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Silk under a microscope

Some years ago I put some of my fabrics under a microscope and people found it interesting. It took me a while but I finally got back to my microscope. This time I went through all the silk I could find at home. Like before, the project ended up being much more interesting that I assumed and I learned a lot from how silk fabrics are made.

A highly scientific setup

I have this school microscope that works quite well for this purpose. It doesn’t have a camera though. The exact position of the eye or a camera is essential to get a good, clear image so I couldn’t just shoot while holding my camera in my hand.

So, I came up with this very professional setup with a pile of books and a little phone camera stand. To stop my camera from shaking, I set up a 3 s delay for my shots.

This setup worked surprisingly well. Once in a while I bumped into something and lost the focus but I was able to fix it pretty easily.

Silk habotai (or habutai)

Silk habotai is simple, crisp, semi-sheer plain weave fabric that is often used as a lining. Personally, I have never used it but it doesn’t feel very hard to sew with as it is not particularly slippery.

Silk organza

I silk organza for interlining to give structure but not weight. It is transparent plain weave fabric and is often used for bridal and evening wear.

Unfortunately, in my microscope pictures the direction of the fabric is not clear. However, the warp is doubled and the weft is single thread. As fine as the actual threads are, they are still made out of several fibres bunched together. Unlike with some other silks, the fibres in silk organza do not seem to be twisted very much.

Silk chiffon

Silk chiffon is another transparent silk type that feels almost weightless. It is woven from alternate “S” and “Z” twisted crepe yarn that creates the characteristic ripple to the fabric. On the microscopic picture you can see how the silk yarn is twisted.

Silk georgette

Silk georgette is another transparent silk type that is very similar to chiffon. It has slightly duller and more opaque look than chiffon and it is more durable. It has a crepe like texture and is a bit rougher to the touch.

In the microscopic image, you can see how twisted the yarn is, much more than in the chiffon.

Silk taffeta

Leaving the transparent fabrics, let’s move to silk taffeta that is often used for eveningwear. The word taffeta origins from a Persian word “tafta” that means “twisted woven”.

The microscopic pictures show a plain weave that is made out of yarn much thicker than what we saw with organza and chiffon. The warp in the picture is vertical and weft is horizontal. The number of weft yarns is bigger than the number of warp yarns. Both have a small twist but weft clearly has two yarns twisted together.

Silk crepe de chine

Silk crepe de chine is lightweight, matte silk fabric that makes beautiful blouses and scarves. It feels soft and drapes well.

Silk crepe de chine resembles taffeta in weave, although the yarn used for it is much thinner and the weave is looser. The warp in the pictures is going almost vertical and there are more warp yarns than there are weft yarns.

Silk satin

Everyone knows satin. Satin looks luxurious with its glorious smooth surface with beautiful sheen and it is used for blouses, scarves, lingerie and evening wear. It has usually warp threads that dominate the surface with long floats, although you can also have weft dominated satin. Satin is durable but the long floats are prone to snags. Due to the snagging and the slipperiness of the fabric, satin is a difficult fabric to sew with.

Silk twill

Twill is another basic type of weave. Most commonly you see twill in casual garments such as jeans or chinos. Twill has characteristic diagonal ridges that form when the weft thread is passed over one or more warp threads then under two or more warp threads and so on, with a “step,” or offset, between rows.

Twill is much easier to distinguish by just looking at it normally. The three-dimensional diagonal structure disappears when you look at it under a microscope. If you turn twill around, you’ll see that it has a wrong side. Twill is a very durable fabric.

Silk dupion

Dupion is made out of double cocoons whose threads are tangled together. The resulting yarn has irregular slubs. Dupioni yarn can only be use as weft as it is too fragile to be used for warp which is under high tension during the weaving process.

In the microscopic image, it looks like that the warp is going vertically. The dupioni yarn is horizontal and it is much thicker than the warp yarn. My dupioni actually doesn’t show many slubs and there weren’t any on the little sample I cut from my fabric, so there are differences between dupion fabrics.

Silk tulle

We think of tulle as this stiff starched netting that lifts up evening gowns and 1950s skirts. Silk tulle is different. It is very soft and drapes well. Silk tulle is popular in wedding veils.

My tulle looks like it has been knitted although, to my knowledge, most of tulle is woven. Below are two pictures I took of polyester tulle netting that has similar looking structure but it doesn’t have knit-like loops that the silk tulle has. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable could help me with this?

If you are interested more in fabrics, I can recommend the book Fabric for Fashion – The Swatch book that I used as a reference (Clicking the Amazon affiliate link there helps to support this blog but doesn’t cost you anything.). It has actual fabric swatches that really help you to learn to differentiate fabrics from one another.

Thank you for reading and do consider subscribing if you haven’t already done it. Subscribers get automatic notification every time I post! I hope you liked this science post. Comment below, if you want see more posts like this! Happy sewing!


Dr. Katja

I am a mother of two. I sew, knit and create and blog about it.


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