What Happens If You Wash Silk?

There are many things that can happen to silk when you wash it at home, from nothing to something! 

If you put silk in water, it loses its overall strength by as much as 20%, which means little agitation from scrubbing or tossing (like in the washer) can easily cause problems like distortion and wrinkling. Hot water intensifies the degree at which silk loses its strength, and thus the effects are much more pronounced. 

The best way to wash silk is using care and deliberateness. Below, we’ll discuss all that happens to silk when you wash it at home, and then the proper ways to clean silk so you don’t cause damage to it. 

Putting silk in water weakens the fabric

Water is the number one enemy of silk. When you submerge silk in water and let it sit for some time, its strength reduces by about 20%. 

And here is exactly why that is so. Normally, the construction of silk is such that it renders the overall material very durable (because it has a linear, better-configuration polymers and a crystalline system that permits the formation of hydrogen bonds in a regular pattern). When you submerge a filament of this kind of chemical composition in water, the hydrogen bonds formed, are hydrolysed, which now causes weakening of the polymer system, and thus, the material in it’s entirety. 

Agitation capitalizes on the weakened fibers

Now because the polymer system of silk weakens the moment you submerge the material in wash water, you now have a situation whereby they’re very sensitive to little pressure or agitation. 

And this is where the agitation of the washer, brushes, or hand washing comes in to capitalize. Remember the linear, beta-configuration polymers, the agitation now causes them to disorganize from their original positions and set to a new one permanently. On a broader scale, this is perceived as distortion, or wrinkles and creases that are very difficult to get rid of. 

Hot water adds to the damage

Remember we talked about how water causes silk to weaken, now everything becomes even more serious when the temperature of water goes up. 

When the temperature of wash water goes above 30°C, more problems now surface like fading and discoloration caused by breakage of bonds and linkages in the polymer system, release of dyes from due to the fast-paced molecules of water knocking off dye pigments from the surface of filaments, and a pronounced weakening of fibers because hot water has molecules that are in rapid motion and therefore penetrate deeper into fabric and create havoc than cold water.

Then there’s harsh detergents and laundry products

The negative side effects of washing silk aren’t all caused by water, laundry products too can affect silk in many different ways you can imagine. 

Take for instance, bleach. When you use chlorine bleach on silk, it weakens the fibers and also extracts colors from the filaments (although you can use oxygen bleach on silk materials however to help remove stains and heavy soiling). 

Another laundry product that is bad for silk is fabric softener. When you use fabric softener on your silk pajamas, trousers or pillowcases, it reduces the breathability of the fabric as it coats it with a layer that isn’t always washed out completely. Such a layer can cause pathogenic growth on pillowcases and pajamas. Fabric softeners can also discolor sensitive fabrics like silk. 

Other laundry products that don’t fare well with silk include heavy duty or harsh detergents, and stain removal solution. They may be too harsh on your clothes and contain chemicals that can end up damaging the fabric.

Mr dryer too

And last but not least is the dryer. How can we ever talk about the problems of washing silk at home without a mention of the dryer machine? 

The dryer is where most of the damage will happen to silk. 

Remember, silk it’s sensitive to heat and moisture in the manner that we have mentioned above, putting it in the dryer where these things are very pronounced will definitely escalate things even more! 

Some silk fabrics however, like blends of silk and cotton, other blends or even silke made up of 100% silk might be able to get away with machine drying, but only at lower temperatures.

What is the best way to wash silk?

When it comes to the best way to wash silk, it’s hand washing, no cap. 

With hand washing, you have more control over the amount of agitation that is subject to the silk and as a result, you do not end up causing the “linear better-configuration polymers” to slide past one another which would cause stubborn wrinkles, creases and permanent distortion of the material. 

When you hand wash silk, the best technique to use is to soak the silk in a solution of gentle detergent and water, and let it sit for no longer than 30 minutes (because longer soaking weakens the filaments even more).

Now swish and swirl the silk in the wash water to help loosen up soil. Or you can plunge and pull the silk in the wash water continuously as an alternative. 

If you have a silk and cotton blend, or any other type of silk blend having the silk not occupying more than 50% of the mix, apply little agitation to the material to help loosen up soil. 

When you’re done washing and you’re satisfied with the degree of soil removal that you have, replace the washer water with fresh water and rinse the silk material properly. After that, hang the silk to dry outside in a shaded area and away from sunlight, or hang it inside in the bathroom from the shower curtain rod.

Washing and soaking in this manner will reduce the formation of wrinkles and creases on your silk. If however, you end up having these on your clothes, you can release them by simply ironing the silk with a pressing cloth placed between the surface of the iron and the surface of the silk. 

Another brilliant option is to suspend the silk from the curtain rod of your shower after a hot bath and let the steam work their way into the fabric and release the wrinkles and creases. 

Can you machine wash silk?

Absolutely, silk can be machine washed, but only in the delicate or silk mode of your machine and using water no hotter than 30°C. 

In the washer also, clean silk alone, if possible, or shield it from damage like snagging (from other clothes) by putting it in a mesh bag. Also use a gentle detergent and see if you can reduce the duration of the cycle to half the original time or slightly more than that. 

This will reduce the contact time with silk in water and also reduce the amount of agitation that is applied on the silk material. 

If you are washing items like pillowcases and you pair them up with bras or clothes having buttons or embellishments on them, make sure to put the pillowcases in a laundry mesh bag to prevent snagging. 

Final Thoughts

Depending on how you choose to wash silk at home, the result may or may not be favorable. 

You can wash silk clothes using the washer and even by hand, but you have to make sure you’re fully in the instructions and precautions listed out in the article otherwise you’ll end up creating a mess out of your silk clothes that cannot be reversed.