What is Watered Silk?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Watered silk is a textile which has a moire pattern, a rippling illusory pattern created by lines which are superimposed on each other. The textile enjoyed immense popularity in the late 1800s, and appears in fashion now and again, especially in the field of formal wear. The name is a reference to the appearance of the pattern, rather than a stage in the manufacturing process. When well made, watered silk resembles a body of water with small waves trembling in a breeze. In a flowing gown or jacket, it can look stunning.

Silk comes from the cocoon of the silkworm.
Silk comes from the cocoon of the silkworm.

To make watered silk, woven silk cloth is calendered, or passed through giant rollers. The calendering process crushes the fibers of the silk. Silk which has been passed through rollers will have a rippling pattern which resembles a large series of water stains. The pattern is set by starching, and the resulting fabric can feel ridged or rough. The pattern can be damaged if it is crushed or mishandled, so watered silk garments should be handled and cleaned carefully.

Silk cocoons, which can be used to make fabric.
Silk cocoons, which can be used to make fabric.

The material is often used to make women's gowns, but it can also be seen in drapes, fabric wallpapers, and other ornamental textile features. Books may have moire endpapers, and moire with a tight grain is sometimes used to make ribbons and linings as well. Some silk painters work with watered silk, sometimes painting or dyeing the silk before calendering to create a disrupted pattern that looks like it is shifting underwater. The Arts and Crafts period saw a lot of this kind of painting, and examples of it can be found in some galleries.

In fashion, watered silk can be used to make flowing draped garments or tight bodices which showcase the figure of the wearer. Women wear the textile much more than men, in an assortment of patterns and colors. It may also be embroidered or beaded for extra effect, and each garment will look slightly different, due to the unique calendering process. Ribbons made of this material may be used to accent garments made with other materials, such as wool and velvet.

Many vintage gowns are made from watered silk, and numerous examples of craftsmanship with it can also be seen in textile museums. It can be difficult to work with as a sewer, since the pattern is abstract and the grain of the fabric can be difficult to find. Watered silk also tends to show pin holes, so the fabric must be pinned with care.

Watered silk is often used to make women's gowns.
Watered silk is often used to make women's gowns.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Although watered silk material is truly a splendidly beautiful type of fabric, it can be worn in the wrong way. What I mean is that, if it is not used appropriately, it can make the person wearing it look quite frumpy.

Any time a fabric as a sheen or shimmer to it, it has the potential to do this. Add to that the quality in silk that makes it form around a person’s body, and then the wavy pattern on it and you have a recipe for possible disaster.

That is why anyone who wants to indulge themselves with this kind of dress should know their body type, and know where not to put the silk.

It does best if you put this kind of fabric across the places of the body that you want to accent, and have a less attention getting fabric on the places that you don’t want to accent.

It seems that the only people who look really good in dresses made entirely of this fabric are those people who look great in everything, anyway.

I’m not one of those people, so I have to be very careful when I go this route.


Although watered silk is most predominantly used in making evening clothes, it seems, that is not its only purpose. I have seen some stunning curtains made from this kind of fabric as well.

I’m an avid seamstress, and also love to decorate. As such, I know a nicely done drape or curtain when I see it.

Watered silk is just one of those kinds of fabric that can really set them off.

One of my favorites that I have seen is in a room which had a canopy bed in it. The person who made the drapes used both a soft yellow and deep, royal purple. The yellow was done in watered silk.

The long drapes were the purple color, while the swags that ran across the top had two of the soft yellow silk panels, and a matching purple panel as well.

The windows that were dressed this way were on either side of the bed, and the bed had the matching design in the way of bed curtains.

Add to that the gorgeous cream and purple duvet, and matching yellow silk pillows and you have a rich and soft look meant for a prince and princess.

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