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What is Viscose Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • July 20, 2019 • 9 min read

Fabric name Viscose
Fabric also known as Rayon
Fabric composition Wood cellulose and synthetic substances
Fabric possible thread count variations 300-600
Fabric breathability Very breathable
Moisture-wicking abilities Very breathable
Moisture-wicking abilities High
Heat retention abilities Medium
Stretch ability (give) Medium
Prone to pilling/bubbling Medium
Country where fabric was first produced United Kingdom
Biggest exporting/producing country today China
Recommended washing temperatures Cold
Commonly used in Clothing, household items, industrial belts, silk alternatives

Viscose LiningsViscose Linings

Viscose fabric is durable and soft to the touch, and it's one of the world's most beloved textiles. But what exactly is viscose fabric, and how is it produced and used?

What Is Viscose?

Viscose, which is also commonly known as rayon when it is made into a fabric, is a type of semi-synthetic fabric. The name of this substance comes from the process that's used to make it; at one stage, rayon is a viscous, honey-like liquid that later settles into a solid form.

The primary ingredient of rayon is wood pulp, but this organic ingredient goes through a lengthy production process before it becomes a wearable fabric. Because of these attributes, it's hard to determine whether rayon is a synthetic or natural fabric; while its source material is organic, the process this organic material is subjected to is so strenuous that the result is essentially a synthetic substance.

How Is Viscose Fabric Made?

How Is Viscose Fabric Made

Other types of rayon-like fabric require lignin-free cellulose as a starting material, but this type of fabric can be made with cellulose from wood pulp. This method of manufacturing rayon is much cheaper than many alternatives, and rayon made with this process can be manufactured on a large scale.

1. Cellulose extraction: The rayon production process begins with the creation of wood pulp cellulose. To create quality fabric, the cellulose used should be at least 90 percent pure.

2. Alkali cellulose conversion: This cellulose is then dissolved in caustic soda, which produces a chemical reaction that converts cellulose to alkali cellulose. This process removes impurities from the cellulose and prepares it for the next step of the manufacturing process.

3. Pressing: The alkali cellulose is then pressed between two rollers, which removes excess liquid. These pressed sheets are then shredded and crumbled into a substance called "white crumb."

4. Aging and xanthation: The white crumb is then aged via exposure to pure oxygen, and next, it is exposed to carbon disulphide to make a new substance called "yellow crumb."

5. Ripening: The yellow crumb is then dissolved and allowed to "ripen" for a period of a few hours.

6. Filtering and extruding: After it has ripened, the yellow crumb is filtered, and any gas bubbles are removed. Next, it is extruded through a spinneret, which is a device with many holes like a showerhead.

7. Acid bath and completion: Finally, the resulting substance is immersed in a bath of sulfuric acid, which results in rayon filaments. Thee filaments are then spun, drawn, and washed to produce a fabric that can then be cut to a desired shape and size.

How Is This Fabric Used?

How Is This Fabric Used

Rayon is commonly used as a substitute for cotton. This fabric shares many traits with cotton, but in some cases, it may be easier or cheaper to produce. Most consumers can't tell the difference between cotton and rayon by touch, and since this fabric is made from organic materials, it is sometimes seen as superior to fully synthetic fabrics such as polyester.

This fabric is used for most applications for which cotton is used. Whether it's dresses, shirts, or pants, rayon is used to make a wide variety of different articles of clothing, and this fabric may also be used to make household items like towels, washcloths, or tablecloths.

Attractive Viscose FabricAttractive Viscose Fabric

Rayon is also sometimes used in industrial applications. Some business owners feel that rayon is a cheap and durable alternative to cotton. For instance, rayon has taken the place of cotton fibers in many types of tires and automotive belts. The type of rayon that is used in these applications is significantly stronger and more elastic than the type of rayon that is used for clothing.

In addition, it's important to point out that rayon was originally developed as an alternative to silk. Over the years, consumers have accepted that rayon does not have all of the beneficial qualities of silk, and rayon manufacturers now predominantly produce rayon as a cotton substitute. However, some companies may still produce rayon as a substitute for silk, and it's relatively common to see scarves, shawls, and nightgowns that are made from this light and soft fabric.

Where Is This Fabric Produced?

here Is This Fabric Produced

Rayon is predominantly produced in large-scale factory settings. The rayon production process is too complex to be attempted in a small business setting; to make this fabric, it's necessary to have dozens of different types of chemicals and textile manufacturing machines. In most cases, rayon is made in large factories where other types of textiles are also made.

While most of the world's rayon used to be made in the United States and the United Kingdom, production of this fabric has largely moved overseas. These days, most rayon is made in countries like India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and China.

H&M Viscose Skirt with TasselsH&M Viscose Skirt with Tassels

In these developing countries, labor is cheap, and manufacturing regulations are non-existent or not enforced. These factors give rayon manufacturers leeway to generate more profit without having to absorb the high level of overhead that is a necessary aspect of operating in first-world countries.

In many cases, raw rayon is made into a final product in the same facility where it was produced or in a nearby facility. However, some rayon manufacturers may prefer to ship their raw product overseas to have it made into clothing, household textiles, or another type of product.

How Much Does Rayon Cost?

Blouse in woven viscose fabric with a printed patternBlouse in woven viscose fabric with a printed pattern

One of the reasons why textile manufacturers produce rayon is that it is somewhat cheaper than cotton. The exact degree to which this fabric is cheaper than cotton depends on the manufacturing processes that are used and where it is made, but enhanced economic viability is one of the driving factors pushing rayon production.

Rayon is certainly cheaper to produce than silk, but it's commonly accepted that rayon is inferior in quality to genuine silk. The raw materials used to make rayon are significantly cheaper than raw cotton or silk fibers, but the process of creating rayon fabric is much more complicated than the process used to create cotton or silk. Therefore, rayon is only cheaper to produce than cotton if it is manufactured in an area where labor costs are incredibly low.

From the consumer perspective, garments and household goods made from rayon are generally equal in price to items made from cotton. Items made from rayon are significantly cheaper for consumers than items made from silk, however.

What Different Types of Rayon Are There?

What Different Types of Rayon Are ThereWhat Different Types of Rayon Are There

Rayon is made in a variety of different ways, and each production method results in a different type of fabric. In some cases, the original methods of rayon production that were developed at the end of the 19th century are still used, but some manufacturers may have switched to modern modernized methods of rayon production. Here are some examples of the different types of rayon that are available for consumer use:

• Nitrocellulose: The first type of rayon to be produced was called nitrocellulose rayon. This version of rayon fabric was first developed in 1855 under the name "artificial silk," and it went into commercial production in 1891. However, nitrocellulose rayon was highly flammable, and it was more expensive to produce than acetate or cuprammonium rayon. Therefore, production of this type of rayon ceased in the early 1900s, but not before it acquired the colloquial name of "mother-in-law silk."

• Acetate: Rayon and acetate fabrics are chemically different, but acetate was previously referred to as rayon, which has confused things to a degree. While both fabrics are made from cellulose, the process of manufacturing acetate fabric involves creating a reaction between cellulose and acetic anhydride. Since rayon is significantly stronger than acetate, production of acetate fabric ceased decades ago.

• Cuprammonium rayon: In the mid-1800s, it was discovered that cellulose dissolves in tetraaminecopper dihydroxide, and the resulting substance was originally used to produce carbon fibers for light bulbs. In 1899, manufacturers started using cuprammonium rayon for textiles, and by 1904, it was possible to make rayon that felt almost as soft as real silk. With the advent of new rayon production methods, however, manufacture of cuprammonium rayon ceased.

• Modern method: Most rayon is now made with a modern method that was developed by Charles Frederick Cross in 1894. This method uses carbon disulfide and xanthate to produce rayon fibers, and rayon made with this process became incredibly popular in the United States and the United Kingdom in the first few decades of the 20th century. It is much cheaper to produce rayon with the modern method than it was with any of the methods that came before, which is why this type of rayon became the first version of the textile to enter into mass production. Rayon made with the modern method was the first type of rayon to be used in industrial applications.

• Lyocell: Since it is created by dissolving cellulose in a solvent called N-methylmorpholine N-oxide, lyocell is actually chemically different from rayon. However, since these two substances are nearly identical in both feel and durability, lyocell is commonly considered to be a type of rayon. While lyocell was originally developed in the United States, this fabric is now predominantly produced in China.

• Modal: This type of rayon is significantly stronger and more tensile than normal rayon, and it is often used in combination with cotton and spandex to make household and apparel items like underwear and bedsheets. Most modal rayon is produced with cellulose derived from beech trees, and it is created by spinning reconstituted cellulose. Modal rayon pills less than cotton, and unlike normal rayon, it is safe to tumble dry this fabric.

Viscose TunicViscose Tunic

How Does Rayon Impact the Environment?

Since rayon is made with substances derived from plants, it isn't inherently a pollutant. Cellulose itself is a natural substance that is naturally recycled by automatic processes in the ecosystem. The fact that rayon is considered to be a semi-synthetic fiber has led many consumers and business owners to regard rayon as being equal to cotton in terms of sustainability and environmental impact.

Rayon, however, doesn't simply consist of cellulose. A number of toxic chemicals are used in the rayon production process, and it's hard to dispose of these substances properly once the manufacturing process is complete. In fact, the contaminated water that is produced during rayon production has been a major concern since the development of this type of fiber; these concerns persisted throughout the environmental movement of the 1970s, but they died down after the majority of rayon production moved overseas during the 1990s and 2000s.

Producing cotton is another notoriously dirty process; unless cotton is cultivated and produced organically, a number of chemicals are used to process raw cotton into a textile fiber. However, these chemicals are an optional part of the cotton production process; they can be substituted for non-toxic agents if businesses want to produce cotton sustainably.

The use of toxic chemicals is, however, an integral part of the rayon production process. It is impossible to produce rayon, for instance, without using sodium hydroxide, which pollutes waterways and reduces air quality. Carbon disulfide is another integral part of the rayon production process, and this chemical has been linked to adverse effects in humans such as birth defects, cancer, skin conditions, and heart disease. Furthermore, extracting pulp wastes about 70 percent of a tree, and the remaining chemically-contaminated tree material is usually indiscriminately dumped.

Dark Pink Viscose DressDark Pink Viscose Dress

Producing rayon requires quite a few more steps than producing cotton, and every pound of rayon fiber produced generates many more pounds of waste material that usually isn't disposed of properly. Since rayon production primarily takes place in third-world countries, most consumers in the developing world have a disconnected viewpoint on the manufacture of this popular textile material.

However, the ecosystems in developing countries are negatively impacted by rayon production. Plant and animal life are harmed by the creation of this fabric, and the human ecosystem is also polluted. In addition, the production of rayon depletes forests at a rapid rate.

Viscose Fabric Certifications Available

Organic certification for viscose is a complicated subject. While it’s certainly possible to make this substance with organic sources of cellulose, the process by which viscose is made essentially transforms cellulose into an entirely new material. The resulting material can’t be called either organic or synthetic, which makes it hard to consider viscose to be “organic” even if it is made from USDA or EU-certified organic cellulose.

Most manufacturers of viscose don’t even try to certify their products as organic. On the other hand, most forms of lyocell, including Lenzing’s Tencel, are not chemically modified during the production process, which means that if they are made from organic cellulose, they can be certified organic by third-party or government-run regulatory agencies.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.