Tips: Successful Sewing with Silks – Draped Cocoon Dress
I’m excited to join Britex Fabrics as a guest blogger starting this summer. As a San Francisco native, I’ve been shopping at Britex ever since middle school – even before I could sew – and I also had my West Coast book launch party there last December.
In addition to being a fashion designer, I also teach sewing, patternmaking, and draping classes in New York and beyond. I often run across students who are intimidated to sew with silk (and I don’t blame them!). In my inaugural post, I’m going to share some tips on working with silk as I walk you through the process of creating one of my dress designs – a lightweight draped cocoon dress that works great for hot New York summers, but that can also be paired with opaque tights when the temperature drops.
For my dress, I was immediately drawn to the combination of these two fabrics – an Italian abstract taupe, black, and white silk crêpe de Chine and a contrasting French featherweight silhouetted floral silk in black and winter white.
1 ½ yards Silk crêpe de Chine
Coordinating polyester thread
Large self-healing mats
Rotary cutters (18 mm and 45 mm)
70/10 Size universal sewing machine needle
Flat, extra-sharp straight pins
18” Clear gridded ruler
6-1/2”x 24” Clear gridded quilting ruler
Iron and ironing board
Soft measuring tape
½” Bias tape maker
After transferring my design onto tag, a heavy manila (in this case, blue) paper used in patternmaking to make slopers, or final patterns, I laid out my dress and yoke pieces onto the fabrics according to grainline.
Cutting Your Fabric
Tip #1: To avoid leaving holes in the silk from pinning, I improvised some DIY pattern weights with a few ceramic pieces found in my kitchen. (In retrospect, I should have opted for real pattern weights to avoid the possibility of damaging these precious wedding gifts with a rotary cutter. Thankfully, none were damaged during the making of this dress.) If you do decide to use pins, I recommend pinning within the seam allowances.
Tip #2: Given the slippery nature of silk, I recommend cutting pattern pieces on a single layer of fabric and not on the fold in order to prevent any distortion.
Tip #3: The rotary cutter is your friend. When taking a blade to silk, you want to make sure you’re using very sharp cutting tools, so start off with a fresh blade with each new project (and large self-healing mats beneath your fabric, of course). I used both a 45 mm blade (for the longer, straighter edges) and an 18 mm blade for getting around details such as the armholes.
Tip #4: I made snips in the seam allowances where I had to mark my fabric (for instance, to indicate the fold on my front dress piece to create the draped cocoon effect).
The Right Combination
Next, let’s hop on the sewing machine and change a few settings to help us in our silk sewing extravaganza.
Tip #5: Adjust the pressure dial on your sewing machine (the black dial pictured in the upper left corner in the photograph below). A pressure dial allows you to change the pressure of your presser foot (tongue twister, I know). On my Janome model, a setting of “3” is for regular sewing, “2” for appliques, and “1” for sewing chiffon, lace, organdy, and other fine fabrics. If necessary, adjust your thread tension (the white dial pictured in the lower right corner in the photograph below) by dropping to a lower number to loosen the needle thread tension or by moving to a higher number to tighten it.
Tip #6: Use the right sewing needle and adjust your stitch length. As you may have gathered by now, sewing with silk (and sewing in general) is all about having the right tools on hand. For this project, I used polyester thread, a 70/10 size universal needle, and a stitch length of 2.0 mm. Before I commit to my final settings, I always do a few test stitches on two layers of my remaining fabric scraps to find the best combination of settings that won’t result in puckered seams. The last thing you would want is to put stress on silk with a seam ripper, so test away!
Sewing French Seams
Now that you’re ready to sew, let’s talk about seam finishes. For silk, I almost always sew with French seams, a technique of encasing the raw edge of your fabric within the finished seam using a ⅝” seam allowance. This is particularly helpful for working with sheer fabrics.
Pin the fabric, wrong sides together, and sew at a ⅜” seam allowance from the edge (I did this for the shoulder seams first, then the side seams once I attached my yoke and dress pieces together).
Tip #7: When sewing, use blue painter’s tape to mark your seam allowance guide on the needle plate of your machine. My beginning sewing students often find this trick helpful for maintaining even seams.
Trim the seam allowances to ⅛” and press the seam allowances open. (When trimming, I like to use an 18” clear gridded ruler with my rotary cutter to ensure nice, clean lines to avoid any frayed edges that may poke out later on.)
Tip #8: Use a dry iron to avoid staining your fabric with water spots.
Next, pin the fabric right sides together, with the stitched line exactly on the edge of the fold, and press again. Sew at a ¼” seam allowance from this edge and press the seam toward the back of the garment. (I also used a seam roll when pressing the shoulder seams to help keep the fabric from squiggling around on the ironing board.)
Using Your Serger
I sewed my yoke and dress pieces together at a regular ½” seam allowance and used my serger to finish the raw edges together. Prior to this, I also serged the raw edges of the seam created by my draped fabric fold.
Tip #9: Again, do a few test stitches on two layers of your fabric scraps in order to find the best combination of stitch length, tension dials, and differential feed, the latter which controls the ratio of the different rates at which your serger’s two feed dogs are moving the fabric through. I kept my differential feed dial at the normal setting of 1.0 mm, my stitch length at 2.5 mm, my left and right needle tension dials at 5, and the upper and lower looper tension dials at 4.
Once the yoke pieces were sewn to the dress pieces and serged, I sewed the side seams as French seams, just as I did the shoulder seams.
Creating Single-Fold Bias Tape
Tip #10: Since the silhouetted floral silk was 55” wide and fairly delicate, I decided to make three continuous strips of bias tape – one for each armhole and one for the neckline – without cutting smaller individual strips to join together. Before cutting out my strips, I used soft measuring tape to find the armhole and neckline measurements and added 2” to each length to account for the overlap.
To create and sew bias strips for the neckline and armholes, find the bias on your fabric by placing the 45-degree angle from your clear gridded quilting ruler on the selvage of the fabric and mark. Draw a parallel line 1” from the first line and use your rotary cutter to cut along the true bias edges, creating a 1” strip of bias fabric.
Follow manufacturer instructions and feed each bias strip through the bias tape maker. Use the metal bar to help guide the tape with one hand and the other hand to press the folded tape as it comes out the other end.
Pin the tape at least 1” away from the shoulder seam when applying the neckline binding and at least 1” away from the side seam when applying the armhole binding. Sew along the first fold of the tape (also referred to as “stitch in the ditch,” the ditch being ¼” away from the edge), removing the pins as you go.
Once you finish sewing around the circumference, pin the two ends of the bias tape right sides together over the gap so that the bias tape fits the opening and lays flat against the garment. Sew together and trim the seam allowance down to ¼”. Sew the remainder of the bias tape to the garment where it is still unattached near the shoulder seam or side seam.
Press the bias tape toward the inside of the garment so that it is no longer visible on the outside, with the stitched line slightly beyond the edge of the fold and inside the garment. Sew around the neckline and armhole bias tape respectively about 1/16” to ⅛” away from the edge, sewing through all layers of bias tape and fabric.
To finish, I folded the raw edge of the hem under ¼” and gave it a press. I folded the dress under once more at ¼”, gave it a press, and stitched ⅛” from the edge to complete the hemline.
I love how airy and easy this dress feels, and the fact that I can throw it on without a zipper. Visit my blog to view more photos of my new favorite dress for the season.