Purple silk patchwork

Creative Oozings #4 – Silk Patchwork and How Not to Make a Skirt

I hate throwing stuff away.  I’ve always liked the idea of recycling fabric from clothes – it seems very true to the origins of patchwork, when cloth was precious and needed to be used and reused for as long as possible.  When I was a teenager, I used to modify my straight-legged jeans by unpicking the outer seams of the legs up to the knee, then sewing in triangular inserts cut from worn-out old jeans or offcuts of velvet.  I also like charity shops – it’s amazing what you can find in them (and the high streets seem full of charity shops these days…).  Over the years, I’ve bought quite a few clothes from charity shops, some of which have been as new and some of which have been silk.

For a long time, I’d had a vague idea in the back of my mind that it should be possible to use my old silk shirts (a number of which came from charity shops) to make patchwork once they started looking too tired to be worn.  Silk is a luxury fabric and it seems a crime to me to just bin it.  However, this wasn’t an idea I really developed until I started really getting into my patchwork.  I found myself rummaging idly through the rails of charity shops specifically looking for silk items that I might use, though I still didn’t have a clear idea of what I was going to make with them.  Suddenly, September loomed and with it my friend’s wedding in Germany.  I’d lost a lot of weight while travelling and being ill and, although I’d put a bit back on since getting home, I didn’t fit into most of my old wardrobe (or rather, I fitted in and still had enough room for an extra person).  I literally had nothing to wear!  It must also be mentioned that I HATE clothes shopping with a firey passion.  My love of fabric seems to disappear entirely when confronted with fabric that’s already been cut and assembled into a garment.  Go figure.

So, up-coming wedding, need for something to wear.  Mum initially came up with a suggestion of seeing one of the stallholders in the local craft market/boot sale because she had some patchworky, strippy skirts that might suit me.  I went to look, but found that although the skirts were nice, they were also too short (I’m 6′ tall, length is always an issue for me).  Mum also knew about my vague idea for silk patchwork, and suggested that we hit up some more charity shops on a dedicated silk hunt so I could *make* myself a strippy, silky, unique skirt to wear.  Now *this* was an idea I could get behind!  We hit Carmarthen running and toured round the charity shops, garnering an impressive haul of victims candidates.  Dresses, tops, ties, scarves, nothing was safe.  My best bargain was probably getting about 10 silk ties for £1 each.

The first task was to wash everything – I’m never sure how much charity shops clean the donations they get.  Then everything had to be disassembled.  Unpicking the seams was not really an option for most things, so I used my fabric scissors to trim as close to the seams as I could, giving me oddly shaped pieces of usable silk and a “skeleton” of scrap seams.  Some areas were already interfaced.  I’ve kept those, though I’m not sure yet what to use them for.  Oddly, my favourite things to disassemble were ties – revenge for school uniforms, possibly!

Cutting the silk for piecing was a challenge.  Initially, I tried to use my rotary cutter.  BIG mistake.  Silk is slippy and floaty and stretchy and just refuses to rotary cut nicely.  Although I’d once made myself a university ball dress from raw silk fabric (which I still have a lot of and was also planning to use), the silk from my charity shop finds was much harder to handle.  After botching a couple of trial strips, I went online to find out what I was supposed to do.  Turns out that if you want to cut silk then you need to start with sandwiches – a sheet of tissue paper, the silk, then another sheet of tissue paper on top with the pattern drawn on it, with all three layers pinned together.  My initial idea was to create strippy panels bordered with my left-over raw silk, with the strips joined by 45 degree seams.  I think I may be allergic to simple!  The next speed bump to progress was sewing the silk together.  Silk needs support during sewing, or the inherent stretchiness and fragility causes serious headaches.  So, foundation piecing, then.  My first thought was to use tissue paper, but I realised that I would have to remove the paper at some point and I wasn’t convinced that the resulting strips would drape nicely between the raw silk (which is a quite different and more forgiving beast).

While pondering these issues, I decided to have a quick go at “string” piecing, a technique I’ve wanted to try for a while – I cut some random silk strips and pieced them diagonally onto a square of tissue paper, then trimmed it square (silk can be rotary cut if it’s sewn onto a foundation).  And I liked it so much I did three more.  Could this be a route to the patchwork panels I was looking for?  Perhaps.  But the wedding had snuck up on me and I had no more time to fiddle about.  While I was sure that I could make the patchwork silk skirt idea work eventually, I didn’t have the time to make it work before I had to get on a flight to Germany.  I ended up packing the one dress I had that still just about fitted me (plus back-up black trousers and a cream silk top found during the charity shop sweep and deemed too nice to cut up).  It was a lovely wedding, though!

So what happened to my stringy silk?  This:

Silk cushion

I ended up carefully removing the tissue paper and ironing the squares onto light-weight interfacing.  The border is a bit of my left-over raw silk and he cushion was backed with black velvet left over from when I made patchwork floor cushions years ago.  In fact, the “squares” are not quite square because I made a silly error while trimming, but it’s close enough for government work!  I also decided that while I liked the effect, the colour scheme left a lot to be desired (you can see that the right-hand side and the left-hand side don’t really coordinate with each other).  So I assessed my little mountain of silk and grouped it into colour groups with a view to doing more of these.  The next ones were pieced directly onto squares of light-weight iron-on interfacing, though, and it made life much simpler:

Green silk cushion

Much better.  I have some other colour variations made up (blue, purple, pink, a start on red), and a couple of different colours of raw silk to border them with, I just haven’t got around to finishing them off.

Purple silk patchwork Blue silk patchwork


Pink silk patchworkRed silk patchwork

Mum made a valid point about lining the cushions to help protect the silk seams and I could do with more colours of lining than black, black and more black.  I also had a backing fail with the green version – I bought some synthetic suedette type fabric in black and used it to make a simple envelope cushion back.  All seemed fine until I looked my sewing machine – there was a suspicion dark stain on the front of it that hadn’t been there before.  Then I looked at my hands and realised that they were completely black.  I looked like I’d been scrabbling in a coal hole, not sewing.  Quite horrified (since I’d been planning to give the cushion to someone as a present), I decided to unpick it all because there was no way I could trust the suedette stuff not to stain anything and everything it came into contact with.  My best option might be to use the raw silk (suitably lined and interfaced) for the back as well, and at least then it would be 100% silk!

3 thoughts on “Creative Oozings #4 – Silk Patchwork and How Not to Make a Skirt”

  1. Hello thank you for this post. I plan to make a patchwork quilt out of silk and your post really helped me understand some of the issues! A question about the fusible interfacing- did you cut the silk and interfacing separately and then stick together or is it better (and more accurate) to stick together first and then cut the patch to size? Thanks

    1. Hello, thank you for your comment and question! 🙂 For the stripy patches I talked about here, I cut squares of interfacing first that were a little larger than my final size and stitched the silk onto it because it suited the stitch-and-flip method I was using. Depending on how you are planning to do your patchwork, you might find it better to fuse the interfacing to the silk first and then cut out your shapes – I think it would be more accurate, yes. This second method is what I plan to use when I do some silk patchwork using the English paper piecing method because I believe it will make the silk more easy to handle. Good luck with your project! 🙂

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