Firming Up Fabrics with Gelatine
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.