Updated october 24, 2020.
For many stitchers, silk threads are the best for stitching. For other stitchers, they are nothing but a major pain. Both these ideas come from the properties of the silk fiber.
What Is Silk?
Silk is the unwrapped cocoons of the Silk Moth. The caterpillars eat mulberry leaves and spin their cocoons. These cocoons are unwrapped to make the basic silk fiber. Cocoons are spun from a single strand of fiber that comes out of the caterpillar’s body. That means, ideally, a silk fiber is very, very long. Often though the fibers are broken. The quality of a silk thread is directly related to the length of the fiber. Because it is from a cocoon, silk has little tiny hooks on it, so that the fibers stick together. It’s these hooks that can irritate people’s skin. It is also these hooks that can catch of rough skin and snag the higher quality (i.e. longer) silk fibers.
Silk is a triangular prism in structure and this contributes to its shine and reflective qualities. In fact, silk is the shiniest of all natural fibers.
History of Silk
Silk originated in China and legendarily was created by an Empress. The earliest examples found date from 3500 BC. It has always been a luxury fiber and an export for China. There is evidence of it being traded to Egypt as early as the 11th Century BC. InJapan at least, families wouls raise silkworms in their attics, as I just learned.
In Europe, Italy was the original producer of silk cloth in Europe. There has been production of silk in France since the 17th Century. There have been attempts to create silk production in the US, but they have generally been unsuccessful.
Properties of Silk
Along with its lustre silk has many other interesting properties.
First, it takes dye very easily. The same dye on silk and cotton will be brighter and more vivid on the silk. Some silks can also be permanently spotted when exposed to water. Some of the most vivid colors in threads, you’ll find in silk.
It is also subject to static cling, which explains why the strands of silk can behave oddly when you are plying them.
Like cotton, silk is inelastic. And it can weaken, or ‘rot,’ when exposed to sunlight. That’s why if you find old needlepoint stitched in silk, look at the back, which was unexposd to find the original colors. Silk is also a strong fiber but loses about 20% of its strength when wet.
While there are specific technical terms for different silks, I broadly classify silk threads into three types.
Filament Silks, such as Trebizond and Silk Serica, are made from many long fibers of silk spun together into a single strand. Because the fibers are very long, this is the shiniest silk. It is also delicate and can catch on the least bit of roughness on your hands or canvas.
Many stitchers find this silk very challenging to use, I do. While both Silk Serica & Trebizond are similar in size and construction, they have opposite twists. Because of this, Trebizond can untwist if you stitch left-handed. Switch to Silk Serica, it should work better.
When filament silk snag on fingers or any rough or slightly rough surface, they loose their luster at that point. This also happens where the needle’s eye rest for awhile.
Stranded Silks, such as Splendor, Planet Earth 6-strand, or Gloriana, are made from shorter fibers, spun into strands about the width of a strand of floss. For many stitchers, these provide a more luxurious alternative to floss. They do not snag easily and their more matte lustre makes them more forgiving.
However for some stitchers the static cling problem as well as the feel of silk make these threads a challenge.
Single-strand Silks, such as Vineyard Silk, Planet Earth Silk, or Duchess Silk, are thicker, needlepoint-friendly threads. They are spun with more air in them, making them soft and compressible. This also makes them more elastic than other silk so they fluff up on top of the canvas. They do have some lustre, but are more matte that stranded silks.
If you have never used silk threads before try these silks. They are lots of fun to use.
Beyond these silks there are many others. Silk Perle can range in lustre from almost matte to quite shiny. Buttonhole Twist is a fine, strong, tightly twisted silk. Silk Ribbon is narrow strips of silk fabric with finished edges.
Silk has been a valued fiber for almost 6000 years, if you haven’t tried this thread — shouldn’t you try it on your next project?