Awash in silk: Easier care is the reason

August 25, 1994|By Denise Cowie | Denise Cowie,Knight-Ridder News Service

Remember the days, not so very long ago, when all silk had to be dry-cleaned?

Not anymore.

Not only is silk much less expensive now, but most of it is sporting tags that declare it "prewashed" or "washable."

Can we believe the tags?

Apparently so.

The last time we tried washing silk -- on the grounds that the Chinese of centuries past didn't have dry-cleaning capabilities -- the results were less than spectacular: dusty rose faded to a sickly puce.

Times change, and so has the way in which silk is processed. According to Jeffrey White, vice president of the U.S. chapter of the International Silk Association, the only problem with silk's washability in the past was the dye. About five years ago, the industry changed the process.

"We wash the fabric before it's manufactured into the garment, and that renders the garment washable," he says. "We wash out the excess dyes before we ship the fabric."

Not only does that solve dye-running problems, it should take care of shrinkage, too.

There is also garment-washed silk, a sort of extra-insurance process used by some manufacturers. Simply, they wash garments after they are made from fabric-washed silk.

This may produce a slight puckering along the seams, White says, "and then you know it has been garment-washed and you are really safe."

We tested two garments -- a man's prewashed silk shirt in vivid aqua ($9.99 from Ross) and a woman's blue washable-silk blouse (less than $20 at Dress Barn). They were washed and washed, then washed some more, both by hand and in a machine.

The results were pretty good. Not quite as good as dry cleaning, perhaps -- they had to be ironed, after all -- but light years ahead of earlier efforts.

They kept the depth of color that makes silk so attractive, with very little color in the rinse water.

Laundering errors can be responsible for some problems that consumers have with washing silk, says Jacqueline Stephens, supervisor of the analysis lab for the International Fabricare Institute, the association of professional dry cleaners and launderers.

Silk, Stephens says, should be washed with very little agitation -- by hand or on the gentle cycle in the washing machine -- and should not be overloaded with other garments, to prevent chafing.

"Chafing results when the garment rubs against itself or other garments in the load, and you will get white streaks," she says.

Make sure that your water level is adequate for the number of garments you are washing, she adds, and avoid alkaline-based detergents (many home detergents are).

"Not only could (such detergents) change the color . . . but over a period of time it could damage the garment," Stephens says.

For silk, use a product with a neutral pH (around 7). Woolite has been around for years and is still highly recommended by the Silk Association's White.

There's also Ivory, among other gentle suds, and catalog retailer Royal Silk sells Silk'n Wash, which is formulated specifically for silk. (It also sells Silklite, a concentrated stain remover for silks and fine washables.)

If you've wondered why some silk is washable and some isn't, it's probably because of the way the garment was manufactured -- "interlinings or trim or something like that has made it more delicate," White says.

"Just in the last three years," he adds, "the consumption of silk in this country has doubled."

One major reason is the washability factor, which has opened up the men's and lingerie markets. The other reason is price: decentralization in the market economics of China has created a much bigger supply, and thus lower prices.

White says that the price of a garment is usually linked to the weight of the fabric.

Silk is sold by the kilo, so the heavier the fabric, the higher the price. (Silk is measured in momme weight, ranging from 6 momme to 50 momme. The higher the number, the heavier the silk and the more expensive the garment.)

"So if you're confused about why one shirt is $100 and another is $40," White says, "it's the fabric."

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