Monday, June 18, 2007

QUICKtip: Buying silk yarn--beware the SMELL

Sometimes, silk smells so terrible as to be unwearable. My nose forcibly reminded me of this recently when shopping for materials from which to knit a present for a friend who is--sadly but truly--allergic to wool.

Silk's terrible smell problem evidently comes from a gum left in the raw fiber as you can read here. In my experience, that silky - fishy smell never comes out, regardless of what you may try; not drycleaning, not sprinkling with baking soda, not detergent, not airing outside for days on end. (Not to mention--washing is hard on silk--silk has "low wet resiliency," meaning it is weak when wet, and easily crinkled.) Some method or another may have you convinced that you've got the problem knocked back a little, but as your body heat warms the silk, the smell may very well return. And if a silk garment with that fishy smell ever gets wet while you're wearing it ... rip the garment off and flee before sea gulls start circling.

Moral of the story: best to buy silk when you can touch and smell it. Go shopping on a day when you don't have a cold, and your allergies aren't acting up, and/or take a friend with you who has a keen sense of smell. Sniff, sniff, sniff before you buy. If you must purchase by mail order or off the web, be SURE to ask about the return policy. At the price of silk, there is no reason to buy yourself a lot of trouble vainly trying to get the smell out of an otherwise gorgeous silk garment--and of course, this is true of ready-made silk garments too.

Last note: the price does not guarantee no smell. Of three selections in my LYS, the cheapest was the only odor-free brand, the most expensive had a distinct punge, and the middle price range--which came in the largest selection of colors--smelled like fish bait.

Addendum the first: Thanks to the knowledgeable comments of June, here is a link to a site (called "wormspit!!") which shows a serious method of smell-elimination. If you already have a smelly silk problem, you could try this, although the link speaks only of undyed silk, and so may not be the thing for an already made up garment. The sophistication of this process shows again how very important it is to smell BEFORE you buy, or you may find yourself playing junior chemist...

Addendum the second-- Michael of wormspit came to visit! (Hi Michael!) Be sure to read what he has to say--he has the real low-down on all the different ways silk can come to smell bad--his wisdom is in the comments below.

(You have been reading TECHknitting on: smelly silk)


Anonymous Kelly said...

I just got sent over here by "String or Nothing" and you are getting added to my bloglines. Excellent blog. Thank you so much.

June 18, 2007 at 11:14 AM  
Anonymous June said...

The stink is sericin, and yes, my nose is very sensitive to it, too. Undyed silk can be degummed at home, but it's a bit of a process. A good explanation is here:

June 18, 2007 at 11:35 AM  
Anonymous Miss T said...

Great information, thank you!

June 18, 2007 at 1:00 PM  
Blogger Peach Pod said...

Thanks for the great blog. I found you via a link from Google Alerts. You are now part of my RSS feed. Keep up the good work!

June 18, 2007 at 2:01 PM  
Blogger Sorka said...

Oh it is soo good you are out there warning people about this! I was absolutely shocked the first time I bought silk yarn! So much so I had to go around and ask this normal??? So now I buy silk without fear!!

June 18, 2007 at 4:13 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Howdy! I'm Michael, of - I noticed hits to the website from here, and popped over to see what's up!

Sericin in silk has a distinctive smell - but if a silk yarn or fabric has a strong *fishy* smell, and it's not stiff, it may be an industrial hygeine issue. Silk "in the gum" is very stiff, almost wiry - and fabrics made from it can range from slightly-stiff organza, to feels-like-lawnchair-webbing stuff made from Tussah silk. It's not soft. This silk typically has a strong sericin smell to it. It still shouldn't smell like fish, though.

Silk that is soft, has had the sericin removed. It makes the yarn or fabric softer, more drapey, more shiny. Sometimes the factories where the silk is processed, don't keep their water clean enough, and then what you smell is the slightly fishy smell of the dead silkmoth pupae - it really reeks. The water gets really grody, and if you don't keep it fresh, the grody soaks into the yarn. I've had it happen when I was doing a demo, and didn't get around to changing my water - yuk. Most spun silk yarns (as opposed to reeled silk yarns) are made from waste, which has often sat in damp conditions compacted with bug bits and more wet silk - in my experience, this is the stuff that usually has the stank on it.

I wouldn't recommend degumming dyed yarn (degumming takes off a fine layer, and can remove some or all of the color) but if the dyes are fast (test a sample first!) you should be able to wash it quite hot in soap, and finish it with a rinse in acid - either a glug of vinegar in water, or a tablespoon of citric acid. This can help a lot. If a manufacturer recommends dry cleaning, their dyes or fabric finishing may not withstand water, so be careful.

June 18, 2007 at 8:03 PM  
Blogger --TECHknitter said...

THANK YOU MICHAEL for your visit and your remarks! I have put (another) addendum in the text of the post--alerting readers to scroll down to read what you have to say. Creating silk seems like a very organic process--and dead silkworms are part of the deal, I see.

June 18, 2007 at 8:43 PM  
Anonymous Zoe said...

Thank you for this! I have a silk/wool shawl made a few years ago that has started to smell bad and I could not figure out what had gotten into it. I've washed it several times to no avail. Now I know! What got into it was what was in it all along. I'm going to try your suggestions Michael, I hope they work because I love the shawl but can't wear it in it present otious state.

June 19, 2007 at 8:55 AM  
Blogger Envirosafe said...

there is a blog post at about silk smells produced by case making moths and how some are resistant to eating silk ironically

November 8, 2012 at 6:06 AM  
Blogger Susan said...

How odd! I have never found this smell in silk to be very strong or repulsive, though I've never found it to be fishy (which would gross me out). I have a raw silk shawl from Thailand that my sister brought me last year, which smelt strongly of sericin (as I now know -- thanks, you all!). I wore it all winter as a muffler, and liked the smell of it.

It may be because my very early childhood was spent in the Philippines, where silk is as common as cotton. My mother binged on raw silk, buying miles of yards to decorate and sew clothing. (She used a lot of burlap, too, which was hip in the early sixties along with Danish modern, so I kind of like the smell of that, as well -- though my son says it stinks to high heaven.)

May 27, 2013 at 11:56 AM  
Blogger Anna Viney said...

I never realised this was "a thing" - found this blog post after doing a google search on getting fishy smell out of silk. Brand new silk top I have only worn once now stinks like fish. How weird! Has anyone had any luck w getting the smell out of dyed garments?

March 7, 2014 at 11:38 PM  

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