Meet the Velvets

samples of four velvets of different fiber composition

What You Should Know About Sewing Silk and Rayon Velvets

In sewing, you’re in for a treat with either of them. (By “treat”, I mean a new experience in hate.) There seems to be an extra ingredient in silk and rayon velvets: pure, malevolent evil. No, I’m not exaggerating or being melodramatic. Not even a little bit.

Both of these little beasties crawl when you try to sew them on a machine. Literally, you will watch the upper layer of velvet inch-worm it’s way over the lower layers, like a caterpillar crawling up a grass. Just like that caterpiller, the upper layer of velvet will occasionally reach over to the side to see if there’s something else worth grabbing. It’s caused by the combined forces of the pile and the fiber it’s made from.

Any pile fabric is an intermediate level sewing job. Sewing two pile fabrics together is a lot like trying to push to scrub brushes together. In the case of the silk and rayon velvets, those scrub brushes have bristles that are relatively thin, so they can bend when they come together. Or, thethe bristles can interlock, creating a really dense patch where the tips of one set of bristles are nestled into the roots of the other set. It’s too dense for the individual bristles to bend, but they can all fall to one side. If you try this with scrub brushes, you’ll find that when you push all the bristles in together and keep pushing, the brushes will tend to move sideways in opposite directions – the bristles are still locked, and the brushes have indeed gotten closer, but now they’re not located right over one another. They’re offset.

And that’s what these velvets do. They scootch, they interlock, they shift. Lather, rinse, repeat. Sandra Betzina recommends lightening up on your presser foot tension and using a smaller stitch length. (Fabric Savy, 142) She also advocates a walking foot, which is fantastic if you have one. It’s a two part presser foot that literally walks, rather than glides, over fabric. Since the gliding of a normal foot is what causes all the creepy-crawly problems of velvet, it’s a perfect solution. That’s fab, if you have one. Truth told, sewing these velvets on an industrial machine with a walking foot is a joy. (Really, I’ve done it. It’s a total no-brainer.) Take away that walking foot, though….

To be honest, when I have to work with rayon or silk velvet, I like to do it by hand. This is because, primarily, I use them to make or decorate hats. (To be honest, most of my experience with proper silk velvets is limited to ribbons.) Also, I don’t have a walking foot for my machine.

If you must sew them by machine, pin a lot and keep the fabric taut while sewing. This will minimize the creep. Hand basting is even better than pinning. However, if you’re going to hand baste, you might as well just sew it by hand. In the end, this will be faster than having to un-pick your seams repeatedly while you try to get everything to play nice with the machine.

Next: Cotton and Wool Velvets

3 Comments

  1. It’s interesting that you should post such an article as I have been noticing of late the shine of fabrics portrayed in portraits of the Renaissance period. You can definitely tell the difference between the satin/silk/taffeta shine (or the “thinner” fabrics) and velvet shine mostly based on how they lay on the wearer. An example from Bella’s website: http://realmofvenus.renaissanceitaly.net/wardrobe/LicinioWWBook.jpg

    I’ve seen more, but my 15 min break at work just ran out! :

    1. Yeah…. I’ve thought for a while that those velvets were awfully shiny, but it’s sort of apocrypha to mention in some circles… But then I had my hands on a real, live, bonafide sample, and I thought I could probably back the claim up. ;) Thanks for sharing the link, Mo!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.