Mary Corbet

writer and founder


I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

Contact Mary

Connect with Mary



2024 (52) 2023 (125) 2022 (136) 2021 (130) 2020 (132) 2019 (147) 2018 (146) 2017 (169) 2016 (147) 2015 (246) 2014 (294) 2013 (294) 2012 (305) 2011 (306) 2010 (316) 2009 (367) 2008 (352) 2007 (225) 2006 (139)

My Case for Silk in Hand Embroidery Projects


Amazon Books

If you can embroider it in cotton, you can embroider it in silk.

That is, if you can embroider something in cotton and end up with good results, you can embroider it in silk, and end up with equal, and even quite possibly, better results.

I thought we should have a chat about silk embroidery thread, since I’ve received a few questions lately about using silk on Tulip Festival, this embroidered kaleidoscope series we’ve been working through together.

I’ve also received a few questions about silk in other embroidery applications, but that’s an article for another day! I’ll be addressing a particular argument that’s been surfacing a bit in the needlework world, to see if we can overcome some hazy notions about silk in needle painting.

Today, though, we’ll just talk in general about silk. Hopefully, if you’re wavering between the cotton vs silk thread question, this will give you something to think about and perhaps, with some, it will overcome a fear of using silk.

Silk Hand Embroidery Thread - Collection of different types of silk

Before delving too far into the recent questions I’ve received about using silk floss, specifically on Tulip Festival but generally in any project, a few caveats:

If you’re a committed embroiderer who is keen to pursue hand embroidery as an art, to improve your skills, to explore mediums, to stick with your needle and thread for a good long time, then this article will probably resonate more with you.

If you’re a hobby embroiderer who stitches for the quick creative fix, who is interested in dabbling a bit but not necessarily pursuing the art, who enjoys the craft of embroidery, or who is riding the current wave of embroidery trends, but realizes your interest will probably turn to other creative outlets pretty quickly, then this might not strike a chord with you. And that’s ok! There’s room for every kind of stitcher with every degree of interest in the whole Needlework Scheme of Things! The key to any hobby, craft, or art, is to do with it what makes you happy, what satisfies your creative bent.

If you are a beginner all around, then I’d definitely start with cotton embroidery floss and then, as your confidence increases and you grow hungry for experimentation and new horizons, then move on to silk.

If you have an interest in silk, but you haven’t gone there yet, you might need a little background on the fiber. And, luckily, we’ve covered the subject of silk quite a bit here on Needle ‘n Thread! At this end of this article, if you’re keen to expand your knowledge, I’ll include some links to information articles about silk embroidery threads, the types that are out there, what they are, how they work, and so forth.

Silk Hand Embroidery Thread - Collection of different types of silk

For starters here, let’s address the questions that have come up recently about stitching Tulip Festival with silk. And these would apply to any project, really – not just Tulip Festival.

Why Silk & Not Cotton?

Here’s the gist of the questions that have rolled in regarding silk threads on Tulip Festival:

Why are you using silk instead of cotton on Tulip Festival?

Wouldn’t the project look the same in cotton as it does in silk?

Why spend the money on silk when you can do the same thing in cotton?

Is there an advantage to working Tulip Festival in silk over working it in cotton?

My Take:

1. I love the look and the feel of silk embroidery threads. I get pleasure out of stitching with them. And I get equal pleasure out of looking at them, stitched.

2. The finished result of any embroidery worked in silk will not look the same as the finished result of the same embroidery in cotton. Would a cotton wedding dress look the same as a silk wedding dress? Do cotton bed sheets look like silk bed sheets? Of course, we know the answer to both of those is no. It doesn’t mean that a cotton wedding dress is ugly, nor does it mean that cotton bed sheets are inferior. But they do look different (and perform differently) from a silk wedding dress or silk sheets.

While stranded spun silk behaves similarly to stranded cotton, it does not behave exactly the same way.

Stranded spun silk is usually slightly softer in twist, compared to stranded cotton, so it has a softer, nicer “spread” to it when you stitch with it and a little more “loft” (or stand-up-ability). In short, it covers better.

Silk also reflects light differently from cotton. It imparts a glowy gleam that can’t be matched by any other fiber.

3. Silk is more expensive than cotton, but there are advantages to using silk over cotton when you can afford to. I have a good stash of silk, so I like to use it now and then!

4. In my mind, there are a few advantages to using good silk threads: a. When I stitch with good silk, I tend to be very motivated to stitch, simply due to the pleasure of using the threads; b. the finished project is, to me, more pleasing to the eye, thanks to the play of light off the silk and the way the threads blend; c. There’s more variety in silk threads, when it comes to weight, twist, type, and uses.

Even though, on Tulip Festival, I stuck with stranded spun silk (Soie d’Alger), if I had wanted to expand to different types, textures, and weights of silk, I could have done that easily, across the range of threads in the same color families from Au Ver a Soie. I could have used, for example, filament silks, very fine silks, very tightly twisted silks, flat silks, silk gimp, heavier silks with a nice twist to them. It wasn’t my vision for Tulip Festival, but in the scheme of things, when it comes to embroidery, silk actually offers more variety in type, weight, and texture, than cotton does.

Silk Hand Embroidery Thread - Collection of different types of silk

Further Reading on Silk Thread

If you’d like to read more about silk hand embroidery threads to get a feel for what’s available, what it’s like, where to find it, here are a few articles to get you going. They’ve all got links in them to further articles on subjects related to silk, so you can really go deep to learn more about this beautiful fiber!

Silk 101: Getting Started with Silk Embroidery Threads

Silk 101: Twisted Filament Silk

Silk 101: Flat Silk

More Thread Talk!

Next time we chat about threads, I’ll share with you some up close photos of embroidery done with silk and establish my “case” for why silk thread is perfectly appropriate for needle painting or silk shading – and perhaps even more effective than cotton.

We’ll also talk about why cotton is a great thread! (Because, after all, they’re not mutually exclusive!)

Coming Up!

If you haven’t joined in on the current give-away for these embroidery project calendars for 2018, it ends tomorrow morning! If you’d like a chance to have access to 13 manageable projects for each month of 2018, this is a great way to do it!

I’ll announce five winners tomorrow and share some great online inspiration and (free) resources for your weekend reading.

We’ll move forward on Tulip Festival next week. Gosh, I love that project! I’d like to stitch it again!

There’s a new book I’ve been dying to review for you (no pun intended) coming up, a few tutorials I’ve been working on (and my story of a Huge Fail in every respect of the word!).

And we’ll also start looking forward to – yes – Christmas! While it’s still a bit early to sling up the decorations, it’s not too early – or too late – to whip up a little holiday project or two!

Enjoy your weekend!


Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


(15) Comments

  1. “The key to any hobby, craft, or art, is to do with it what makes you happy, what satisfies your creative bent.” Mary, you stated it perfectly! Each person has his/her own unique personality and the craft/hobby/art should reflect it.

  2. Items stitched with silk are certainly more comely than those stitched with cotton. The tulip project is lovely in no small part because of the silk used. But I respectfully disagree that thread preference is necessarily connected to one’s commitment to the craft. I believe that stitchers at all levels of proficiency and dedication have their deal-breakers, however idiosyncratic, when it comes to materials.

    I’m in a needlework group with longtime stitchers who are skilled in a variety of embroidery techniques, for example. Everyone purchases good quality materials, but one stitcher’s preference can be another stitcher’s bane. One won’t try needlepoint because she feels that the stiffness of canvas compares unfavorably to the drape of cloth. Another loves the feel of wool and is fine with Appleton. I am lukewarm about the feel of wool and abhor hairiness, so will only use Renaissance Dyeing.

    But back to silk, my dealbreaker is that stitching with it is a wholesale snagfest. In no time at all, the length of thread I’m working with looks like the cat got hold of it (not just a figure of speech in my household). Despite wearing gloves while gardening and cleaning and scrubbing with oil and sugar, I have dry, rough spots on my hands year round. Setting foot in a nail salon (someplace I’ve never been), is a step too far for me. Also, I . . . don’t actually like the feel of silk all that much. Not sure how much of that is because touching it means snagging it.

    I guess what I’m nattering on about is that life is too short to work with stitching materials that cause frustration, even if those materials are the best-suited to the project. Which can mean foregoing some tempting projects or genres of embroidery (I’m looking at you, Brazilian embroidery).

    1. Hi, Janice! Ah, the snagfest! Yes, I can understand that! Perhaps not so much with stranded spun silk, as it behaves a lot better than, say, filament silk.

      My point isn’t that those who are committed to the art of embroidery should only use silk. Or that silk is always used by those committed to embroidery. It’s that those who are planning to stick with embroidery should at least try it. Of course, they might find it is not for them, but not to be scared of trying it.

      Hope that clarifies!

  3. I love embroidering with silk. The tactile aspect alone is almost worth the expense! Once you see the embroidery on the fabric the look of silk is stunning. I find it really difficult to capture the beauty of silk in photographs which is unfortunate for those who like to share embroidery photos on blogs, etc. In fact, I didn’t realise how truly gorgeous silk embroidery was until I stitched with it myself. If you are an embroidery geek like me, you really owe it to yourself to try silk.

  4. A tale of 2 threads. Silk is a protein fiber, cotton is a plant fiber. You have to dye them with different dyes. Silk will always reflect more light and it dyes beautifully. Cotton is always stubborn to dye. That said, each is glorious in their own right. I would never make linen napkins with silk thread, and on a fine blouse of linen lawn or linen batiste, I would always use silk. Silk thread has less weight and so is much better on these lighter fabrics. Sotema of Italy has a wonderful linen batiste fabric, worth every penny! Cotton on regular weight linen is my go to favorite for every day clothes and those linen napkins.

    Absolutely Renaissance Dyeing is a superior wool to Appleton’s every day of the week! There’s a simple reason why. Appleton’s wool comes from the wool pool, which means last year’s wool will never be the same as this year’s wool because the pool of sheep is constantly changing.

    Renaissance uses Merino wool. One breed of sheep, sure the wool changes some each year as the sheep age, but by consistently keeping within a micron range, the wool is more consistent over the years…it also feels MUCH nicer in the hand. I despise Appleton’s. Every project I started with it is in a UFO pile. I purchased the entire range from Renaissance, and a few more besides to add to my own pile of dyed silk/merino blend. No more of that shedding Appleton’s for me!

  5. I would love to stitch everything in silk. Unfortunately, being retired leaves me with little extra money for my expensive hobby. While I will splurge for special items, my budget doesn’t allow silk. Do you have any ideas on where I could find free silks? Neither do I.

    1. While not free, you might check listings on eBay or Etsy for items you really, really want. Or scan yard or estate sale ads for other possibilities. There is also https://pipers-silks.com/ in the UK that has lovely silk used professionally by such as Helen Stevens. Not cheap but far less than what I’ve seen on other sites. An 80-meter spool can be had for 1.50 Pounds which is about $2.00 if my exchange rate guess is correct.

      For free, put what you want on your Christmas or birthday wish list and let people know that you really want this vice another candy dish or fruit cake.

      I hope these options give you a few ideas for the special projects you most want to do in silk.

  6. Hello Mary, I came to the conclusion about where to use silk instead of cotton. I came to this, vegetable, cotton and, the other is animal(protein). I do have a few conditions tho. I prefer to use silk when doing birds. I did Trish Burr’s lovely little bird in both silk and cotton. I have to say that to me the silk one does give a more life like appearance than the cotton. Silk does give a better shine. Most birds have that glossy sheen at any view. Especially the birds of paradise and parrots for instance.
    I would not do a rhinoceros, or elephant in silk. As I have never seen a shiny one of those in my life. Colour change when wet maybe but definitely not shiny.
    Birds you can use both the cotton and silk together. the legs of birds are not particularly shiny so I have used cotton there at times. I like to use the filament silk without a twist or just a very soft twist. I like the soft spread of the fibre. Not to be washed.
    When I do use silk it is usually on an item that is to be framed or such. Give as presents.
    Just a preference, I do not like sleeping on silk or wearing it close to my skin. Sweat stains and it does look shabby quickly. 1 wear only. I do on the other hand like it mixed with wool in a coat and suit fabrics.
    Yes in the end it is entirely up to the stitcher. The afore is just some of my preferences.

  7. I had never worked with silk thread before the project, a kit, I am doing as a demonstration at reenactments. While stitching over the years I had worked in cotton floss, crewel yarn, and a couple of times in candlewicking. I had no idea that silk floss/threads (or perle cotton, etc) existed for embroidery until perhaps 15 years ago.

    I was concerned to be using silk when I started this project as the circumstances when the project is generally worked on are not the best – outside, starting & stopping, talking to the public while I work, etc. plus I have a problem with my fingers getting dry around the nail in colder weather and was worried the silk thread might stick to me and be damaged. The thread in question is waterlilies. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it works as easily as the cotton and I have had no problems with it.

    For future projects, unless it is a kit and silk thread is included, I will probably not work with silk thread again as it is not easily available in my area – we have delivery problems and I like to see what I am buying with needlework so I cannot order it – and price, we live on limited budget and the cost would be prohibitive. When I buy cotton floss (DMC) I buy it at Walmart or a major craft store/Joanns and use a percentage off coupon at the latter stores to make it more affordable.

  8. Silk Glorious Silk! I love silk in all its forms. I love to spin silk from sliver, noil, cocoons. I spin it to knit, weave, crochet and embroider with it. I love to dye it, no other fibre with maybe the exception of mohair, takes dye so brilliantly. I love to wear silk clothes. I love silk! 🙂
    But as you say, Mary, silk is not the only fibre to embroider with. Cotton, wool, mohair, rayon all have a place in embroidery, depending on what you want to achieve. While cotton is cheaper to use and the look/effect ok, if the budget will stretch to it I would go for silk, like Mary I just love the look and the feel of silk and if that is the effect I want…..
    Cheers Judy
    South East Queensland

  9. Thank you for all the wonderful information you provide us. This article on silk threads is very informative. I didn’t have any idea there were different types of silk thread. And to learn the differences was very enlightening!
    I would like to be in on the give away for the calander, but don’t know where to enter. I just had knee surgery so I am behind on all the emails!

  10. I’m planning to create a gift using 100 percent silk fabric, which I would like to embroider in silk floss. I have many years of experience embroidering with cotton floss on cotton fabric. Is there anything I should know about embroidering on silk? Do you advise against it for any reason?

    1. I don’t advise against using silk at all! It is luxurious and gorgeous and definitely worth using. You might try different types of silk threads before you settle on one kind, as there are noticeable differences in their ease of use, etc. You can read about different types of silk here on Needle ‘n Thread, starting with this article: https://needlenthread.wpengine.com/2017/03/silk-hand-embroidery-thread-spun-silk.html and there are further links at the end of that article to other types of silk thread.

  11. I have a question new to using this thread and really loving the feel. Do i have to complete each cross stitch as i go or can i work first pass across row and then and come back to finish. Thank you in advance.

    1. The method of work that you normally follow with cross stitch would not change with the type of thread, so if you work one pass with the bottom stitch and then return along the line to work the top stitches of the cross stitches, then there’s no reason why you can’t do that. The only time you’d really need to change that method (if it’s your preferred method of cross stitching) is if you’re using an over-dyed thread or a variegated thread that you want to control the color placement on. But if you’re using solid threads – of any fiber – it won’t make a difference. Use your preferred method.

More Comments