Silk or Satin?
It's one of the most universal pieces of hair advice: tie your hair with a smooth material that doesn't suck moisture from your strands, or sleep on a pillow of the same. Some hair experts preach satin, others swear by silk. But who is right? And what's the difference?
Silk or satin? Surprisingly, it's kind of a trick question. To unravel why that is, it makes sense to figure out what exactly these two materials are.
Silk's as good a place to start as any. It's a natural protein fibre, produced by insect larvae. That's right: one of the most luxurious materials in the world is actually secreted by a baby insect. While many creepy-crawlies produce silks (there's even spider silk) by far the most popular kind comes from the cocoons of mulberry silkworm larvae.
Natural, wild silks can be difficult to work with, particularly as once the full grown insect in all its glory has emerged from the cocoon, most of the silk threads have been torn into shreds. So the silk that makes it into our clothes and headscarves is produced on an industrial scale by mulberry silkworms kept in captivity.
It goes a little something like this. Thousands of silkworms are set on a piece of paper and given a hundred or so kilos of mulberry leaves to gorge themselves on. Within little more than a month, the silkworms' weight increases 1000000%. They start moving their heads in a kind of dance, secreting liquid silk through holes in their heads called spinnerets. The liquid silk solidifies on contact with air and, within a few short days, the silkworm has produced over a mile of silk thread, wrapping it into a cocoon in the hopes of later emerging as a butterfly. At this point, the silk farmer plunges most of the cocoons into boiling water and unwinds the silk thread. The farmer then combines the ultrafine silk strands into groups of up to ten to make the store-ready silk thread that goes into silken scarves and pillowcases. The whole process, clearly not for the faint of heart, is known as sericulture.
Raw Silk Threads
What about satin?
While silk is a fibre, satin is actually a weave. The difference: a fibre is the actual thread from which a material is made, the weave is how you make it. What this means in practice, is that satin can be made of a range of different filament (long, smooth) fibres, from silk to nylon to polyester, though some purists consider that true satin is only ever made from silk. Fabrics created with a satin weaves have a lustrous surface, due to their minimal number of interlacings, the crossroads where threads going in different directions lock together.
Why is silk often glorified over satin?
In the past, even more than today, silk was a highly exclusive material. In ancient China and India – where it was first cultivated – it was the preserve of the emperors and higher castes. Poor people were restricted to cotton and wool. Chinese rulers even tried to keep sericulture, the silk-making process, a secret for centuries to keep their monopoly over what was one of the most lucrative luxury items traded across Asia, Africa and Europe. While they failed to keep the method under wraps, the delicate and intensive manufacturing process has kept silk a product for the haves rather than the have-nots, ensuring that over thousands of years, silk has remained synonymous with luxury.
When WWII broke out, the conflict with Japan cut the availability of silk, which, as now, was mostly produced in the East. This pushed western countries to start experimenting with different ways to make silk-like material, beginning with the invention of synthetic silks and leading to the first satins created with non-silk material. Thus satin – once exclusively made with silk – has seen its luxury image diminish since it can now be made with much cheaper, synthetic fibres like nylon and polyester.
Does that mean that satin is fake silk then?
No. Remember that silk is the fibre or thread, and satin is the way the threads are woven together, whether they are made of silk, polyester or nylon. Still, the most common way we think of silk – when it's at its smoothest and shiniest – is when it is woven into satin.
So if satin can be silk and polyester and nylon can be satin, then what is sateen?
Sateen is a fabric which is formed using the same weave as satin, but with short yarn threads like cotton or rayon. These fibres give the material a slightly less smooth and less shiny appearance, though sateen is still a high sheen fabric. Typically speaking, headscarves don't tend to come in sateen, but with cotton a common component, it's best to stick to wrapping your curls with satin even if you do come across the odd sateen headscarf.
So what's the long and short of it?
Where the wellbeing of your tresses is concerned, satin fabrics are the way to go. The glossy filament fibres they are composed of are less likely to snatch at your hair than short-yarn fibres like cotton. The very structure of these fabrics, their high number of floats – threads that are not interlaced – gives them a smoothness, which not only feels sumptuous, but also means less friction on your curls as you sleep. Plus, whether they're made from polyester or silk, satins are less absorbent than cotton-based weaves so won't drain away your hair's natural water content, nor the moisturizers you use to keep it hydrated.
Thus, it's really not a question of satin over silk; for shiny, moisturised, protected hair, you should always tie your hair with or go to sleep on satin. Whether that satin is made of silk is another question altogether.
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Dominican Hair Alliance