Silk is making a comeback in the top echelons of fashion and interior design. It is also a fiber that is fast filtering down to less expensive levels of apparel and home furnishings.
Jack Lenor Larsen, a New York designer, recently redecorated his Manhattan apartment using nothing but Chinese silk to reupholster every chair and sofa and recover every pillow. He also put silk carpets on the floors and upholstered walls with satin silk.
Ten years ago such derring-do would have been considered the height of improbability and impracticality, as well as a prime example of conspicuous consumption. We were still in the throes of the man-made fiber revolution that followed World War II and had not yet admitted that the wonders of chemistry left something to be desired in their textile performance. And the revival of interest in natural fibers - cotton, wool, linen, silk - was not yet widespread.
Mr. Larsen, whose firm is one of the world's largest silk houses for furnishings and who now has silk fabric producers in South Korea, China, India, Italy, and France, decided to take his own advice to interior designers and demonstrate in his own home how effective and how relatively inexpensive it now is to decorate with silk.
The muted, slightly grayed pastels he chose, including tea rose, soft blues, greens, amethyst, aquamarines, and pale saffrons and camels, are the colors he thinks will be dominant in the decorative market for some time to come. ''They reflect a new interest in quietude and serenity,'' he says.
Mr. Larsen refers to silk as ''the affordable luxury.'' He says his firm now sells ''miles'' of silk at prices as low as $18 a yard, up to $150 a yard for silk velvets.
''Although silk has historically been viewed as a very fragile fabric,'' he says, ''today the thicker and stronger weaves, and sometimes a slight mixture of polyester, are giving us silks that are far more abrasion-resistant and far more suitable for upholstery than they once were. With the opening of China, silk has become far less expensive and far more plentiful. As the price goes down and it becomes more accessible, people will be less afraid to use it and to enjoy its beautiful natural luster and luxurious touch. We still recommend that silk draperies be lined to protect the fabric from strong sunlight. But right now the American Southwest, which has the most brilliant sun, is our biggest market for silk.''
Adrianna Bitter, who, with her husband, Edwin, heads Scalamandre Silks Inc., emphasizes the comfort of silk, the fact that it takes colors so well, and that it can today be woven into a much tougher fabric than before. It can also be strengthened with paper, acrylic, and foam backings.
''There is an increasing demand for silk,'' she says. ''A few years ago only 2 percent of interior designers who came to our showrooms asked for silk. Now about 40 percent express an interest in using it. There is a problem, however. Silk is graded, so there are many qualities of silk now on the market. And if you buy junk silk, you just have junk silk. People must be very cautious about what they buy and from whom they buy it. This is an area where I would recommend the guidance of a qualified interior designer, because they know where the quality is.''
Mrs. Bitter says silk fabrics are now available at piece-goods counters and are also in demand by furniture manufacturers. Again, shoppers must trust the reputation of stores and manufacturers to make sure the quality is there.
Brunschwig & Fils Inc., in New York, has also increased its line of documented silks. ''Some are reproductions of actual 18th- and 19th-century designs,'' says senior vice-president Murray Bartlett Douglas, ''while others are recolored versions of our own classics. Many of our designs are produced by the same painstaking methods as they were a century ago.''
At Schumacher, which produces authentic silk damasks for the Williamsburg Reproduction Program, Robert Herring confirms a growing designer interest in silks.
''It is a logical extension, we feel, of an overall demand for dressier merchandise in all categories, but our company is still exploring the possibilities.''
Meanwhile, popular museum exhibitions continue to tout the romance and lore of the ancient silk routes. The latest, ''Silk Roads/China Ships,'' runs from Feb. 17 to May 12 at the American Museum of Natural History here. It is a major exhibition illustrating the scope and influence of trade between the Orient and the West from the 1st century AD to the early 20th century.