Silk Weaves and the Hand-Painted Silk Scarf

by Stuart Cohen on October 13, 2022

Silk scarves come in many shapes and sizes, from the glamorous silk head scarf worn by Jackie O or Audrey Hepburn to the skinny silk scarf sported by your favorite 1980’s hair metal front-man.  But beneath flashy name brands selling for hundreds of dollars and the humble Indian silk neck scarves selling for almost nothing, there are a host of details that determine how your scarf looks and feels.


Most silk scarves for women are either plain weave, twill or satin.  All of these terms are types of weaves, not materials, so any of them can be done in wool, cotton, silk or any other fiber.  For example, cotton in a satin weave is called sateen.  With silk scarf painting, the dye flows differently on different weights and weaves of silk, and there’s a reason each kind of silk is chosen.

Let’s take a quick look into the structure of three prominent silk weaves:

3 weaves for Silk Scarves

In a plain weave, seen on the left, each thread goes over and then under every other thread, like a checkerboard.  Our hand-painted silk scarves of paj are done in a plain weave with a very fine silk thread, making them slightly translucent.  The weight we use is called paj, but a slightly heavier weight in a plain weave is called habotai, and is used for shirts and dresses.  They are both plain-weave silk.  We use paj for most of our floral silk scarves because of their translucence and because the dye flows well on them.  Designer scarves are often printed onto plain weaves.

In a twill weave, one thread crosses beneath two threads before going under again.  This creates a diagonal grain that leads to a heavier, denser fabric.  Next time you are looking at silk fabric, look for this pattern.  Often twills are dyed solid colors, but they do not take hand-painted dyes well, so we do not use them (we have tried!)

Satin is perhaps the most famous weave of silk, and its smooth surface and otherworldly sheen is captured on both paintings and paint cans.  But what gives that satin silk scarf its luster?  In a satin weave, the warp thread floats over many of the weft threads, then dives down under a few threads and comes up for a long expanse again.  Because the “float” is longer, the thread has a shinier appearance and softer feel than other silks.  A thick rich silk charmeuse can seem like a fabric from another dimension. 

Above photo is paj

Satin Silk Scarf

 This is the same design in Satin.  Can you see the difference?

 When you see a big silk scarf for hair it’s often printed on damask.  In a damask weave the threads go over and under in a way that creates a design on one side of the fabric.  Usually, the design is in satin and the field is in plain weave or twill.  High-end designer scarves or dresses are sometimes printed on damask because of the richness it lends to the design with its interplay of color and fabric structure.  However, neither twill and damask work with hand-painting techniques.


 Hand Painting a Silk Scarf

Painting a Suzy Scarf

All our scarves start as pieces of white silk, Dyes move along the threads, blending with the colors adjacent to them until they hit the outline of water-proof resist.  Even on 100% silk scarves, the dye behaves differently on different weights and weaves.  Twills and damasks, with their complex structures, do not carry the dyes evenly, and the edges of the designs will be ragged and unpleasant.  The simpler structure of plain weaves and satins mean that the dye will move in a more predictable way.  Our painters often brush on water to control the direction the dyes flow and to get them to blend together.  In the picture above, the painter is making a Suzy scarf.

Weight is also important.  Using paj for a silk square scarf results in diaphanous colors that are vivid against an opaque background but soft and translucent when held up to the light.  In a heavier satin silk scarf, though, the dyes do not move as far and saturate the fabric more completely, resulting in intense, rich colors that stand out against any background.

Silk is a world all by itself, from crinkly gauzes to elegant white charmeuse.  Next time you're around a piece of silk, take a look and see which of these weaves you can find.