Silk looks wonderful and feels wonderful, whether used for clothing, bedsheets or something else entirely. Yet silk garments and linens are also expensive and difficult to maintain at times. This delicate fabric requires more care than most of the other fabrics we are used to, and many of us are scared to work with it because of how expensive it is. It's not like many of us grew up wearing silk clothing or using silk around the house every day.
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Nonetheless, silk needs cleaning just like everything else. It collects dust and other grime over time, and if it touches our skin, that's a whole additional layer of filth that enters the equation — no matter how clean we think we are. However, cleaning silk doesn't have to be scary or seem impossible. People have been doing so for thousands of years, and now we have tools and techniques that weren't possible even a century ago. Believe it or not, you may even be able to machine wash silk, as long as you use the right laundry detergent and choose the delicate cycle. Once you have the hang of it, it'll be easy and a part of your routine.
Here's everything you need to know and a step-by-step DIY guide on how to clean your precious silks:
When Should You Clean Your Silks?
First off, when (or rather how often) should you clean your silk items? Each wash can wear away just a little at your silks, so common sense says you shouldn't constantly be washing them. However, you do want them to be at their best. So, what's the balance?
If your silks are dirty, you should clean them, obviously, but what about other situations? We recommend going by the following guidelines:
- We recommend washing silk linens about as often as you would any bedding when it comes to pillowcases and sheets. This means about once a week on average, and every few days for your pillowcases if you are sleeping on the same one every night. Some people will flip their pillow, so the pillowcase lasts a week before washing is required.
- Silk clothing follows the same rule. How often would you wash that item if it was made of anything other than silk fabric? A lot of this depends on the amount of skin contact. If it's underwear or a shirt that directly contacts the skin, then you should wash it after one wearing, possibly two in cooler weather. Robes that go over other clothing can perhaps go five to seven wearings before needing to be washed. Use a bit of common sense. If something is dirty, wash it.
- Other items, such as tapestries, curtains, etc. will vary greatly and perhaps shouldn't be washed at all. For those items, especially art pieces, you should contact professionals. At the very least, check the care label for further instructions. Many of these items are dry clean only, and you may cause significant damage if you try to hand wash or machine wash them yourself.
How to Wash Silk
Step 1: Select a Cleaning Method and Inspect Your Silks
You can use a washing machine to clean silk fabric as long as you are careful. Avoid mixing silk items with anything else — silk should only be washed with silk. Furthermore, when washing silk in a machine, you should invest in a mesh bag and put your silk items in it. They should come in different sizes, so both sheets and pillowcases will have a bag that works. These bags reduce the risk of damage and cost only a few dollars. Since they could save you from destroying an expensive silk garment or another silk item, spending the money on mesh bags is definitely worthwhile. You should also wash silk items inside out to help protect them and avoid snags.
Alternatively, hand washing silk is a common practice and recommended in some circumstances. If you just got the item, some experts say that handwashing them the first few times allows the silk to keep the shine it's known for. It might be harder for larger garments and perhaps impractical if you don’t have a lot of space, but keep this in mind. Also, don't hand wash if you feel the need to rush. You'll be more likely to make a mistake or mistreat the fabric, which is the last thing you want. When hand washing, be sure to use a mild detergent, to further reduce the risk of damage. Earth Breeze Eco-Friendly Laundry Detergent Sheets are easy to use and work great for hand-washing.
We'll assume you are using a washing machine for the rest of this article, but all our instructions easily convert to hand washing guidelines with a bit of common sense. Feel free to look up additional instructions if you run into any confusion.
However, before setting things up, you should inspect the item carefully. Look for the following:
- Are there any tags? There might be one with specific cleaning instructions for that item. Check to see if there is anything different from what is listed here. If so, those instructions take precedence. It’s vital to wash silk clothing and linens properly to keep them looking like new.
- Inspect your silk item for stains. Our method listed here is for general washing, and if you discover a stain, you should pre-treat it before washing. As for what to do, look up specific information based on the type of stain it is. Keen in mind that harsh stain removers, especially those containing chlorine bleach, usually are not suitable for silk and other delicate materials. Always do a spot test in an inconspicuous area before pre-treating the stain.
- Note if the silk is color-safe or has any other properties you should be aware of. The world of silk is vast, so there might be additional special considerations.
Once all that is done, you're ready to get your load in and start up your washing machine.
Step 2: Double-Check Your Settings and Temperatures
Before hitting the "wash" button, check whether your washing machine is on the right setting for silk. Many people only use one cycle for everything, and while that's fine for t-shirts and towels you don't care about, silk is an entirely different matter. Stick with your machine’s delicate wash cycle to minimize the risk of damage. You should also double-check the tags on your clothes to see if there are any laundry symbols.
As a rule, silk should never be washed by water above 30 degrees Celsius (or 86 degrees Fahrenheit). Cold water is the safest option and should be enough to clean most silk items. Excessively hot water can weaken (distort) the fabric or cause issues with the item’s color, such as color bleeding. There may also be variations on how hot it can get, so double-check the fabric care tags or instructions for the item in question, as well as any notes you can find on your washer.
In terms of cycles, you should never use anything other than the "delicates and knits" option — or, at the very least, the most sensitive option. You may want to be careful with older machines, and you will want to inspect your silk after the first few washes in a machine to make extra sure there aren't any problems. Some time spent now saves you in the long run.
Step 3: Wash Using the Right Products
Once all of that is checked and you have the settings you want, you should double-check which products you're using. Make sure you are only using gentle detergents that do not contain bleach and, ideally, are designed for delicates. You will also want to avoid fabric conditioners and softeners, as they can harm silk. Brightening agents are also best avoided, as they can be too harsh for natural fibers like silk.
Take note of when the wash is due to finish, as you will want to get your items drying as soon as possible. Do not leave silk wet in the washing machine overnight.
Step 4: Dry and Properly Store Your Silk
After washing, ensure your silk items are completely dry and free of excess moisture. Most people do not recommend drying silk in a dryer. Instead, they recommend air drying. Dryers have gotten better over the years, so check if there is just an "air" setting and just how gentle it is if you would prefer using a machine. Do not dry longer than is needed, and check the silk every few minutes if you can. They'll dry quicker in the dryer than you think.
If you are drying silk by air, which many experts prefer, avoid direct sunlight, which can affect the colors long-term. Hanging them outside where the air can help is best, but even a nice spot indoors on a hanger or a drying rack can be great during bad weather or if you don't have much outside space. Silk dries relatively quickly but give it the time it needs. Whatever option you choose, do not attempt to wring the excess water out of the fabric. Doing so could distort the fibers and leave you with a misshapen garment.
As for storage, you should store silk in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight (or sunlight at all, if possible). You might have a closet or drawer in mind. Furthermore, we recommend storing silk in a cotton bag or wrapping it in tissue paper before storing it. Finally, try to avoid storing your silk in plastic containers of any kind, as they can offset the color of your silks over time.
You will also want to make sure that the area is free of pests. The last thing you need is some curious critter making a home in your silk sheets or insects infesting and potentially ruining them. Remove silk garments and linens from storage regularly to make sure they are insect-free and in good condition.
Warnings and Tips
In addition to the above steps, you will want to keep the following in mind:
- You should never use chlorine bleach or any cleaning products containing bleach. These products can permanently change the color of the silk for the worse. We mentioned not using harsh products already, but we want to drive this point home to keep you from inadvertently damaging your silk items.
- If you need to remove a stain, remember to choose a pre-treatment product that is safe to use on silk, and test it in a hidden area just to be sure. Rather than trying to scrub stains away, dab at them using a clean cloth. Leave large and especially stubborn stains to the professionals.
- Above all else, you should note any manufacturer instructions. While the above method will work with most silk, there may be another factor at play that can restrict recommended washing options.
- If you are terrified of washing silk yourself or have a particular item you are worried about, dry cleaning remains an option. It can be costly and a hassle, but less so than replacing the item. The professionals have their reputation for a reason, and they likely have tools and methods you don't. Enlisting the help of a professional dry cleaner is the best option for vintage and irreplaceable silk items.
- If you see a "dry clean only" label on the item, you should only dry clean it. That being said, silk rarely requires dry cleaning.
- Be careful with silk when wet. It can chafe or get damaged quite easily. While it is known to be a tough fabric when dry, water makes the silk structurally weaker. The wrong move could cause a tear.
- Ironing silk is only recommended using the most delicate settings for your iron, and steaming is preferred.
- Note that all the above tips and methods are meant to clean silk with a normal amount of dirt. The worst cases might require an extra cycle or two, and heavy stains on your silk might need special cleaning methods (and the services of a professional). Regular care will prevent this possibility.
Silk is beautiful and feels fantastic when you wear it, but it can be complicated to take care of — especially if you have no experience. We hope that the above information has provided you with some insights on how to take care of your most valuable items, and that you can be less stressed about the whole process.