Satin Worship

I’m on the hunt again for fabrics, satin specifically, and of course I’m running into the age-old (well, internet-age-old) issue of sellers calling anything that’s shiny “satin.” Drives me up a freaking wall!  Charmeuse, georgette, even shantung are all being described as “satin.” So first, let’s clear this up: Satin is a weave. It is not a fiber (it can be silk, rayon, polyester, and even wool or cotton, or a combination of any of the above), nor is it an adjective. Something can be “satiny,” as in having the quality of satin, which I think is what most eBay sellers are aiming at, but satin in and of itself is not a descriptive term, unless you’re talking specifically about weave.

Now, ok, it gets a little more difficult to parse because charmeuse technically is a type of satin weave. However, it is NOT SATIN (ergo, why it is named something different than satin).  Satin is heavier than charmeuse. Ask yourself this: If the fabric you’re dealing with falls into a flowy heap when you drop it on the floor, you’ve probably got a charmeuse. If the fabric you’ve got can stand up on its own and won’t collapse under its own weight, congratulations, you’ve got satin!

So, how the heck do you determine from online photos if what you’re thinking about buying is a charmeuse or another type of impostor satin, or the real thing? Just looking at the two pics below, it’s hard to judge which one is the true satin.

20mmsatin 60mmsatin

(Pictures taken from Pure Silks eBay site)

It’s tricky, but you might be able to figure it out visually if you know how satin tends to behave. Or, you could trust that the seller knows what they’re talking about and has differentiated between the two using a specific type of weight measurement for silk called a momme (pronounced, I am relatively certain, as mo-may), and frequently abbreviated as “mm”. In the case of the two fabrics above, the seller has included the momme in the product description:

60mm satin
60mm satin
20mm satin
20mm satin

So, satin is supposed to be heavy, right? And comparing the two weights provided by the seller, you can probably safely assume that the one that weighs over twice as much is likely the real satin. But what makes 60mm silk fabric a satin? What if the seller has only listed the weight in ounces or grams? How do you know then?

Based on the info from The Fabrics.net Blog, it breaks down like this:

1 momme = 4.3 grams per meter

or

8 momme = 1 ounce per yard

I cobbled together some of the info from the Fabrics.net post with the Wikipedia entry on units of textile measurement, and came up with this obviously deeply scientific and expertly researched breakdown:

  • < 20 momme = lightweight 
  • 20-28 momme = medium weight
  • > 28 momme = heavyweight
  • Habotai = 3-16 momme = sheer/lightweight
  • Charmeuse = 12-30* momme = lightweight/medium
  • Taffeta = 15-30 momme = medium/heavyweight
  • Satins = 30+ momme = heavyweight

(But you don’t have to take my word for it!)

So, for instance, if you find a so-called satin that is listed as 60g weight, doing the requisite math would give you about 14 momme. Using the info above, you can see that 14 momme is pretty lightweight! What you’re looking at is most likely a charmeuse that has been labeled as satin. Again, yes, charmeuse is a satin-weave, but it is a very different beast from SatinTM.

Most of the satin that is used in pre-20th century costuming is going to be pretty hefty stuff, well over 28-30mm that is the minimum for a “heavyweight” silk. A 60 momme satin, such as the one in the photos, is going to have a stiff, spongy hand, and is more in keeping with what one would find in use before the 20th century for gowns and suits.

So what about names? You frequently see different names ascribed to satins such as “duchess” (also spelled “dutchess” or “duchesse” or some conflation of all three), “bridal,” and “crepe-back.” All three of these are used somewhat interchangeably online, in my experience, and typically mean a high-end, heavy satin. The only difference is that crepe-back satins tend to be lighter weight than duchess or bridal satins (but still on the heavyweight side of the spectrum), and they have a crepe back (ie. slightly wrinkly) with a satin face (which is not wrinkly). Duchess and bridal satins tend to have a smooth weave back with a satin face. You can also find such a thing as a “double-face duchess satin” or “double satin” which is guaranteed to cost $$$$ be an utter P.I.T.A. to sew. But it sure is pretty!

Vintage green silk satin showing the satin top side and the plain weave bottom side.
Vintage green silk satin showing the satin top side and the plain weave bottom side.

Also, you can find a thing called “slipper satin” which is somewhere in between a taffeta and a satin. It is pretty light weight, but it has a lot of body to it, so it can be interlined and used with some success for pre-20th century designs.

Made with slipper satin from Home Fabrics in the L.A. garment district. I interlined the bodice with canvas and lined it in linen, and the skirt is lined in linen alone. It did alright.

Oh, that’s right… I should mention that satin is not a fun fabric to sew, especially by machine. IT REMEMBERS EVERYTHING. Except how to hold a crease. If you sew it by machine and have to rip out a seam, evidence of that previous seam will be there FOREVER. And if you try to iron it, say for a hem, you will be tearing your hair out because it. will. not. hold. the. crease.

photo1
NEVER FORGET

But wrangling satin is a topic for another blog entry some other time!

Clear as mud? Hopefully you have found this entry a little bit useful… And since we’re dealing with math here, please feel free to correct any of my figures if they’re wrong, because math is my arch enemy.

And of course, if you’re ever in doubt, buy a sample! Me, I often live life on the edge and will wing it on faith alone when purchasing fabric online, but satin is expensive stuff and so it does pay to either purchase it in person, where you can manhandle it, or request a sample sent to you. Nothing is as depressing as spending $40/yard on 10 yards of charmeuse, let me tell ya!

* I have NEVER seen a 30 momme charmeuse, but it’s on Wikipedia so it must be true!

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