Rayon material was the first regenerated cellulosic fibre and is made from 100% cellulose. It is a synthetic fibre made from natural materials such as wood pulp and has a similar molecular structure to the cellulose found in flax and cotton.
On the surface, rayon may sound all-natural and super sustainable, but it isn’t that simple as it doesn’t stay natural for long. Rayon undergoes a lot of chemical treatment before becoming the soft fabric you know today.
Overall it’s a super versatile fabric and highly absorbent, but it’s not exactly environmentally friendly.
What is Rayon Material Exactly?
As mentioned rayon is a manufactured or synthetic fibre that is made from cellulose or more specifically from wood pulp.
Rayon material is sometimes called viscose or viscose rayon. Viscose technically refers to rayon made using the viscose process which was developed in England in 1891. During the early 1900s, the fibre was sold as artificial silk but was later named rayon.
Originally it was a very bright and lustrous fibre produced as a filament until the early 1930s when machinery was developed to make filament tow that could be crimped and cut into staple fibres. Before this rayon was used in linen-like clothing.
Rayon is often used in disposable diapers and sanitary products.
Properties of Rayon Material
Rayon is super absorbent, soft and comfortable. It’s also very easy to dye. Designers tend to love the soft drape it provides. It can be made into fabrics that have similar properties to cotton, linen, wool and silk.
Cupra rayon is even more silk like and has better lustre than regular viscose rayon.
Rayon is generally quite weak and loses around 50% of its strength when wet, so be careful not to handle wet rayon too vigorously.
When it comes to comfort rayon performs really well as it’s a smooth and soft fabric. It eliminates static and thermal retention is low making it a summer staple. It won’t be irritating to the skin, but it will most is very likely to irritate to the environment.
How is Rayon Material Made?
Rayon is most commonly made using a wet-spinning method. This means cellulose is chemically converted into a viscous solution and then forced through spinnerets into a bath. It’s then reduced to solid cellulose filaments.
In the USA regular rayon is viscose rayon and some imported rayons are made using a cuprammonium process which is usually labelled as Cupra rayon using the trade name Bemberg.
Cupra Rayon is made by turning cellulose into a soluble compound using copper and ammonia. This solution is caustic soda and is then passed through a spinneret where the copper and ammonia are removed and the caustic soda neutralised.
Either way, there is a lot of chemicals involved in either process which means it’s not exactly the natural environmentally friendly fabric some people claim it to be even though it is made from natural cellulose.
Traditionally viscose rayon creased easily, but adding a wrinkle-resistant finish helps to manage this problem. Unfortunately, these finishes can reduce the strength and abrasion resistance of the fabric.
Regular rayon can easily shrink or stretch and is weak when wet with very low elastic recovery. Adding a shrinkage control finish can help to reduce any shrink or stretch issues, gives it a better elastic recovery rate.
Rayon vs Cotton – Which one Should you Choose?
When it comes to sustainability, both rayon and cotton use a lot of water during production and growing. However, cotton uses fewer chemicals during the production process, but if not organic will use pesticides during the growing process.
As far as the properties of these fabrics, you’ll likely find:
- Cotton is more durable
- Cotton is more colourfast
- Rayon can resemble silk, where cotton is not likely to look like silk
- Rayon is more flammable than cotton
- Cotton is more robust when it comes to fabric care, so it is more washable and not as sensitive to high-heat ironing as rayon would be
How to Care for Clothes Made from Rayon
Regular rayon material has limited washability unless it is resin-treated. Mostly regular, standard rayon should be dry-cleaned as it’s a fragile fabric when wet. Some types of rayon variants perform better when it comes to washability and strength, but this will depend on the finish added to the fabric.
Generally, rayon will be harmed by acids, resistant to dilute alkalis and is not affected by organic solvents. For this reason, you can easily dry-clean rayon. Be careful as it can also fall victim to silverfish and mildew being a cellulose-based fabric.
Normally rayon won’t be affected by sunlight and can withstand reasonable temperatures for ironing and pressing. But they can burn easily. The type of finish will also affect its performance when it comes to heat treatment.
Sustainability of Rayon
The most important question is; how sustainable is rayon? Well if you look at how it’s manufactured you’ll quickly realise that it might be a natural fibre, but it’s heavily treated with chemicals during the production process.
Most rayons are made from wood pulp, which can also present a problem. Wood harvested from wood farms or managed fast-growing plantations will be more sustainable, but in some cases be produced from mature forests.
When managing forests some will use clear-cutting of trees. This means that an entire area is cut clean, drastically affecting soil health and the natural habitat of local wildlife.
During the production process, large quantities of acid and other chemicals are used that will contribute to water pollution, especially in third-world and developing countries where water treatment processes are ambiguous.
Luckily they no longer make Cupra rayon in the USA as producers could not meet water and air quality requirements so it’s not made in all countries. But some countries still manufacture it.
Because rayon is a natural fibre it is technically biodegradable, but due to landfill practices, it won’t naturally degrade and is not generally recycled.
The production process of rayon traditionally uses a lot of water and of course, those rayon garments marked as dry-clean only will require extra solvents adding more environmental hazards into the mix.
Sustainable Rayon – Lyocell and Modal Rayon
When it comes to sustainable rayon, you do have some options – it’s not all bad news here.
TENCEL™ modal is made from sustainably harvested beech trees and TENCEL™ lyocell from sustainably harvested eucalyptus trees.
Lyocell is made using a solvent spinning process that doesn’t cause a significant chemical change to the fibres. There are other companies that use this process, but Lenzing is certainly considered the most sustainable option as it uses a closed-loop system where almost all the chemicals and water is recaptured and reused.
These fabrics are also stronger, more durable and more absorbent. It will deal with moisture better, but this will come at a higher price.
What About Bamboo Rayon and Sustainability?
Rayon made from bamboo can be very harmful to the environment as it is likely to use a lot of chemicals during the production process. In the same way as regular rayon.
However, there are some producers who use a closed-loop system or intensive water treatment process to make sure that chemicals don’t end up in the waterways.
When it comes to buying bamboo fabrics, be very cautious and double-check to see if you can find information around the fibre production process for a particular supplier as even though bamboo might be fast-growing, it doesn’t mean that the chemicals used during production won’t end up in the environment anyway.