Beautiful silk yarns can be both exciting, and intimidating. Most of us don't regularly work with silk, and because it can also be expensive, it's natural to be cautious and selective when picking out a silk yarn to use.
At Fairlight Fibers, we carry multiple types of silk and silk-blend yarns. Each has its own pretty properties. This post should help you to distinguish between our different silk yarns, and to determine which one is perfect for your project.
Persian Sasanian Silk Samite cloth dating to Circa 960
Silk is produced by silkworms, which spin the silk to make their cocoon. Though the oldest example of silk cloth dates to more than 5000 years ago, most commercial cultivation of silk began about 2500 years ago in China and then India. Widely traded, silk has always been seen as a luxury, renowned for its exceptional sheen and color.
Silk cocoons in a Thai silk factory
Silk is one of the strongest fibers available, and is highly durable, though it can degrade over time if left in strong sunlight. Because of its flat, faceted surface, silk thread has a naturally reflective sheen and absorbs dye particularly well, producing richly colored yarn that is nearly indestructible. Unlike wool, silk does not lose durability relative to its softness - in fact, the softer the silk, generally, the stronger it is.
The main downside to silk yarn is that it has less "bounce" than wool, meaning that it can be stretched out of shape and not recover properly. Projects made from 100% silk yarns should be gently blocked to shape. That said, when blocked properly, a silk project will hold its blocked shape better than wool, making it ideal for lace.
Types of Silk
Mulberry Silk is cultivated commercially. The silkworms spin their cocoons, and then most of the worms are killed by either boiling them inside the cocoon or piercing them with a needle. The cocoon is then boiled until it unravels into a single string of silk thread, which is spun with multiple strands to create yarn. Mulberry silk is very smooth, soft, and shiny. The silkworms have been bred to produce a fine white silk, making mulberry silk ideal for dyeing. Because it takes dye the best of all the silk types, Mulberry silk creates especially rich, vibrant colors and is a favorite of hand-dyers.
Tussah, or "Wild" Silk (sometimes referred to as Peace Silk or Ahimsa Silk) is made from the collected cocoons of wild silkworms. This type of silk is generally made from the already-hatched and discarded cocoons, making it more animal-friendly. Because the silkworms hatch out of their cocoons, however, production of a single, long thread is not possible. Instead, Tussah silk is made from the much shorter strands of the cocoon produced after the worm has hatched from it. The cocoons are boiled and demineralized, to help them better absorb dyes, but the shorter strands limit the color uptake. Sometimes the silk is carded, like wool. Naturally fuzzier than cultivated silk, Tussah silk takes up dye unevenly, giving it a "raw" appearance, a thick-and-thin hand, and a naturally variegated depth of color.
Silk Noil is yarn created from the leftover pieces of silk used in the production of other silk thread types, like Mulberry or Tussah. The yarn is naturally soft and somewhat more textured than regular silk, due to the very short nature of the fibers used to spin it. It takes dye well, but lacks the shine of normal silk, giving it a uniquely matt appearance. Its hand is similar to cotton, but with less sheen. Noil yarns are more likely to have imperfections, inclusions and knots. They are generally much less expensive than other silk yarns, as well.
As an addition to wool or other fibers, silk adds an additional shine and strength. The wool helps to provide bounce, but yarns made with silk may still be less able to recover from excessive stretching, especially if mixed primarily with other less-bouncy fibers, like alpaca. For example: an alpaca-silk mix like Eden Cottage's Askham can be more difficult to use in patterns where already-knitted stitches need to be picked up, such as the thumbs on mittens, though as a benefit, the silk helps give the alpaca the necessary crispness to make lovely lace, and of course a silk/alpaca mix is softer than soft. When mixed with wool or yak in fingering-weight yarns such as Yarn Love's Mr. Darcy or Eden Cottage's Milburn, silk can be used like nylon to provide the durability necessary for socks.
"Sea Silk" is technically the silk produced by a rare bivalve clam, but is not currently used in commercial production. What many yarn makers refer to as Sea Silk is Seacell, a cellulose (plant-pulp) fiber made with wood pulp and seaweed. It is exceptionally soft, like many plant-based fibers, and is often mixed with silk, wool or both to help it maintain its shape and to add durability.
Our 100% Silk Yarns
Dragonfly Fibers' Dance Rustic Silk -- fingering weight; hand-dyed 100% Silk Noil. Dance is soft and very matt, with almost no sheen. It has a dense hand, like cotton or linen yarn, and a crisp feel. It is great for shawls and lace, but also for clothing, where it works up similar to plant-based linen yarns. It is much less expensive than other silk yarns, but does have knots in many of the skeins, due to how it is produced. Dance Rustic Silk is truly unusual, and will lend a special touch to any project.
Tell Tale Yarn Company's Siren Silk -- lace-weight; hand-dyed 100% Mulberry Silk. This yarn is beautifully shiny, with incredible, brilliant colors. It is our most traditional silk, ideal for shawls and lace. The hand is ridiculously soft and slightly slick.
Tell Tale Yarn Company's Topsail Tussah -- fingering-weight; hand-dyed 100% Tussah Silk, with all the associated natural variegation. The colors are less brilliant than they would be on Mulberry Silk, but have a richer depth. The yarn takes up the dye unevenly, with the fuzzier sections appearing darker than the smooth sections. This yarn is great for shawls and clothing items, and is very soft, but not as slick as Mulberry Silk.
Our Silk Mix Yarns
Blacker Yarns' Samite Silk Blend -- fingering weight; Blue-Faced Leister, Shetland, Gotland, and Ahimsa silk. This new yarn from Blacker is soft, bouncy and very dense. It has the smoosh of wool with the crispness of the Tussah Silk. The silk leaves small nubbs in the yarn, as well, giving this yarn a rustic, almost tweedy look that is somehow also marvelously sophisticated.
Eden Cottage Yarns' Askham -- fingering- or light-fingering weight; baby alpaca and silk mix. Askham has all the cloud-soft properties of alpaca, but with the added stitch definition lended to the yarn through the silk. It is probably one of the softest yarns you will ever feel, but doesn't stretch well. Perfect for lace and for clothing patterns that don't require too much complex construction.
Eden Cottage Yarns' Milburn -- fingering- or light-fingering weight; Blue-Faced Leister and silk mix. Milburn looks and feels like a traditional BFL yarn, but it has an added sheen and stiffness from the silk that make it exceptionally luxurious. The silk makes this yarn crisper, and therefore a bit less bouncy than most all-wool yarns on the needle, but it blooms nicely once blocked.
Tell Tale Yarn Company's Seawater Silk -- fingering-weight; hand-dyed mulberry silk, Seacell, and merino wool. This yarn is softer than pure silk, due to the Seacell, with a lovely drape and saturated colors. This yarn is perfect for lace shawls, but also for clothing and other items where a slightly heavier-weight yarn is preferable to lace-weight. It is absolutely next-to-the-skin soft.
Yarn Love's Elizabeth Bennet -- fingering weight; merino, bamboo, and silk mix. These smaller skeins of lovely hand-dyed yarn are perfect for multiple color projects and for accents. The yarn is very soft from the bamboo and merino, with the silk giving it just enough durability to use in any project, including socks.
Yarn Love's Mr. Darcy -- fingering weight; merino, yak, and silk mix. Yarn Love's luxurious sock yarn is dense and soft, with a very crisp hand from both the yak and silk. The base is grey, which gives the colors a lovely depth.
Whichever silk-based yarn you select, you will no doubt find the softness and durability of silk addictive! Enjoy!