Silk chiffon, so lightweight and ethereal, there is no denying the beauty of this fabric. Nor the fact it can be difficult to sew. Many sewists avoid the challenge, but I firmly believe silk chiffon is too beautiful to put in the too-hard pile. With extra care and a few special techniques it can be successfully managed. Below I’ve put together my top 15 tips for sewing silk chiffon to hopefully help you conquer any fears you might have.
But first, a short story. I remember clearly the day I first seriously tackled this stuff. I’d just started a new patternmaking job and finished my very first All-By-Myself pattern for that company. I remember the pattern well – a triple layered chiffon skirt with a tiered hem, carefully designed to be opaque in the upper half and increasingly sheer towards the hem. There were several random splits thrown in for extra sassiness – it was extremely cute! Extremely cute until I found out that I was sewing it…eek!
I spent hours hemming that skirt. Double folding the narrow 6mm hem, unpicking and resewing the three (3) (yes – three!) layers of skirt, including the mitering of the corners around all those splits. No joins in stitching were allowed, so you can imagine every time I would mess up by a mere millimetre, the complete hem circumference would have to be unpicked, including all those splits and all those mitred corners. I almost cried at the machine that day. But hey – eventually I won!
And I guess that is a good lead into my first tip:
1.Practice, practice, practice:
I know this isn’t what anyone wants to hear, but it’s 100% true. We were taught in industrial sewing to sew something ten times in a row, then you’d never forget how. Well I sewed about ten thousand chiffon hems that day, and my tutor’s theory is correct!
Through repetition, not only do you entrench sewing methods, but you develop a technique for handling the fabric. Developing the light hand feel for managing a diaphanous fabric like chiffon takes some perseverance, but it is similar to learning to ride a bike – once it clicks it stays with you for life!
I recommend using fabric off-cuts to experiment with before sewing your actual garment. Build up gradually to the really fine fabrics. Cut out some details like the collar, the hem curve, any part you’d like to practice – and do just that. Ten times to become a pro!
2. Choose your chiffon carefully:
Polyester chiffon looks like it would be easier to sew because it isn’t as flimsy, but in my opinion it is the most difficult. It is less pliable and sewing inaccuracies (we all have them!) are near impossible to remove with pressing – it just bounces back into the position it wants to live in forever! On the other hand fibres like silk, viscose/rayon and cupro are more malleable, press beautifully, and sewing discrepancies are better disguised.
Another factor to consider is whether the fabric is woven from crepe (crinkly) yarns or not. The crepe factor can be more forgiving than a flat weave when it comes to sewing and pressing.
3. Take care with fabric lay up:
Accurate lay up, with the lengthwise and crosswise grains perfectly perpendicular, is crucial. To do this, level the ends of your fabric length by tearing (test first!) or cutting along the crosswise grain, and use the table edge or grid on your cutting mat to align the fabric.
An even better technique is to cut in blocks, dividing the fabric into shorter lengths as required. For instance, one block might be for the front and back, another for the sleeves, and another for the fused pieces. This way you can ensure the crosswise grain is correct at the top and bottom of each block, minimising any distortion of grain throughout each pattern piece.
To cut in blocks you might need to change the cutting layout, and I recommend allowing an extra 5cm/2″ per block – so make sure you have enough fabric to do this.
4. Use a rotary cutter:
This tool is brilliant for cutting chiffon, it totally eliminates the need for pins and scissors which mess with the fabric layers.
Lay up your fabric, place the pattern on top with weights, then run around the edge with a rotary cutter. Use a ruler as an additional weight for straight edges. This allows you to cut fast and accurately with minimal shifting of the fabric layers.
Another thing – is your rotary blade sharp? Recently mine wasn’t, and let me tell you how frustrating it is to lift a cut out piece away, and find it is still attached by a single uncut thread that messes up the rest of your perfectly laid out fabric!
5. Throw away the tissue:
My thoughts on laying up your fabric with tissue are – don’t. How can you see the grain of your fabric if it is lying between layers of tissue? And how does this prevent the fabric from slipping around? I have read about this idea and tested it out. It was a hindrance far more than a help.
Ditto on sewing with layers of tissue. I tried that once too – and once only! The fabric did not feed properly in the machine, tearing away the tissue took forever and disrupted the stitching, disturbed the fabric weave, and I generally made a big mess.
My honest opinion is to learn to handle the fabric by itself (see #1 above), instead of attempting to handle the opposing forces of fabric and tissue together.
6. Select the right interfacing:
For interfacing chiffon you will need a specially designed fusible that is lightweight and has fine glue dots that do not strike through to the right side of the fabric. I use and recommend this fusible from Hawes and Freer. When working with sheer fabrics the colour of the fusing becomes a factor, and this product is available in five colours. I used black on my DP Studio Shirt Le 604.
Just as important as the type of interfacing, is the method used to apply it. Blockfusing is the method of choice for flimsy fabrics, and will make your sewing life easier from the moment you decide to do it.
7. Needles and thread:
Fine fabrics require a fine needle – so change the needle on your machine to a size 70/10 or 60/8. Check the needle is sharp by running your finger down the shaft towards the point. This way you will detect any burrs that will easily snag fine fabric – something you definitely don’t want!
Fine thread is required to ensure that it passes through the smaller needle smoothly and without damage. Nr 150/Tex 18 thread is designed for a 60/8 needle, but this can be harder to find and usually has a reduced colour range. Unless the fabric is very lightweight, I regularly use Nr 120 weight (Tex 24) thread with a 70/10 needle for sewing silk chiffon.
8. Stitch length and tension
Smaller needles and smaller thread equals guess what: smaller stitch length. I use a stitch length of about 2mm/12 stitches per inch. Sew a trial seam and inspect its appearance from the outer side – too long a stitch leaves unsightly gaps, too short a stitch is too hard to unpick (let’s be practical here!) – so find your happy medium.
While you are checking out the stitch length, perfect the stitch tension too. You are aiming for stitches that appear the same on the top and bottom sides of your stitching.
9. Change the base plate:
If you have the option of changing base plates to a single needle hole, then do so. A smaller hole in the base plate helps prevent fabric descending through the hole as the needle goes down, and potentially jamming.
10. Starting to stitch:
Starting to stitch at the fabric edge is another point where thread jams can happen, so a few precautions taken here can help prevent it. Draw out the needle and bobbin threads so you have two thread tails to hold taut as you start stitching. This will help prevent excess thread and fabric slipping down the needle hole. Backtack only where necessary. When you do, start inside the edge of the fabric.
11. Listen to the fabric:
I know this sounds a bit nuts, but this is the best way to describe what I mean! The fabric will tell you if it doesn’t want to do something. Pay attention to the grain as you sew. Forcing the fabric to lay where it doesn’t want to could be apparent in the end garment as puckers, drag lines and unevenness.
12. Use French seams:
Overlocking or serging will be visible through sheer fabric, so avoid that unsightly appearance and use French seams instead. Another favourite technique of mine for sheer fabrics is to French seam the darts to make them less obvious.
13. Think about edge finishes:
Fine fabric looks best with fine edge finishes. Hems should be a narrow 6mm or even a baby 3mm. Neck and armhole edges should be a similar width.
If your pattern has traditional facings replace them with narrow edge finishes such as binding, inside binding (aka clean finish) or try my favourite invisible binding technique.
14. Be careful:
Take extra care when unpicking that you are actually pulling the right thread. Obvious, but it is very easy to do (just warning you so you don’t ruin all your hard work in a split second!)
If you are making buttonholes, trim all the lengthwise threads inside the buttonhole. This prevents a button pulling a thread as you unbutton your shirt – another way of ruining your garment.
15. Take your time and enjoy:
Last but not least, is something that always seems to make my sewing process go more smoothly – take your time. Immerse yourself in the process of working with this beautiful fabric, and stop to admire your work when pressing (I’m not the only one who does that, right?!) Chiffon is for slow sewing – so make the most of it!
What are your experiences of sewing with chiffon? Have you ever figured out the tissue method? Do you have any additional tips to share?