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How-to

Firming Up Fabrics with Gelatine

Oct 23, 2012
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Treating fabrics with this gelatin solution will help stabalize them.

The idea of temporarily stabilizing a soft and drapey fabric is nothing new – there’s starch, there’s stitching on tissue paper, there are all kinds of dissolvable and tear-away products, there’s sugar water (you can imagine how stiff something coated with that would feel!) But one technique that works awfully well uses old-fashioned gelatine – the kind we used to dissolve in water and drink in the hopes of strengthening our fingernails. Well, who knows if that ever worked, but it does do wonders with silk chiffon and silk charmeuse. They’re nicely firmed up while you’re working with them, then the gelatine is rinsed out and the fabrics return to their original demeanor.

I’ve seen the same technique used at Legeron (who produce silk flowers for the couture houses) in Paris. Large sheets of China silk are soaked in big buckets of gelatine and water, stretched out on big frames (the fabric is held in place by nails), left to dry, then stacked in layers (by this point, it’s like working with thin sheets of paper). Metal dies are used to cut flower petals, which are then hand-dyed. 

I teach in Houston every year, and one of my students, Ronnie Braden, mentioned an article she’d read online about using gelatine to treat silk chiffon and charmeuse, to make them easier to work with. You do your cutting and sewing, then you rinse out the gelatine. Ronnie happens to be a chemist (she has her doctorate in synthetic organic chemistry), so it didn’t take much convincing for her to experiment.

The silk charmeuse and silk chiffon we plan to treat, along with the gelatine.

A solution is made – 1 teaspoon of gelatin (not a whole packet) is introduced into 16 ounces of tap water; let it sit for 30 minutes. Heat a quart of water to boiling, and add the gelatine mix to the quart of hot water.

Here’s the fabric soaking. We left it in for an hour.

The water’s now poured out.

pour out the water 

And the fabrics are placed on a towel…rolled up, and gently squeezed.

place fabric on towel

roll fabric up in towel

gently sqeeze

The fabrics are then air-dried (that didn’t take long in last summer’s heat in Houston!)

let fabric air dry

I couldn’t help thinking how easy it would be to cut and apply bias binding in the chiffon. Here is it, un-treated and treated.

untreated fabrics

And the silk charmeuse, un-treated and treated.

charmeuse, un-treated and treated

The gelatine is then rinsed out in soapy water.

rince gelatine in soapy water

The silk charmeuse and silk chiffon, post-treatment, back to their original softness, not showing any signs at all of their gelatine bath.

 final result

My thanks to Lena Merrin, the Australian blogger whose website, thesewingspace.com, inspired our efforts. Also thanks to Ronnie, the scientist, and to Cathy Spain for the photos.

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  1. Design Empress August 13th

    This looks great and would love to try it, but the test was done with large swatches.
    My issue, what if you have 7 yards of fabrics? How do you soak that and in what, the bathtub? And how much gelatin would I have to use?

  2. catstexas September 20th

    What woul you do for fabric that is 58" x 4 yards? I've been trying to imagine solutions, but can't see how. Any hints would help.

  3. User avater ELewis28 June 28th

    I tried this using polyester chiffon with the goal of making flat piping for batik pillow shams ( I was copying RTW shams). It was an amazing success and I thank you so much for this tip. That slippery, slinky polyester was so obedient I didn't recognize it again until I washed it. Cheers!!

  4. harmoniousoul March 26th

    Honestly, if I had experimental fabric that wasn't as spendy as the piece
    I have now, I would try this without abandon.

    But since I am relying on this fabric to be the top to my silk outfit
    for my daughter's wedding in less than a month,
    I cower until I am secure in knowing that my bias top is finished to the
    best of my ability without any obstacles. . . .

    Next time, though - I will try it and look forward to the results!

    I too, am learning so much on Threads - I love it! Thank you, all!

  5. jokevelema October 11th

    Do you use the normal gelatine? The one for in food?

  6. MarthaR55 March 16th

    I've saved this article because I knew it would come in handy someday. I'm trying to make silk chiffon scarves but am having a great deal of trouble cutting on the grain & then using a machine foot to make the rolled hems. Can you give me any idea how to make sure the fabric is on grain when I cut it? I've tried pulling threads but still am having problems. Thanks for any help you supply.

  7. user-1141318 January 22nd

    sewingplace.com should be thesewingplace.com. Otherwise you're taken off course.

  8. User avater winterful November 17th

    to user-2173479
    you could use fusible web (interfacing). iron it to the fabric then cut out your flowers. they won't fray since attached to interfacing, and it will stay through washing.

  9. user-2173479 November 11th

    will this method keep the fabric from fraying while working with it? is this why it is a method used for silk flowers?
    I am thinking of using a dye cutter to make silk flower cut outs to attach appliqué to my work. It would be amazing to find something to slow down the fraying. but it would need to stand up to washing. Any ideas?

  10. nani November 5th

    As an alternative, what about Mary Ellen's Best Press, the starch alternative? I have never used it, but ordered some yesterday from Amazon for regular ironing, based on the reviews. It seems like you could just spray that on and iron for a quick way to firm up silk. Has anyone tried it?

    I want to pleat some silk chiffon with a Perfect Pleater, and thought maybe that would help hold the pleats.

  11. user-1142875 November 2nd

    Hi, I find this technique wonderful and I am trying it so I put the gelatine in the cold water. I doubled the amount of gelatine and water but after I poured the hot water I was wondering if I should put my fashion fabric in it. I did and I am grateful it did not loose its colour. My question is Should I put the fashion fabric in the hot mix of gelatine and water or should I wait until it cools down? Thank you for this great tip

  12. HappyGenny November 2nd

    Great idea! Thanks. A few comments, please:

    1) In connection with an earlier comment, it seems to me you could make it stiffer by using a more concentrated gelatin solution.

    2) As mentioned previously, metric measurements would certainly help a LOT for those of us not in the U.S.

    Thanks! :)

  13. TheSassySEWer October 29th

    Who knew! Thanks for posting this great tip!

  14. TheSassySEWer October 29th

    Who knew! Thanks for posting this great tip!

  15. diniedo9844 October 27th

    What a fabulous tip....I love silk chiffon but it is so difficult to sew...not any more....I have tried the gelatine treatment and the results are wonderful. For all of the subscribers who live in USA I can tell you there is a marvelous family-run shop in New York (www.customfabricflowers.com) where the same methods of making fabric flowers are used, and you can use your own fabric as well. New York is a most exciting city....I visited from Australia in May of this year and met up with members of the American Sewing Guild for a six-day tour of the garment/fabric/textile district....I had such a great time I am saving to come back again!!! Diana Heuston,Australia.

  16. User avater pinkcatflower October 26th

    I actually tried out this tip and made my own tutorial on it a while ago! I have to say it really worked and made my chiffon a lot more manageable. I made my first chiffon top using this tip- bias cut and everything!
    It's genius really! :)

  17. User avater MrsHGW October 26th

    I had been thinking that gelatine would be a good sub for the commercial stuff. Thank you. Now I don't have to figure out the recipe. Since many asked about pressing, perhaps using half Elmer's Glue half water, might be what you'd like. I have used it for Halloween masks. You scrunch up your fabric or manipulate it as desired and let it dry and it becomes like stiff paper. It can be pressed like paper if desired and sewed. Then after the event, a vinegar rinse turns the glue all wet and easily washed out. You can make your own glue from milk if needed. Many recipes are online. For homemade glue, I used 1/4 cup Borax, 1 cup warm water and 1/2 cup powdered milk. You have to store the remainder in the refrigerator if you don't use it all because it does not have preservatives in it. But once dry on the cloth it lasts. It makes the cloth very stiff. So that is another idea too. But I like the Knox recipe for softness and drape if you need that more while sewing.

  18. User avater Wrapaquack October 25th

    Yes, it is a great idea. I, too, would like metric measurements. Thank you for a great magazine

  19. user-986456 October 25th

    Great idea, can you give metric measurements please? I have some silk chiffon in the " too hard" basket and am really keen to try this

  20. SusanKhalje October 24th

    And yes, we did pour the left-over gelatine water into the plants (I was teaching at a hotel in Houston, and there was shubbery outside the door.......). I don't think we did any lasting harm to that poor plant - I think it suffered more from the 100 degree heat than the fluid.....!!!
    Now, as for stretch velvet, I have no idea....I'd be more afraid of what the water would do to it than what the gelatine would do to it!
    I do recall once, though, at another class (this time at The Sewing Workshop in SF), when a student was having trouble with a really slippery velvet, and Karine Langan (owner of TSW) grabbed some sort of spray adhesive - I totally forget the name, and boy, it worked like a charm. It seemed a little drastic at the time, but boy, it did the trick!

  21. smockerlady October 24th

    Hi there Susan,

    What a great tip to try out. I enjoy working with silk charmeuse ( underwear for my teenage daughter) and georgette for lovely flimsy summer tops. However, always use the tissue paper method. Really love the idea of this and can obviously see that it works.

    Totally agree that applying bias binding to the fabric treated this way, would be, well, a breeze.

    Thank you yet again for giving us such a huge helping hand.

    Regards,
    Marysia.
    PS. Would so love it if you would actually do some more courses for Craftsy.com I am missing you!!

  22. Sshort October 24th

    Wow! What an amazing idea. I have always used starch but do not like the mess it leaves on my iron. Is the solution being poured on a plant? Great idea, very nourishing.
    Threads is the most important magazine I subscribe to. A very good teaching tool. I was talking to a clothing conservator at a university costume museum about techniques she used. She asked if I subscribed to Threads, referring to a technique she used. I was proud to say "Yes."

  23. barbarar October 24th

    To Jokevelema: I think a "die" in this sense, is like an industrial cookie cutter, meant to cut a particular shape over and over in manufacturing. Have you heard of "tool and die makers?"

  24. Judyta October 24th

    WOW ! What an "amazing" idea !! I love 2tango's description of trying to sew water. Boy have I been there ! Thanks agai.....

  25. SusanKhalje October 24th

    Yes, it can be pressed - in fact, we had a lot of fun pressing little pleats into the chiffon. Sadly, though, they'd disappear as soon as you washed out the gelatine. Oh well!
    And I totally agree, lots of pins is the way to go, as is lots of hand-basting, but - and I'm the last one for tricks or gimmicks - this does firm things up a bit. Will it make the fabric super stiff? No, but it will make it a little easier to work with - and as I mentioned in the post, I kept thinking how much more stable the chiffon, especially, would be, when cutting and applying a bias binding. I've often put an inner layer of silk organza into chiffon bias binding, just to firm things up and make the whole process more stable, but this would eliminate that step. And of course, factor into the whole situation the various hands of silk chiffon - sometimes it's super slick (the iridescent ones in particular); sometimes it's grainier (the georgettes) - but it's just nice to have one more tool when it comes to controlling a slippery fabric.

  26. sweetserenity October 24th

    This is a very valuable tip. I also need to know about pressing the seems.

  27. ElizabethRochester October 24th

    to user 2000844: No. it's not confusing. Directions say to add the GELATINE SOLUTION to the quart of hot water. (But. upon rereading, you've probably already figured that out!)

    BTW: the tip about using gelatine is terrific. Thanks, so much, for sharing it with the rest of us. I cannot wait to try it the next time I'm working with such soft, slippery fabrics.

  28. User avater user-2000844 October 24th

    Could you please clarify the instructions? In one phrase, it says to 'introduce 1 tsp. of gelatin to 1 quart tap water' but later on, it says to add 1 qt. of boiling water to the 1 quart of *hot* water.

    Should the first quart be hot tap water, just regular tap water, what?

    Thanks for the tip and for the clarification. This tip would've saved me a lot of time, frustration and grey hairs last year when sewing a special occasion dress for my daughter.

  29. jokevelema October 24th

    I really like this article. I will sure try it. I have only one question. I love to make flowers myself. Please can you explain the following a little bid more.
    "Metal dies are used to cut flower petals, which are then hand-dyed". What is meant by metal dies are used to cut flower petals. I do not understand this. Maybe somebody can help me out.

  30. user-1115414 October 24th

    This is the best tip I've read lately! I'm so going to try this. I sew a blouse of acetate last weekend for my mom and it was a nightmare to deal with it. I'm only wondering how I should do the drying when the fabric is 60" width, because I think it would be better to stiffen the fabric before cutting the pattern pieces,right?

  31. User avater MDNB October 23rd

    Just a note of interest; I make synchronized swim suits so I know many swimmers, those ladies set their hair in buns with super thickened (3 packages to half a cup of hot water) knox gelatin. They let it harden before swimming. It's shiny and stays put.

  32. user-1114236 October 23rd

    Thank you for sharing. I like the idea very much but can you press it. does the water have to be hot.

  33. User avater Stitcher75 October 23rd

    From one sewing organic chemist to another, please tell Ronnie thank you for reminding you of this tip! I can't wait to try it out.

  34. jansquires October 23rd

    Knowing Susan, I have faith that it will work. She is one of the most talented and sharing educators in the field.

  35. sewing_teacher October 23rd

    Great idea, I am going to use it to finish something I asm working on. I love the spirit of sewers always ready to share great ideas!

  36. lastminutelady October 23rd

    I have used spray starch before with good success, but it's always nice to have another trick up one's sleeve! I can't see where this would make the fabric so stiff that it wouldn't be possible to ease and coax it into shape where it's needed. Along with some others though, I too am curious about pressing seams when the fabric is treated in this way. I also have another question. I live in Southeast Asia where it is very humid. I wonder how this would hold up. I have used Sulky Solvy, but I find I have to be very careful not to leave it out. II keep it in a bag with a dehydrating substance along with it. I suspect that in this climate, fabric treated with gelatin would just get sticky. I do plan to move back to the Midwest before too long and I think it will be quite a handy trick there!

  37. Majick October 23rd

    Hi
    This may be a great technique, but I have found that the most slippery fabrics can be tamed by hand basting. It takes a little longer, but I can't imagine finishing something and then rinsing it out! Call me crazy but I enjoy the feeling and manipulation of fabric. I find that hand basting seams etc solves so many problems and leaves your hands free to massage any tricky areas during sewing.
    Just saying.....................

  38. User avater Elaine1958 October 23rd

    I would also like to know if you can press the fabric with the gelatin in it.

  39. LuvThreadsMagazine October 23rd

    Susan's world is full of amazing people and intriguing techniques.

  40. Josefly October 23rd

    I'm so happy to have this tip. Is it okay to let the mixture cool down first, or does the mixture have to be hot when the fabric goes in?

  41. zanzi October 23rd

    Sounds and looks good but, can you press it during sewing? There are many steps where I use iron before I proceed to next step of sewing. That is not a question when cutting flowers - they only have to be assembled, never ironed.

  42. User avater TigerB October 23rd

    I wonder if the fabric will still take dye with the gelatin in it. This might make for an interesting shibori method....

  43. User avater 2tango October 23rd

    What a great tip!! I wonder if it would work on stretch velvet which can be like sewing water its so slippery

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