Weavable, Washable Silk

Wondering how to wash silk handwovens? There were no dry cleaners in ancient Japan and China – here's how they did it, and how you can too!

Christina Garton Jun 22, 2016 - 4 min read

Weavable, Washable Silk Primary Image

I was doing a lot of research this weekend in preparation for wet-finishing my first ever woven piece. I quickly found myself face-to-face with a contradiction in my own mind with regards to wet-finishing silk handwovens and my preconceived notions about how to wash silk.

Karen Badola scarf jf2014

"A Woven Wonder" by Kiran Badola: [Handwoven January/February 2014](

I always thought you could not, under any circumstances, wash silk in water. Every silk garment I have ever owned (to be fair, that hasn’t been that many), I have diligently sent in for dry-cleaning, following the instructions on their labels: “Dry Clean Only.”

Of course, this makes no sense under closer inspection. After all, dry cleaning technology has only existed since 1855 and sericulture (the production of silk and the raising of silkworms) predates that by thousands of years. The earliest silk fragments yet found by archaeologists date from circa 3000 BCE, and it is believed that silk cloth with patterning was woven as early as the fourth or fifth century BCE. So what does a historical context tell us about how to wash silk?

Historically, silk cloth was washed in the river, with one end of the bolt clamped and secured in the center of the river. Then the gentle agitation of the river would clean the cloth. Then the cloth would be stretched in the same manner as when the cloth was first dyed.

Modern silk fiber is washable, but according to expert Michael Cook, “often the techniques used to give it color, sheen, and texture are not.” That includes dyes, which may not be color-fast, rolling, and many other treatments.

How to Wash Silk

Always test a small sample to ensure your silk won’t be ruined, and follow these tips on how to wash silk from 2014’s silk-focused issue of Handwoven:

  • Wash silk alone.
  • Use warm water (70-90 degrees F).
  • Use a high ratio of water to silk.
  • Use a mild, liquid detergent or gentle shampoo.
  • While wet, swoosh gently. Do not rub the silk against itself, squeeze it into a tight ball, or wring it.
  • Add a splash of white vinegar to the second-to-last rinse water. This returns the silk to the slightly acidic state it prefers. The last rinse should be straight water.
  • Gently squeeze out excess water.
  • Dry flat or line-dry over a padded line.
  • Handle the silk for several minutes while slightly damp.
  • Whack the silk against a smooth surface to soften its hand and restore the luster.

That last tip sound a little odd? Check out the full article in the January/February 2014 issue of Handwoven for all the hows and whys.