While shopping for eco-friendly fabrics, you might have come across the Rayon fabric, also known as viscose. While most fabrics fall into two categories - natural fabrics and synthetic fabrics, rayon fabric is semi-synthetic. A common fabric in the world of fast fashion, many consider it to be more eco-friendly when we compare it to fabrics like polyester and nylon.
We know rayon for its comfort, breathability, and versatility. However, with this fabric comes the question of sustainability. Is rayon worth keeping in our sustainable fashion wardrobe?
This article will explore all you need to know about rayon fabric and its sustainability.
Rayon fabric, or viscose, is a semi-synthetic fabric extracted from pure cellulose fibers. Manufacturers derive all rayon fabrics from natural materials like wood pulp and cotton. But the manufacturing process requires certain chemicals to treat rayon fibers which differentiate the final product.
Rayon is soft, breathable, and comfortable to wear. Its soft texture is like that of silk and linen. Also, the fabric is moisture-absorbent, making it an ideal fabric for sportswear and humid climates. However, some rayon fabrics require hand washing or dry cleaning and can shrink when machine washed.
There are three common types of rayon used in the textile industry. Each of which has a unique manufacturing process:
Viscose rayon fabric is the most common type of rayon that manufacturers extract from raw materials like wood pulp.
Manufacturers mix this versatile fabric with natural and synthetic fibers and craft them into fabrics of different lengths and textures. Rayon produced using the viscose method is lightweight, breathable, and is commonly a substitute for silk, sometimes called fake silk, having the same smooth and luxurious look and feel.
Viscose rayon fabrics have various uses, from textiles to yarns, dresses, blouses, and other types of clothing. However, viscose has low wet strength and can shrink when washed.
Modal rayon, also known as High Wet Modulus (HWM) rayon, is made from plant cellulose derived from beech trees. This fabric is soft, breathable, and durable, and can be blended with other fibers like cotton.
We commonly find this type of rayon fabric used in clothes like pajamas, sustainable underwear, and household items like towels and bedsheets. Modal or HWM rayon is a more durable material and more expensive than viscose.
Read More: Modal Fabric & Sustainability
Lyocell is another type of rayon made from cellulose fiber. They produce it by dissolving natural materials like wood pulp, predominately from the eucalyptus tree. Also, they often blend it with cotton or linen.
We consider Lyocell one of the most eco-friendly types of rayon, as manufacturers produce it using fewer harsh chemicals than the viscose process. Clothing brands use this type of rayon to make eco-friendly clothing like towels, jeans, sustainable t-shirts, and dresses.
Read More: Lyocell Fabric & Sustainability
The primary raw material used in making rayon is cellulose fiber. Manufacturers extract cellulose from wood pulp, cotton, pine, or other natural materials.
The manufacturing process of different types of rayon is similar; however, there are a few alterations in processing chemicals, treatments, and fibers.
Manufacturers dissolve materials like wood pulp in caustic soda to convert it to alkali cellulose. However, manufacturers use a weaker caustic soda when making high wet modulus rayon.
Then they chemically treat the alkali cellulose with carbon disulfide to form a soluble compound called cellulose xanthate. Next, they bathe the cellulose xanthate in caustic soda, creating a viscose solution. They then add dyes to this solution and filter for impurities. After which, they store it for days.
Manufacturers convert the viscose solution into strands of viscose rayon fiber. They do this by using a spinneret which pushes the liquid through large or small holes. They then put it in an acid bath, solidifying the rayon filaments to form a regenerated cellulose filament.
After manufacturers solidify the filaments, they spin them into yarns using various spinning methods, including pot spinning, spool spinning, and continuous spinning.
Manufacturers wash, bleach, dry, and stretch the filaments. For the high-modulus wet rayon, manufacturers stretch the filaments to a much higher degree than viscose rayon.
After manufacturers spin the filaments, they pass them through a weaving process to produce the fabric. They then treat the filaments using chemicals. Several treatments, including water resistance, fire resistance, and pre-shrinking, are added to the final material.
Rayon was the first human-made fabric developed in the late 19th century as a substitute for silk4, and for many years, people knew these semi-synthetic fabrics as artificial silk.
In the 1860s, the French silk industry went through a crisis caused by a disease affecting silkworms. This led to an investigation by chemists who sought to produce artificial silk.
Hilaire Bernigaud, Comte de Chardonnet, often referred to as the father of the rayon industry, began developing rayon as a practical fiber in France.
In 1891, the production of "Chardonnet silk," an early type of rayon, began at a factory in Besançon. However, the process was slow, expensive, and dangerous. What we know as Viscose rayon was produced in 1891 and 1905 by the British silk firm Samuel Courtauld & Company.
By 1925, it became an industry, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) gave it the name 'rayon.' In 1952, they split rayon into two categories; pure cellulose (rayon) and cellulose compound (acetate). However, viscose rayon was weaker than other types of fibers used for clothing.
In 1955, manufacturers started producing a new type of rayon called the high wet modulus rayon (HWM), which was stronger than the viscose rayon. They used the HWM rayon in making towels, bedsheets, athletic wear, and other apparel.
Rayon has become an important fiber globally. Today, we know rayon for its durability and versatility. Manufacturers also blend it with other materials for making paper, tire cords, and carpets, among other products.
And now, for the big question. Is rayon sustainable? We consider rayon to be more sustainable than materials like polyester and nylon.
According to reports, over 150 million trees are cut down yearly for viscose production2. Also, to manufacture rayon, they use several processes involving chemicals like sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfide, and sulfuric acid.
You might also find a reference to Cupro rayon which is a fine silk-like smooth fabric. This rayon variation ofter purports sustainability credentials due to recycling old cotton garments and cotton linter, a byproduct of cotton production. However, breaking them down can prove harmful without proper disposal of the chemicals used to process the semi-synthetic cellulosic fiber.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information1, there is evidence of rayon production poisoning factory workers, water, and the local population.
Manufacturers do not make all rayons with harmful chemicals. Lyocell fabric is made with organic solvents and fewer toxic chemicals. It uses a closed-loop process that prevents chemicals from being discharged into the water, making it a more eco-friendly option.
Essentially, rayon fiber is biodegradable. A study reveals that viscose rayon decomposes faster than cotton3. However, its manufacturing process can harm human health and the environment.
Rayon is a lightweight fabric that can shrink or lose shape when wet. Taking care of your rayon fabric is important to help it last longer. Here are ways to care for your rayon fabric:
Toad and Co are committed to using sustainable fabrics like Tencel, Hemp, Lenzing modal, and organic cotton fabric. It partners with the cleanest factories and makes clothing with minimal negative environmental impact.
Thought clothing uses sustainable fabrics such as hemp, bamboo, organic cotton, recycled polyester and rayon, Tencel, and modal.
Tentree is a fashion brand that continues to express its commitment to sustainability. It makes pieces using eco-friendly fabrics such as hemp fabric, organic cotton, Tencel, and recycled polyester. For every item purchased, Tentree claims to plant ten trees.
People Tree is one pioneer of ethical fashion. The company expresses its commitment to making clothing following ethical and environmental standards. They use fabrics like organic cotton and Tencel.
Bamboo fabric has natural plant fibers directly sourced from the bamboo plant. Manufacturers can process it into fabrics and blend it with hemp and linen. Bamboo is one of the most sustainable materials.
Rayon has semi-synthetic fiber obtained from natural materials (bamboo stalks, wool, and cotton) and uses chemicals to process it into man-made cellulosic fibers. Some bamboo sheets might come with a label that reads "100% rayon from bamboo," meaning the rayon fabric is derived from a bamboo plant.
Polyester has synthetic fibers with a stiff texture. However, rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber with a silky texture. Rayon is more sustainable than polyester but is not as sustainable as other natural fabrics like organic cotton and hemp.
Manufacturers make organic cotton from natural fibers spun as soon as they separate the cotton from the seed. Both materials are breathable and absorbent.
Organic cotton is more sustainable as it is an all-natural fabric. However, rayon is chemically processed. Rayon is cheaper to produce but is not environmentally friendly.
Rayon is one of the most commonly used fabrics in the fashion industry. It is versatile and cost-effective. It is also more sustainable than other fabrics like polyester and nylon. With the advancement in technology today, there are now more sustainable ways to produce the fabric.
Robert A. Cohen, MD (2018, October) The Ongoing History of Harm Causedand Hidden by the Viscose Rayon and Cellophane Industry
Sustainable Material Guide Viscose Supply Compass (2020)
Warnock, M., Davis, K., Wolf, D., & Gbur, E. (2010). Biodegradation of Three Cellulosic Fabrics in Soil.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2016, April 4). Rayon. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.