Year of natural fibres: Silk

Silk! Mmmm… savour the word. Doesn’t it conjure up images of exoticism and decadence? The colour, the sheen, the drape, the incredible softness… When I first found out I could actually knit with the stuff, I was in heaven.

Silk knitting yarn rejoices in those same feature that make silk fabric so luxurious: rich colour saturation, shimmery texture, a handle that is – well – silky. There’s simply no other word for it, and doesn’t that speak volumes?
But you only have to think of a yarn like Rowan’s Summer Tweed to know that not all silks are the same (though all are beautiful). Sure, they all come from the cocoon of the silk moth, but different types of silk can be distinguished by what the silkworms are fed, how the silk is harvested, how it is treated for spinning… and to make matters more complicated, the same kind of silk may be referred to by three different names!
The classic silk, the silk that defines silkiness, is mulberry silk. Or cultivated silk. Or Bombyx silk. See what I mean about the different names? It’s cultivated (not wild harvested) from Bombyx silkworms, fed on mulberry leaves… clear as mud! The silkworms extrude one looooong fibre as they wrap themselves up in their cocoon; to harvest that incredibly long fibre, the worms are stifled, and the fibre is wound off – with incredible care – intact. Consider how fine that fibre is, and how hard it must be to find the end and wind it, and you start to understand why silk is a luxury product. The length of the fibre is valuable because it means the silk fabric or yarn that it makes is supremely shimmery, soft, and strong.
Wild silk (also called peace silk, cruelty-free silk, or ahimsa silk) is harvested from cocoons that have already served their biological purpose; the moths have escaped and left a hole in the cocoon. Which means the silk can’t be reeled off in one unbroken thread, like mulberry silk; the shorter fibres naturally have implications for the texture of the resulting yarn or fabric. (By the way, people often call wild silk Tussah silk – named, like Bombyx, for the type of moth – but this is misleading; not all Tussah silk is wild farmed (or “cruelty-free”), and for that matter not all wild silk is Tussah.) Other special characteristics of wild silk are the colour – rather than white, the undyed silk is a golden colour, so of course it takes the dye rather differently; and the texture of the fibre is rougher, even without factoring in the shorter fibre length. This results in a yarn that sometimes appears quite crunchy or papery, rather than shimmery (depending on the exact worm; tussah silk is rougher than muga silk, for instance, but both are wild); but it still has that special glow, and is still amazingly soft – softer than it looks.
And then there’s socalled “raw silk” – a bit of a misnomer. Raw silk is derived from short fibres left over from the process of spinning silk; like tussah silk, raw silk is somewhat papery, with low sheen and less brilliant colours, but its uneven texture has a special beauty of its own (as seen in Lantern Moon’s needle cases, for instance).
What’s it good for?
In knitting use, silk is closer to plant fibres than most animal fibres. It’s inelastic and cool to the touch, but allows your skin to breathe, making it perfect for summer tops. Of course, with the distinctive silkiness of silk – that glow! those colours! – it also beg to be made into formalwear, be it a bridal shrug, a slinky evening sweater or even an heirloom shawl. If lace beckons, take heart; it blocks extremely well, and large.
Silk is also often used in blends, typically adding its shimmer to transform a plain wool into something ultrasoft and lustrous. Combined with cashmere it becomes the ultimate luxury fibre.
It’s not an easy-care choice; silk will usually need to be handwashed. Moreover, silk and wool/silk blends often tend to pill, so they won’t do for hardwearing sweaters. (The chance of pilling is reduced significantly if you choose a plied yarn.) Save it for special garments and it will make your heart sing.
Try it out!
Since I’m so very fond of silk, Purlescence’s shelves are full of the stuff, giving you plenty of opportunity to try it out in different guises. Enter the code YONFSILK at checkout to receive 10% off the following.
Swiss Mountain Mulberry Tussah combines the shimmery and papery silks to stunning effect. Take a close look to see how the two textures affect the way the yarn takes the dye.
Artyarns’ beaded silk adds extra glitz to pure silk – gilding the lily you might think, but the result is spectacular!
The Bias Shawl kit uses pure boucle silk; an unusual texture that adds crunch to super-glossy mulberry silk. Gorgeous.
Grande Godiva, like its finer weight cousin Lady Godiva, is a great example of wool mixed with silk: soft, sheeny and beautiful. Being a plied yarn this is resistant to pilling.
Somoko shows how just a touch of silk makes a sock yarn special, without flaunting its silkiness.
In Silk Rhapsody, you can see silk weaving a very special magic: it lifts an already fabulous superfine kid mohair into a whole other level of non-prickly, glowing gorgeousness.