clients are delighted with the shirts I design for them made from this manipulated fabric :)

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Belinda E said...

Wow Pam! Very cool procedure that anyone can perform at home. I've often wanted to use dupioni for something but my very casual lifestyle precludes it. This gives me a great reason to try it out.


9:31 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for the great post, Pam. I'm inspired.

5:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Pam for sharing this technique. As others have said, I'd love to find a way to use dupioni in my casual lifestyle. It is readily available, but much too formal in its "natural" state.

Lois K

7:31 AM  
Anonymous Tory said...

Love this post. Thanks for the great how-to.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Audrey said...

Great information, especially the directions on softening the fabric. Last week I pulled out two purchased pieces of soft faded dupioni and was wondering how to duplicate the finish. I frequently wash dupioni but some pieces come out of the dryer still rather stiff.

12:53 PM  
Blogger Izzie said...

Thanks for the inspiration and for sharing your knowledge! I distressed a length of silk yesterday and I've started another one just now. This is so much fun!
I'm using some rather cheapo dupioni from fabric.com and It looks so much better after distressing.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Cennetta said...

I'm bookmarking this one. Thanks,

5:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was wondering if doing this with a silk/cotton blend would cause as much shrinkage as just silk. I wanted to try this with a costume garment, but antique it even more, make it look tattered and worn, and was worried about shrinking it passed the point of wear. Any suggestions?

4:27 PM  
Blogger Pam Erny said...

Hello CaitSidhe...I have no idea how a silk blend would react to the way I distress 100% silk. You could try it on a scrap piece. Good Luck!

10:46 AM  
Blogger Vego said...

Hi there,
Great article thank you.
I have some emerald green silk satin that will be made into a dress for me. I do wonder if I can age it a little - take the shine and colour saturation down a bit - but evenly. Will your process work on this too?
Thanks :)

9:11 AM  
Blogger Pam Erny said...

Hello Vego, the process I describe is "Distressing"...it is meant to be harsh and to NOT be an "even" process. That's why I would not recommend it be followed for your silk satin that you want "aged evenly"...I do not know of a process that would age or take the shine down evenly. I am sure your dress will be lovely!

9:18 AM  

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