Is It Satin or Is It Silk? It's both!

I'm a fabric junkie. It's one of my favorite things about vintage clothing--I find it fascinating. The perfect fabric can turn a simple design into a masterpiece, while a poor fabric selection can render a great design just ordinary. Today, I’ll tackle an often-misunderstood topic: fiber and weave. As both a seller and buyer of vintage apparel, I’m frustrated when I ask a seller about the fiber from which an item is made, and she/he doesn't understand the question. Especially if she/he stated the weave in the description. But weave is only part of the story. Fabric is a combination of fiber and weave, fiber being the raw material used to create it (e.g., wool, silk, rayon, polyester) and weave being the resulting look and texture once it is made into yardage. There is also the “how” of creating fabric (weaving, knitting, compressing, bonding, etc.), which affects weave, but that’s another can of worms for another day.

“So, why is this important?”, you might ask. While some buyers really don’t care about fiber, many do. Some can’t wear synthetics, some can’t wear certain natural fibers. For others, it’s a matter of preference. And, for both buyers and sellers, knowing the fiber can determine how to care for/clean/store the garment. This subject is so expansive and can be so complex, I don’t expect every seller to be a fabric expert! I don’t at all consider myself one, at that. But, since fiber-content labels are a relatively recent development in apparel manufacturing, sellers and buyers alike need a basic understanding of fiber and weave, and how to recognize them. For buyers, knowing the fiber can help them get a sense of how the fabric will feel and drape (or not) on the body.

People often know weaves but don’t realize that several different fibers can be used to create the same weave. This commonly occurs with satin, taffeta, chiffon, jersey, velvet, gabardine, jacquard, seersucker, and others. Since this would be a book and not a blog if I addressed all of them, I’ll start with the first three:

Satin: Most folks know satin, that shiny, smooth-textured, “slippery” fabric from which many evening and wedding gowns, nicer lingerie, and some linings are made. It can be made from silk, rayon, and polyester, and, sometimes, acetate. Cotton satin is called “sateen.” De-lustered, or matte, satin is often done in silk and called “peau de soie.” It has a very subtle luster and is delightful! You can see the difference in sheen in these two dresses, one a traditional rayon satin, the other a peau de soie:

Rayon satin Fred Perlberg gown from Alley Cats Vintage:


Pink peau de soie dress from Catseye Vintage:


Also a smooth, finely woven fabric with a sheen to it, but is “crisp” and usually thinner than satin. It was very popular in the full-skirted party dresses of the 50s, often layered with tulle. Now commonly used in dress and coat linings. Though we usually see it in acetate or rayon, it used to be made mostly of silk. Nylon also can be woven into a taffeta finish—most notably the Barbizon “Tafredda” slips (when I got my first one, I was astounded that it was 100% nylon!).

Red rayon taffeta evening gown from Vintage Baubles


That sheer, thin, and airy fabric seen in party dresses, wedding gowns, etc. Vintage double-chiffon peignoir sets have been popular for years. Chiffon is often used for sleeves, ruffles, and bodice insets. When used for a full garment, it’s often lined in taffeta. It can be made from silk, nylon, polyester, and rayon.

Print silk-chiffon dress previously sold by Vintage Baubles:


How to tell the difference? The best way is through handling as many different known fibers and weaves as you can. Note the content and weave of modern and vintage garments you already have--how they feel, how they drape, etc. Go to the fabric store, take a bolt of silk satin and one of polyester satin, and compare the feel. There's nothing like “hands-on” practice! Identifying fabrics will become easier over time. But, no matter how well versed you are, sometimes you just can’t tell. I use my sewing books and online resources as reference; after sewing for 40 years and selling for 10, I still check them. Often. You should also learn how to do a burn test. This isn’t always possible (sometimes you can't snip a piece to test), but it can be very valuable. Do a search for “fiber burn test,” and you’ll find charts, tips on methodology, etc. Bear in mind that any of the weaves discussed today can consist of blends of fibers; in that case, even a burn test may be inconclusive.

Sometimes, if you’re a seller, you end up just not being sure. In that case, I generally state my best guess as to fiber (and am clear that it's a guess). In online selling, where a buyer can’t handle an item, I think it’s critical to state, to the extent possible, the fiber and weave of a piece.