Perilous Silks

The Perils of using Silk in your work

I took a hand appliqué class several years ago.  The project was this wonderful little pillow with a design reminiscent of a Baltimore Album square.  The fabrics were supplied by the teacher, some probably from her stash.  The lovely monochrome color scheme and the use of silk for the flower buds and rouched blossom added a sophistication to the design.

The little pillow has been a part of the collection on my living room couch during the summer and part of the dining room collection the rest of the year. It has been admired and handled gently as interesting pillows will be.  Recently I noticed that there were tiny pieces of what looked like fine threads here and there on the couch.  On closer inspection I realized that the silk buds and rouched blossom were the source of the minute threads.  The beautiful silk had begun to fracture.

All that work and it was disintegrating before my eyes.  There was no way of knowing how old the silk was when I used it, and using some kind of stabilizer would not have been an option as it would have increased the bulk of the delicate buds and prevented the soft folds in the rouched blossom.

Needless to say, I am very disappointed.  Replacing the silk elements is certainly a possibility but it means removing some of the decorative embroidery and beading as well.  Somehow things never seem to go back together looking unaltered but I will give it a try – some day!

The lessons I have learned are: know the age and history of your fabrics when at all possible, and choose fabrics that are the most stable and sturdy for the purpose intended. A better choice than silk for a piece that is subject to light, temperature, humidity and handling would have been an imitation silk.  They are amazingly silk-like with a soft hand and drape. Because they are made from man made fibers like nylon and etc. they are stable and sturdy without the fracturing over time.

The final lesson is: be able to live with the choices you make because repairs are costly in time and counter productive.  If you are selling or giving away your creations you do not want them to come back because of poor choices in materials or workmanship.

We all love to use antique and recycled textiles in our work – they are charming and responsible.  However, if you want your hard work to last, be aware of their content and condition.  Linen seems to last for ever, silk not so much.

Choose wisely!

Have you had a similar experience with older textiles?  Let us know.  Leave a comment.

Ever curious,



Perilous Silks — 5 Comments

  1. Silks are one of the most fragile as far as survial goes. You may recall having seen antique quilts with shattered silks. Silk being protein based is good food for carpet beetles and moths. While the 19th century silks shatter based on the types of finish used on them (dyes and metallic salts), modern silks are not exempt.

    Exposure to light (any kind of light, but especially UV light from sun and flourescent lights) and heat will cause them to decay rapidly. While the fabrics the teacher supplied MAY have been old, being on display for several years will also shorten their lifespan. When I was a museum curator, you were supposed to have textiles displayed at very very low light (hence some of the motion activated lights in museums now which only come on when you walk into the room) and for no more than 3 months at a time.

    Unfortunately, all textiles have a limited life span, much shorter than other art objects, particularly if they are used (leaned up against in the case of your pillow). Silk found in caves along the silk trail managed to survived because of relatively constant heat and humidity (constantly dry or constantly moist) and because of lack of light. Changing heat and humidity cause the fibers to swell and contract and over time, the ability to do this gets less and less…the object becomes more brittle.

    Sometimes, I use antique pieces knowing what they will do. In fact, my art quilt group worked with 18 individual pieces of a crazy quilt which had never been assembled, but were in various states of decay. Each of us did different things with them.

    One thing which you could do is stitch a covering of silk organza as sheer as you can get which will keep the fibers in place and stabilize it somewhat. This is basically the same method that conservators use.

    Hope this helps. Lisa (who is also decaying at an alarming rate)

  2. I purchased silk fabrics when I was in India a year ago. I love working with silk and they’re perfect for contemporary art quilts, but unravel so easily. It’s a shame that you worked so hard on your piece and it’s coming apart. I always try to cut my silks with pinking shears. It buys me time until I can enclose the ends in a seam.


  3. I purchased an early 1900s crazy quilt because of its beauty and heavy embroidery embellishment, even though I knew there were too many damaged areas to try to repair as an entire piece. I finally began to cut out areas and cover with black tulle and black mat and frame these as “pieces of the past.” I find the shredded silks or taffetas beautiful with the tulle holding the threads together. I appreciate Lisa’s knowledgeable information.

    • Martha,
      Cheers to you for rescuing a piece of our needlework heritage. Several years ago I had the opportunity to purchase a bag full of patrially assembled crazy quilt pieces – age unknown. Most every one had badly fractured silk pieces. I would have loved to rescue them but I didn’t know enough to use tulle or anything else. I passed them up with the hope that someone else might be able to do what I couldn’t.

      Ever curious,

  4. (I just found your blog via Quilt Inspiration.) I use silk from neckties in garments and quilts. (Truth to tell, I have amassed a ginormous collection of silk neckties that I disassembled, washed, and ironed, and I am using them at a rate approximating geologic time.) What I’ve found with silk jackets is that it abrades faster than quilting cotton. I haven’t made any silk quilts that are old enough to have shattered–or, maybe it’s that the silk I use is from ties that are fairly new.