An Idiot’s Guide To Working With Satin

Satin Dress

I don’t sew for friends. Or if I do, consider yourself a really good friend. Someone dear to me recently requested a simple bat wing dress in a solid red for a wedding she was attending – in two weeks’ time. Could I do it? Maybe. We agreed a simple set of rules: if I didn’t think it was working, I was allowed to say so. If she hated the finished result, she didn’t have to wear it. And I was to deliver in enough time for her to do a last-minute rush to the shops.

(FYI, a belted bat wing dress is about as flattering as it gets. I traced this one from a dress my friend currently owns and loves.The mannequin does this no justice at all. I am now seriously tempted to make several bat wing dresses for myself.)

The two of us hit Goldhawk Road on a steaming hot day. We found a polyester satin that was at the high end of polyester satin, retailing at about £9 a metre. It had a nice matt finish that I thought would photograph well. Then, we found a much cheaper satin for the lining. Job done! Three metres of each, and off we went for lunch.

Back home, I began to doubt whether it was a good idea to line satin with satin but we needed a lining and I knew it had to be something that wouldn’t interfere with the drape of our fashion fabric. I did some Googling and the consensus seemed to be: Yeah, line satin with satin. So, ahead I plunged.

I know some immediate questions will be: but why polyester? I’m not gonna lie. I had no idea if I could pull this dress off. I wasn’t prepared to ask someone to spend £20 a metre on a better fabric, if the dress ended up in the bin. Together, we were going to take a gamble.

So, what did I learn about sewing with satin?

Money talks.

The more expensive satin was unbelievably better to work with. Seriously, don’t scrimp. The saving grace of this dress was the utter beauty of the fashion fabric. The drape, the glow, the ability to behave.

Buy a proper needle for your machine.

Satin has a tendency to pull threads with every needle puncture of the fabric. You need to invest in new needles, and specifically needles made for delicate fabrics.

Cut out between layers of paper.

This stuff slips, and then slips some more. You want accurate cutting out. I followed an excellent tutorial from Grainline studios and cut out the fabric between layers of paper. This technique really works!

Cutting out satin

Don’t expect to use your rolled hem foot on a first attempt.

I bought a rolled hem foot, but ended up not using it. There’s a great tutorial on rolled hem foots, but even then I struggled. Like, really struggled. Thank goodness, I’d had the foresight to have a practice go. And another practice, and another… In the end, I gave up. That’s a learning curve for another day. Pick your battles, people!

Rolled Hem Foot

Instead, I chose to finish the sleeves and hem with very delicate hand stitching.

Hand stitching satin

You’ll want a teeny tiny needle for this type of work. And a thimble. Possibly a magnifying glass. Definitely a head torch. I quite like the fact that even with the most careful work, you can still see the tiny catches in the fabric. In my current frame of mind those stitches say ‘bespoke’ rather than ‘ham fisted’. I’m sticking with that theory.

The one area of my work that I am least happy with is the neckline. I just knew that someone with more expertise would have a better method of construction. I sewed the lining and fashion fabric together at the neckline and top stitched. It was not my finest hour. I wondered about strips of silk organza to stabilise, but feared that even those strips would show through on the drape. Please, please, does anyone have hints or tips?

Satin neckline

My conclusions? This was a steep learning curve. I did the best I could, but my best is only okay. This experience reminded me how desperately frustrated I felt, making my Vogue coat. You don’t know what you don’t know – you know? Sometimes a student needs an expert by her side. I had two weeks and no expert, so I blustered on through, determined that my friend would have a dress to either accept or reject. But as God was my witness, she’d have a dress. I finished sewing at 7am and hotfooted it to her office to deliver the dress at 10am.

Don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t an unhappy experience. Just a learning experience, and I feel there’s much more to learn. Any tips?

One last thought. I put both fabrics through the washing machine on their own for a pre-wash. I’m sooooo glad I didn’t chuck them in with a main wash. I happened to be out in the back garden when the washing machine was pumping out water, and I saw what went down the drain. That water was red! There’s a reason we pre-wash and a good reason to keep those pre-washes separate. Seriously. Do you want all your pants to be pink?!

Satin Drying

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48 Responses to An Idiot’s Guide To Working With Satin

  1. Nicole says:

    How daunting. You did supremely well. I wish I could see it on!

  2. BeaJay says:

    Looks gorgeous. I’ll be eager to see an IRL photo too.

  3. Siga says:

    Well now we all want to know if that friend wears this dress and if yes, then pictures, please!

  4. Sunni says:

    It looks beautiful! I love the color and you’ve done a magnificent job! Here are my tips when working with slippery fabrics: Use microtex machine needles – they are extremely sharp and they don’t run the fabric like other needles do. I cut slippery fabric on a cut cloth instead of using the paper. I personally like it better than the paper, but you know, its just one more thing to try. I have a post about it here:
    By the way, it works even better if you have a flannel cut cloth as the fabric really sticks to the flannel. Additionally, if you purchase serrated shears especially for cutting these kinds of fabrics they are marvelous. They grip the fabric as you cut and my favorites are here (the 10 inch ones):
    Stay tape. Here is my favorite kind – seriously it has to be woven by fairies!
    I use it anywhere that has stretched out of place, like necklines!
    Also use silk pins for pinning fabrics together. They really do work and I use them for everything else too!
    Sorry to bombard you with tips, but I love wearing slippery fabrics so learning how to work with them was a trial and error type thing. Anyway, hopefully this helps you!

  5. redambition says:

    This is so true! My first satin garment was made out of a (stunning) costume satin, and it was ridiculously cheap… and evil to work with. It has scared me of satin a little, but I now know that proper clothing satin won’t be as horrendous as that experience was!

    I am looking at Sunni’s tips and noting them alllllllll down for future reference :o)

  6. Fashionista says:

    I am scarred by to many early 90s bridesmaids’ frocks to consider using satin for anything ever again! But thank you for sharing the experience and your tips 🙂

  7. Kowareta says:

    Wow, the fabric looks gorgeous. Good on you for tackling such a daunting task and on time! I’m quietly hoping your friend sees the post so she can see all our comments about wanting to know if she wore it, or at least see a picture of it on.
    Also, I wouldn’t be opposed to you doing bat wing dresses and tops for the next few months 😛 Can never get enough, love me some bat wing. ^_^

  8. Alexandra says:

    I would not top stitch around the neck next time. It is almost impossible to get it sitting nicely in satin unless your stitching is only 1 or 2 millimetres from the edge, which in itself is almost impossible.
    You could use bias cut organza to stay around the neck. If you stretch it out whilst steaming you can take all the stretch out but it will still go around curves, this may give you a better finish than the fusible, but test them both.
    If the lining shows at the neck without the top stitching you could try a very fine self piping around the neck which would sit nicely without the need for top stitching. Or you could do a fine bias binding, even in a chiffon or organza of the same colour.

  9. Tiffany says:

    I know that this is a very basic tip but did you baste stitch the curved edges before sewing the pieces together? I use to try to skip this but its essential as everything stays in place and curved edges tend to stretch out of place. I think this dress looks amazing. You did a wonderful job. I’m sure your friend wore it. I would love to see pictures.

  10. Claire Binns says:

    Karen that dress looks absolutely gorgeous – well done – I really hope your friend wore it after all your hard work!

  11. sewamysew says:

    You did good, it looks great. Neckline Schemeckline. What pattern did you use for the make? You had me at belted batwing!

  12. dottiedoodle says:

    Gorgeous dress, love the colour and the finishing looks great to me. I think we’re so picky about the things we make, much more so than rtw. Brilliant tips too. I’m planning to sew a silk dress soon, so have bookmarked this page.

  13. Dang, I want one of those now. No useful tips for sewing with satin I’m afraid, I’ve never tried.

    Any chance of a pic of your friend wearing the dress? I bet it looks even better on a person.

  14. Rachel says:

    Great job! How gorgeous is that shade of red?! Thanks for all the tips (and for prompting more in the comments). I’m contemplating making a silk satin dress for a wedding. It’s for me though – I’m not good/pious/crazy enough to sew for friends unless they pay me by the hour; otherwise they have no idea how long things take (what a grinch I sound!!). Anyway, these tips are really handy, thank you. And the dress is lovely. I’m sure your friend will wear it loads. Imagine swaning around the house in it – so lush! 🙂

  15. Roobeedoo says:

    Great post! I avoid sewing for friends AND slippery fabrics – so happy for you that you pulled it off!
    Re the neck stitching. This happened to me on my recent Innocent crush top – I thought it was because I forgot to clip the curves. You did clip the curves didn’t you…? The other thing you could do is to vary the stitch length at the curviest parts – smaller stitches round the bends!

  16. Pella says:

    Great result! Something which might be worth trying if you use satin again – the neckline, you can face back with the lining (or a facing attached to the lining if you want to be sure no lining shows ever) then edge stitch the lining to the turnings, which holds it inside without any top stitching. Hand stitching is brilliant btw, I didn’t say that.

  17. I’m with Sunni on the walking foot. Makes a huge difference. I think itis a lovely dress. It’s a ssaliet reminder that how you feel about making a garment doesn’t always equate to how the garment turns out. I think we’ve all enjoyed making the odd fugly, and hated making the odd keeper!

  18. Sam says:

    No tips for sewing with satin I’m afraid! I would have suggested a very narrow self piping for the neckline – I used that finish recently on a dress I made for a friend and it worked very well, with no need to topstitch. Also, you have my sympathies regarding the rolled hem foot – I recently bought one and cannot make a nice neat hem with it no matter how hard I try!

  19. Sewer From Across The Pond says:

    For stabilizing while cutting, freezer paper helps; you take an iron and lightly touch the shiny side to the fabric. You don’t have to cover every inch of the fabric and can trace the pattern onto the matte side if you like.

    Serrated shears grip well. They can be used just with the fabric without the freezer paper.

  20. Adrienne says:

    Oh, I’m curious on whether or not she liked it and wore it! I agree with you that the hand sewing looks totally screams “bespoke”. 🙂

  21. Stephanie says:

    The dress is absolutely lovely. I want one! Thanks for introducing the topic as the comments above are so useful. I’m taking notes from your amazing readers, although I think I’m still too chicken to sew with satin! PS I always like the hand stitching part of a project best. It reminds me of when I was a kid and my mom would show me antique and vintage hand sewing (she used to be an antiques collector). I used to marvel at the hand stitching done to produce everything from lingerie to table runners to wedding garments and wonder at the patience and skill these people had.

  22. Well done Karen. And keep practicing with the rolled hemming foot. Once you get to grips with it you will love it. Honest.

  23. Amanda says:

    Great tips. Thank you!

  24. Simona says:

    Ohh, and I thought I am the only one I can’t get a grip in using a rolled hem foot. Darn thing, looks pretty hems are on their way, and then disaster happens. luckily I was using it to make the hem on the lining.
    Your posts always information and full of personality. Wish I were as talented at the ‘written work’ guess I need to practice more. In the mean time I enjoy all your writings. 🙂

  25. Linda says:

    I wouldn’t top stitch the neck – stay stitch the garment fabric and then understitch the facing

  26. Sufiya says:

    Fab dress; I’m quite sure she wore it! i would have!

    Oh, and if you never master the rolled-hem foot I have heard it also works well as a “cording” foot; you can feed your cord through the coil just like one does through the hole in a cording foot.

  27. Tracey Welsh says:

    Good on you for being gutsy enough to want to make something out of satin. I steer clear of the stuff, not only does my 1968 Bernina 707 HATE it, but so do I… Lol.

    I used to sew anything and everything. My kids clothes (MY baby clothes were made on the same machine!!!) clothes for me, home furnishings, patchwork quilts, anything that could be sewed I had a go at and thanks to my mum and nan, I finished everything to a high standard. Then one day a few years ago… I lost the spark. Just COULD NOT be bothered anymore. Had absolutely NO interest in making a darn thing. My once beloved, handed down sewing machine sat idle and miserable… Until I found your blog. I found an old Burda Plus magazine in a charity shop and from the second I picked it up, I was hooked again. Needing a little inspiration, I looked at quite a few sewing blogs (hundreds!!!) in the hope of finding one that would “grab” me. Only yours (and The Slapdash Sewist’s) did… I love how you write. There’s no arty-farty “I’m better than you” tone and you admit to your boo-boo’s. You are one of the few REAL bloggers out there and I SO appreciate that!!!! I’ve had to bin a few projects recently but I’ll keep sewing, you’ve made it okay to make mistakes and move on from them. And I’ll keep reading your blog. Lol. 😀

  28. gingermakes says:

    This is lovely! What a fabulous color, and the style is so chic! I absolutely love it, and I hope your friend did, too! I second Sunni’s suggestion to cut on top of fabric– in my opinion, it’s easier than paper. I lay out a piece of old muslin and put the fabric on top, and then I just use pattern weights and my rotary cutter without even needing to pin it. My other tip is to hand baste as much as you can stand! I hand baste darts and usually all the seams, too, and I even staystitch by hand as I feel like my machine really chews up single layers of slippery fabric. You can take all this with a grain of salt, though, as I’m still learning. This is just what works for me. 🙂

  29. Amy says:

    Ooo, I echo everyone above, I’d love to see a picture of the finished dress in action! I’m very impressed with anyone who sews clothes for friends, I can barely make clothes to fit myself, let alone anyone else!

  30. mary says:

    woven necklines need facing front and back, and these facings need interfacing, to stop the neckline stretching out.

  31. Debrena says:

    I am not a great expert and I learned sewing from Burda magazines back in 1980-ies… The best thing about it that patterns are great and always match sizes and then step-by-step instructions are so clear that impossible to make a mistake. Now for the neck line, as Burda teaches, use the iron-on-interfacing… Iron-on-Interfacing always should be lighter than your fabric and you will never have problem again. I know it from my own experience, I was stuggling without interfacing and never could get it right. With interfacing you will achieve professionally made look, I promiss. I use to make a lot of dresses for my firends and their friends and did not have any single complaint (thanks to Burda). Also wanted to mention about using pins to secure the seam and stitch through the pins insted of bast stitching: pins will hold fabrics in place and will not allow them to move and it’s easier to unpin if you need correction and the pin again. One more thing for the hem: I fold and iron it before stitching so you will see how it gonna look when it’s finished. It’s easier to correct mistakes when it’s ironed then unravel the stich, and it’s easier to stitch or handstitch as you see where you going. Hope it helps

  32. Elena says:

    I am sewing some Victorian style dresses for my girls (Halloween party is Steampunk-themed this year). The dress calls for a sash, I’m making it out of bridal satin (was on sale cheap when added with a discount).

    Anyways, it will run horizontally around their waists. My question is, if the skirt is also that satin, and uses the vertical grain, would I use the same grain? Cause that seems weird to me…

    I hope this made sense…

  33. chuichoy says:

    It looks great especially the hand sewing. I was looking on tutorials for satin and this is already really helpful. Thanks for sharing!

  34. Ami Niane says:

    You did wonderful at the neckline! It looks great! I have a few yards of silk satin and I want to make a caftan with it! I will remember your advice

  35. I have an idea for your neckline. I took a garment finishing class recently and the instructor showed samples of necklines similar to yours, but she under-stitched instead of top stitching — just stitched the lining to the seam allowance with the fashion fabric out of the way. It keeps the edge from rolling and gives a very clean, polished finish. Your hand stitched hems look very couture, by the way — much better than a rolled hem IMO. Question for you — what kind of needle did you use to see your polyester satin? Sharp, universal, or ballpoint? I am about to sew satin binding on a quilt and in the past I have been unhappy with how the needle seems to snag with every stitch. Advice appreciated!

    • I agree with the comment above about using microtex needles for satin- they make such a difference. I got some really god aweful (cheap) needles recently- they snagged and pulled and ruined my fabric. I now only use prym or schmetz needles.
      For the neckline I would stay stitch both outer fabric and lining front and back neck about 5mm from the raw edge before constructing the shoulder seams. Then apply a thin 1.5cm strip of lightweight interfacing over this stitching. Construct the neckline then under stitch, stitching the out fabric seam allowance to the interfaced lining and press carefully.
      For the hem stay stitch again about 5mm from the edge (use the longest stitch on your machine) first before using the rolled hem foot. I used it to hem a 16m chiffon hem recently! It worked well but Gahh NEVER AGAIN!

  36. Mary E.Dadds says:

    I know this is quite late.Only 3 yrs so.I just found your Blog and I have been going back to it and reading and rereading.Love it.I love that Satin dress too.I know you did a remarkable job on it.I too wish you knew if she wore it.Im thinking it turned out wonderful.

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