The Acton sew-along : 6 tips for sewing with silk (or other delicate fabrics)

When the Acton pattern was in testing, a few of the testers ran into some problems working with silk (or similar shifty fabrics), which got me thinking that it would be a good idea to do a post in the Acton sew-along with some tips, as there are a number of things you can do to make life a lot easier for yourself when working with silk. 


Just like with any other fabric, you will need to pre-wash your fabric before you get started. Use the method suggested on the fabric label. Some silks will require hand washing, while others will be fine with a cold machine wash. Wash your fabric and then hang it on the line to dry, before giving it a good press (this is a good time to see how your fabric handles being ironed, and whether a pressing cloth will be required when you're sewing). 

2. Sandwich fabric between thin layers of paper when cutting

This one has probably got a lot of you freaking out already. Yes, I said it... Cut your fabric between layers of paper! I know cutting paper with your fabric scissors is generally a big no-no in the sewing world, but I have been doing this for years (and was taught to do this when studying fashion at university) and my scissors have lived to tell the tale. When working with silk, I think the most important thing is cutting it correctly. If you have ever tried to cut silk without it being sandwiched between papers, you may have realised that it's REALLY difficult. It doesn't want to stay straight, and it is really easy to lose the grain. This leaves you with cut pieces that are not fun to work with. With paper, you can be sure the fabric is on grain, and that you have cut it out correctly (without any of those ragged edges). Convinced you yet?

How to do it...


The way I do it is I take a large sheet of paper (I use "dot and cross" drafting paper) and draw a straight line along one of the long sides and one of the short sides. 

I then take the amount of fabric I need, and tear (if possible) along each cut edge (not the selvedge), if they are not already torn. This helps ensure you have got the fabric on grain. If your fabric does not tear nicely (always good to check on a small scrap of fabric first), instead you can find your cross grain by snipping into the edge of the fabric and then pulling a thread or two down from the cross-wise grain. This will create a straight line that you can cut along. Check out this tutorial from Colette if you need more details on how to do it this way. 


Now, take the fabric and place it on top of the pattern paper, with right side up - lining up one edge (selvedge side) with the horizontal line on the paper (we'll deal with the vertical line soon). Pin in place, being careful to check the edge remains straight between each pin. 


If you are working on the fold (you will cut a pair of each piece), carefully fold the fabric in half, by bringing the opposite selvedge towards you. Line up the selvedge with the pinned edge, and then pin in place (using the original pins, so that the pins are now holding two layers of fabric and a layer of paper). 


Make sure both layers of fabric are also straight on the cross-wise grain (marked with the vertical line on the paper), and pin in place. I generally just pin the two sides, but if you feel it will make things easier for you, you can also pin the other two sides of fabric to the paper.

Gently smooth out any wrinkles or bubbles in the fabric. I use a long plastic ruler to do this. 

Put another layer of paper on top, sandwiching the fabric in between the two layers, before putting pins through all four layers.

Now, place the pattern pieces on top of the paper, and line up the grainline on each pattern piece with the selvedges pinned to the paper. 

I normally just pin the pieces in place and then cut.  If you have your pattern on card, you can simply trace around each piece, and use a few pins to anchor them. You could also use pattern weights instead. Carefully cut into each notch, and mark drill holes / darts (in the case of other patterns) etc. with a tailor's tack, rather than marking the fabric (use this Craftsy tutorial, if you're unsure how to do this). 


I find it easier to leave the cut pieces between the layers of paper until I'm ready to sew them. This way, they remain protected, but are also much easier to identify. 

3. Use the right tools

It's really important that, when you are working with silk, you use the right tools. Make sure your scissors are sharp, use sharp pins (or even better, use silk pins), and use the right machine needle. Using a standard machine needle can cause silk to pull - or may not even be able to get through the tightly woven fibers. Use a fine, sharp needle (such as a 60/8 or 70/10) to prevent this from happening. 

4. If in doubt, hand baste

When sewing with silk, hand basting is your friend. I know many people don't like having to pick up a hand needle and thread, but for me, I'd rather hand sew first, to prevent unpicking later. If your fabric is likely to stretch, and pins aren't going to cut it, then baste the seam before machine-stitching. If you have already made the Acton (or the Rushcutter), you will know that the instructions guide you to hand baste the zip in, before sewing it. You could also hand baste the princess seams, if you are worried that the seam will stretch, 

5. Use a pressing cloth

Before taking to your fabric with the iron, use a small scrap of fabric to check how it takes being pressed. Put your iron on the silk setting and see how it goes. If it looks like it may damage the fabric, use a pressing cloth, 

6. Use tear-away / vilene

When I was at university, as well as in studios doing casual production work, tear-away is used in almost all garments. I am always surprised to hear how few sewers use it. When sewing with flimsy fabric, that is likely to stretch, tear-away helps prevent that from happening. It is particularly useful to use on necklines and armholes.

If you'd like to use tear-away for the neckline / armholes of the Acton, put the SIDE FRONT BODICE and CENTRE FRONT BODICE together as if you have sewn them (stitch line on stitch line).

You will need a pattern piece that looks something like this. Draw a smooth curve 4-5cm (2") down from the neckline and armhole.


Trace the piece onto a blank piece of pattern paper, before adding cutting instructions. Repeat for the back pieces. Cut these pieces from tear-away / vilene. 

Stay stitch the tear-away to the neckline (once the bodice is assembled) and then sew as normal. Remove tear-away after you have sewn the neckline / armhole seam. For more details on this process, check out this tutorial from Tessuti.

Now, with those tips under your belt, you should find sewing silk a breeze!

Did I miss anything? Is there a tip you would like to add? I'd love to hear in the comments!

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