If you’ve ever been shopping for fabric or clothing you’ve come across the words silk and satin. And many people use the two terms interchangeably. But if you want to be able to shop for and talk about fashion it’s vital to know the difference between silk and satin. So, in this article, I’ll tell you the difference between the two words and how to identify silk vs. satin.

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Construction vs. Fiber

The reason why silk and satin get confused so often is because both words are used interchangeably and as complete descriptions of a fabric. Think “She wore a satin dress” or “he chose a blue silk tie.” In reality, silk and satin describe two of the many different element that make up a fabric: fiber and construction. Because silk is a fiber and satin is a method of fabric construction then a fabric can be silk, satin, or silk-satin.

What is Silk?

Silk is a fiber produced from the cocoon of silkworms. These “worms” are the larval state of the silk moth. Silk production involves raising the silk worms until they form a cocoon. At this point, the worms are killed, usually through steaming. This allows the cocoon to stay intact so that the long fibers used to make it can be unwound.

The finest, most consistent silk comes from worms raised on mulberry leaves. Silk is unique in that it’s the only widely available natural filament fiber. Filament fibers are very long, meaning that yarn spun from them can be very fine and smooth. Most other natural fibers are shorter, what’s known as staple length.

If the silk worm is allowed to live, it will burst through the cocoon breaking the fibers up. This is sometimes called “peace silk” and has a rougher texture due to using the staple length fibers created by the emerging moth.

In addition to its long length, silk fibers have a triangular cross section. This allows them to reflect more light than other fibers. This is why silk appears more lustrous than other materials.

Silk moths and cocoons. Photo by David Clode on Unsplash.
Silk worms eating mulberry leaves. Photo by Jeremiah Roth on Flickr.
Silk cocoons and quality testing card. Photo by Rebecca Selah on Flickr.

What is Vegan Silk?

Products marketed as Vegan silk aren’t silk at all. They’re usually made from polyester, though sometimes nylon or rayon fibers are used. The only way to know for sure is to look at the fiber content. By law, clothing sold in the U.S. and many other countries must disclose this information on the tag. Online clothing stores usually have this information somewhere in the listing, but it can be hard to find. If the fiber information isn’t listed on a piece of clothing that’s usually a bad sign. With by-the-yard fabric, lack of fiber information is still a problem, but sometimes the fiber content of deadstock fabric gets lost along the way.

Quality wise, not all synthetic or artificial silks are the same, even if they’re made from the same fiber. Small differences in manufacturing can make a huge difference in the end product. I’ve found polyester “silks” that have almost fooled me, while others just look and feel like plastic. From an environmental standpoint, I prefer to stay away from artificial silks. The environmental cost of producing synthetics and their tendency to shed microplastics during washing are both major negatives for me. However, if you’re a staunch vegan you may make a different choice.

What Does Silky Mean?

One of the way that retailers confuse people is by using the word “silky” in product descriptions and titles. A “silky” or “silk like” camisole doesn’t necessarily contain any silk fiber. Often these words are used when trying to describe a satin fabric that is made using a synthetic fiber. This makes sense, because many fabrics were developed in the early 20th century specifically as silk alternatives.

Silky also doesn’t mean that a fabric is constructed using a satin weave. Many times knit fabrics are described of as “silky.” in that context it means that the fabric is lustrous and has a nice drape.

What is Satin?

Satin is a method of weaving fabric where floating yarns are staggered so that no pattern is visible when looking at the right-side of the fabric. This effect is usually achieved by “floating” warp yarns over the weft yarns. This is sometimes called a warp-faced satin. A weft-faced satin uses a similar technique, but in that case the weft yarns are floated. Twill fabric (like denim) uses a similar technique but the warp yarns are floated only over 2-4 weft yarns and there is a visible diagonal pattern.

Fabric woven using the satin weave pattern tend to have one smooth/shiny side and one matte side. This is because the floating weft yarns are able to reflect more light than other styles of weaving.

Satin fabrics can be woven using yarn of any fiber. In just about every case, fabric constructed using a satin weave will be more lustrous than fabric made using the same yarn and a plain weave.

Top: Warp faced satin woven with one weft yarn over every fourth warp yarn. Bottom: Plain woven fabric with both the warp and weft yarns “balanced,” meaning of approximately the same size.

What is Silk Satin?

So, while it may seem like it’s satin vs. silk, in reality they’re sometimes the same thing. A fabric woven in a satin pattern using yarn made from silk fibers is a silk satin fabric. Because both the fiber and the weaving pattern create fabric with luster, combining the two makes a fabric with a high luster.

Silk satin comes in a variety of different weights. Silk charmeuse is usually quite light. It’s great for lingerie and linings. Other fabrics like Dutches silk are stiffer, and more suitable for formal wear. If you’re buying fabric for a specific project, the only real way to know how a fabric will react is to get a sample or see it in person.

What is Sateen?

Sateen is usually used when cotton is woven in a satin weave. Bedsheets are the most common use. Sateen sheets frequently have a higher thread count than plain woven (percale) sheets because the structure of the satin weave makes it easier to fit more yarns into the same amount of space.

Heavier weights of sateen using thicker yarns tend to be stiffer. These fabrics show up in summer suiting and dresses. They look great and are breathable, but they do tend to fade much faster than similar quality wool.

Do you have any more questions about silk, satin, or textiles in general? Let me know in the comments below or over on Instagram.