Silk is silk is silk – or not? – A Guest Post by Giovanna Imperia

We all love to weave with silk! It is such an incredible fiber: soft, supple, yet very strong
and with great aging stability.
However, not all silk is the same. Starting at a high level, silk can be classified based
on the moth type and the yarn construction. Below is a good way to visualize the

Muga silk is also produced by a specific type of Antheraea moth (Antheraea
assamensis) exclusively in Assam, India. It is very rare and is highly sought after
because of its warm golden color and sheen.

Reeled silk
Cocoons are placed into hot water and filaments from several cocoons are pulled
together and reeled. This produces a continuous multi-strand yarn. A number of multistrand
yarns are then plyed together to create the desired yarn size.
The filament from the cocoon is covered in sericin — which is a protein gelatin produced
by the silk worm to bind filaments while making the cocoon (Think of it as worm spit). It
is not removed from the filaments being reeled to add strength and minimize breakage.
Both Bombyx and Tussah silk are available as reeled yarns. They are both very strong.
The nice thing about Tussah is that it can withstand high torsion due to its natural
strength. So, it is possible to achieve high TPMs (Twist Per Meter) when creating crepe
yarns. A good example is the Italian silk crepe that Lunatic Fringe currently sells. The
base yarn is partly degummed Tussah silk. The Italian mill that I used to source the
yarn was able to apply 1800 TPMs — making this a very tight over-twisted yarn with a
lot of elasticity that can be used as warp.
One word about degumming. This is the chemical process that removes the sericin
from the silk. Degumming improves sheen and softens the silk, making it easier to dye.
However, degumming also removes the protective layer of sericin that adds strength
and protects the silk from abrasion. Partial degumming is an attempt to take
advantages of both sides of the chemical process: remove some sericin to soften the
yarn, but retain some to maintain the strength needed for high torsion.
In my experience, undegummed or partially degummed silks are the best as warp. The
long filaments rarely break under tension or due to friction. The sericin can be removed
after the weaving process to achieve a softer, more drapeable fabric.
Because reeled silk is a continuous multi-strand yarn, it does not pill or fuzz with use.

Examples of reeled and handspun silk.
Bottom row from left:
2/260 partially degummed natural ivory tussah (Japan, from Lunatic Fringe), handspun tussah (Japan, from Habu Textiles), naturally yellow reeled tussah (Laos).
Top row from left:

two handspun tussah skeins in natural brown (Japan), reeled bombyx in natural white (Japan, from Habu Textiles)

Examples of spun silk with even and uneven ply.
Top: spun handdyed variegated silk with even ply (China, Red Fish).
Top left: hand spun handdyed, slubby uneven ply (US).
Bottom left: tram handdyed organzine silk (Source unknown, dyed by Randy Darwell) . Cone on the left: bleached spun tussah uneven ply (Italy). Cone in the middle: recombed spun tussah organzine (Italy). Cone on the right: silk shantung loose ply

Spun silk
Most spun silk commercially available today comes from China. In Italy, where the
production of silk has essentially disappeared, many mills import the fiber from China
and then ply and dye the yarn in Italy. This allows the Italian mills to maintain their
quality controls while benefiting from lower production costs.
Once the first quality silk is reeled from the intact cocoons, the reminder as well as the
damaged or pierced cocoons are used to produce a variety of styles of spun silk.
Sericin is first removed from the silk waste. Next the fiber is carded and spun.
Generally speaking, spun silk tends to be weaker, more fuzzy and less durable than
reeled silk because it is produced from shorter fibers. It is also important to consider
how the fiber is being plyed: an uneven or slubby ply will make the yarn weaker, and
more difficult to use as a warp.
Not all the spun silk is the same. Since it is produced from the silk waste, different types
of yarn are actually produced. For instance, here in the US we are very familiar with
Shantung and Noil (In Europe also called Bourette due to its knobby appearance).

However, in Europe spun silk also includes another grouping called “Schappe”. This
type of spun silk is actually a higher quality than Shantung or Noil. In fact, Shantung silk
is typically produced with whatever is left over after the production of Schappe silk.

All three types of spun silk can be used in a similar fashion. The difference between
them is mostly in terms of sheen, and smoothness of the yarn — with Schappe being
the smoothest, most consistent and with the greatest sheen.

Let’s summarize:
• Reeled silk is a continuous multi-strand yarn. Very strong. Smooth with no
imperfections. Bombyx is high sheen. Tussah is more rustic. Reeled silk does not
fuzz or pill. If undegummed, unlikely to be affected by abrasion.
• Spun silk is produced from the silk waste. Short fibers that are always degummed
before carding and spinning. Some are spun with intentional imperfections. Not as
strong. Not high sheen. More sensitive to abrasion, and over time it fuzzes and pills.
• Warp yarn:
• Tight and balanced ply
• Undegummed or partially degummed yarn
• Spun silk with longer fibers
• Weft yarns:
• Unbalanced ply with slubs
• Loose ply such as tram silk
• Spun silk from very short fibers
• Originated in the Shandong province in China
• Spun from whatever is left over
• Purposely stubby and uneven
• Often confused with Dupioni
• More refined texture than Dupioni with smaller slubs and
less stiffness
• Spun from the higher quality short filaments after the
cocoons have been reeled, and from cocoons where the
moth has emerged thus damaging the continuous filament
of the cocoon
• Irregularities are removed from the fiber yielding a smooth,
regular, high sheen yarn

At a very young age I became fascinated by the textures and visual and tactile
experiences provided by certain materials such as fiber and metal. Over time, I also
became intrigued with the possibilities created by the interaction between structure,
techniques and material manipulation as a way of creating texture and threedimensionality.
In my most recent body of work I have taken the tactile experience a
step further by creating work that can actively involve the user as transforming agent.
This is achieved by allowing the viewer to manipulate, reshape and reconfigure the
work. Thus, transforming wearables and non-wearables into unique personal
My work has been shown in many juried and invitational national and international
exhibits. Selected work has also been reproduced in textile and jewelry books, and
can be found in private and museum collections.
Over the years, I have written articles for Ornament Magazine, Strands, Handwoven,
Shuttle, Spindle and Depot, and a variety of international braiding conferences
proceedings. And, of course, I am the author of the book “Kumihimo wire jewelry.”
Published by Potter Craft (Random House), 2011.
Many of the yarns discussed in this blog are available from Lunatic Fringe Yarns (https:// As I have been sourcing yarns in Italy over the last decade or
so, I have built a collection of interesting spun silk. If you are interested in expanding
your collection, I can be reached at

7 thoughts on “Silk is silk is silk – or not? – A Guest Post by Giovanna Imperia”

  1. Very interesting, thank you for the dialog on the differences between the silks. The images are helpful too!

  2. I absolutely loved this post. It does a fabulous job of explaining and clarifying all the different types of silk. I thought I was pretty up to speed on my fiber knowledge but I did not know the hidden story of dupioni. A lovely little anecdote about twins! Thank you so much for this informative article!

  3. Just a warning – if you see something marked as Art Silk, it’s not silk, it’s actually rayon (and probably quite old). That was a common term used for rayon in the first half of the 20th century. Lovely in its own right, but not silk!

  4. The most clear description of the various kinds of silk I’ve every seen. Thank you.
    Question: There was a time when clothing made of cloth called “raw silk”. What did this mean? What kind of silk would that have been?

    • I think noil silk was called raw but that is a misnomer. The matte finiosh gives them a casual look. They can be worn places and times where a sleek, lustrous silk would be too dressy. Noil silks are also popular for clothes because they are very wrinkle-resistant. And noils spin a soft, bulky yarn that knits or weaves a lightweight but thick and substantial fabric. from Cheryl Kolander’s book, A Silk Worker’s Notebook. I guess that means another post. I’m so happy to hear from you.


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