Silk is one of the oldest cultivated animal products and remains an iconic luxury item.
While wool and cotton remain the staples of Western menswear, silk has its place in the well-dressed man's wardrobe — and demands its own special care and attention as well.
Introduction to Silk
Silk has been a clothing staple in China and much of Asia for well over 5,000 years. “Wild silk” was harvested from the discarded cocoons of moths and carefully teased out into individual threads that could be worked together into primitive textiles.
“Sericulture” — the raising of insects for silk — followed quickly and is still practiced today. The mulberry silkworm, which is the larval stage of an insect called the silkmoth, can be raised on mulberry leaves and allowed to spin its cocoon on a small straw frame.
The cocoon is then heated until the silk unravels and loses its shape, becoming a single loose thread. These threads are spun together for strength, and can then be worked into many different fabrics and weaves.
Properties of Silk
Silk fibers reflect the light from most sides, which gives the fabric its characteristic shine.
Synthetic fibers have attempted to imitate silk's luster but often take on a slick, plastic-like texture in the process, while silk remains smooth and drapes softly. Silk takes dyes well and can be colored very brightly, or worn raw for a creamy white color.
Fabric-makers have historically treated silk with metals as well to create bright, metallic detailing and heavier garments, although this shortens the lifespan of the fabric.
Silk is an absorbent fabric, although it loses much of its strength when wet. It can absorb up to about 10-11% of its weight in water before becoming saturated. At that point the silk becomes quite prone to permanent stretching, so care must be taken with wet silk to avoid any hard use or tugging.
Cheaper dyes tend not to hold well to silk and can be damaged by even small amounts of water; the infamous “water spotting” that silk garments are prone to come from diluted dyes rather than actual damage to the cloth itself. Natural, undyed silk does not water-spot, although it can be stretched and distorted when wet.
Silk and Heat Retention
Silk holds heat well when woven into thicker fibers but breathes easily in thin weaves, making it a highly versatile textile. Thin silk garments have been used as underwear and even activewear because of its breathability and absorption, while heavy silk wrappings can make effective winter clothing.
Silk scarves are still a common cold-weather garment for both men and women, and silk pajamas come in both heavy weaves for warmth and very sheer cloths for summer relief.
Silk in Custom Menswear
Silk is rarely seen in off-the-shelf menswear outside of neckties and boxers (which are both perfectly valid uses for the fabric; the former because of its excellent drape and lustrous sheen and the latter because of its breathability and absorption.)
In higher-end menswear, it occasionally appears as the lining of a jacket or a pair of trousers, though man-made acetate fabrics have become more popular. Acetate holds up better to prolonged wear and can absorb perspiration with less long-term effect than silk, as well as being a somewhat more breathable option. Still, many men prefer a silk for particularly decorative linings.
Silk is also often used as the “fronting” on decorative waistcoats. These can be brightly-colored pieces for distinctive casual-wear, but silk satin fronts are also traditional on the classic black tie waistcoat.
Silk is also used for the wide trouser striping on many pairs of black-tie pants, and can be used in the hosiery as well (where its absorbency and breathability again makes it a practical as well as a stylish choice).
The most common use of silk in menswear remains — and is likely to remain for some time yet — the necktie. Many synthetic alternatives exist, particularly because neckties are not exposed to the kinds of stresses that make synthetic materials poor choices for other garments: a tie is not subject to regular hard use, it does not need to breathe well or flex with your body, and it will never be a serious factor in whether you stay warm or cool.
Silk remains popular because of its unparalleled visual luster and its durability. Silk threads bind extremely well and have a tendency to draw tighter over time, meaning that silk ties are not prone to unraveling or shrinking. The light weight and breathability of the fabric also makes it a more comfortable option than woolen or synthetic ties, and allows for a tighter, neater knot that still does not pinch or constrict the wearer's neck.
Caring for Silk
Silk is a somewhat misunderstood fabric, and far more durable than many people give it credit for. Any silk garment can be dry-cleaned, but many can be hand-washed or even laundered as well, provided that the dyes are of high enough quality.
Its temperature resistance is quite high, and most silk garments (with the same caution regarding dyes) can be ironed on a low setting. It is very important to drape silk carefully when wet and to store it safely away from both sunlight and insects. Some specific weaves of silk are more delicate due to the structure of the threads and may have more specific care instructions, but these are inherent to the construction techniques rather than the material.
Silk and the Environment
Silk is a renewable resource and requires little processing or treatment to become usable. Most environmental objections to silk production focus on the use of live insects, which are killed in the process to keep the cocoons intact.
Some “green” manufacturers use only silk from cocoons which were allowed to mature and hatch, though this makes the original threads much shorter and can produce a somewhat rougher cloth. Some dyeing techniques still make use of metal dust, which can be harmful to the local environment.
Overall, however, silk remains one of the most environmentally-friendly fabrics available, and far lower-impact than other animal byproduct fabrics like wool.
Conclusions on Silk
For most men, silk will never be a wardrobe staple to the same degree as wool or cotton. Many roles historically filled by silk are now better handled by artificial and man-made fibers, and the cost of the luxury fabric remains prohibitive for many men.
Still, it is safe to expect that most men will own at least a pair of boxers or a nice necktie in silk at some point in their life — and from there, they may well be tempted into trying more articles that use the time-tested natural fiber in their wardrobe.
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