What Is Rayon? Get To Know Your Sustainable Fabrics
Still confused when it comes to the words ‘rayon’, ‘viscose’ and ‘semi man-made fabrics’? Still wondering, is rayon a good fabric? Or, is rayon a plastic? You’re not the only one. We’ve already discussed ‘Modal’ and ‘Tencel’ in detail, but what about their larger family? It’s pretty big and it’s not a new family either. In reality, they’ve been around for over 100 years, making them the oldest form of manufactured fibre.
So, what are they? ‘Rayon’ and other viscose products are ‘made from regenerated cellulose, also known as viscose.’ In most cases, wood or plant bark is bleached and broken down by chemicals, creating a viscose liquid (hence the name!). This is then squeezed through a showerhead into an acid bath that solidifies the viscose into yarn. The yarn is then treated again and spun.
This process was discovered and developed in Europe during the 1800s to provide a cheap alternative to silk. Over the years, it’s been adapted to create several different products that can be very tricky to get your head around.
Although ‘Rayon’ and ‘Viscose’ are often mistaken as individual products – they are one and the same. Over the years, the original name ‘ viscose rayon’ has been shortened to ‘viscose’. While Rayon is still the term used in the US – it’s ‘viscose’ you’ll see on most labels over here.
Rayon is also used as an umbrella term for other products developed in the same way. Here are a few of the main contenders:
Modal, developed in Japan in the 50s is specifically made from Beech tree pulp. It is stronger and lighter than traditional rayon, but still soft and smooth to the touch.
Cupro is another, made using a solution of copper and ammonium to break down cotton waste fibres using a ‘closed-loop’ manufacturing process, so 99% of the harsh chemicals are recycled rather than becoming waste.
Lyocell is manufactured using this ‘closed-loop’ process too and is probably the youngest of the ‘rayon’ family – developed only in the 70s. Very often it is made out of eucalyptus plants. You’ll recognise this type as ‘Tencel’, the brand name of the biggest producer.
Image courtesy: Reformation
These fabrics aren’t without their problems though. Older, traditional rayons use nasty chemicals and acids throughout the production process. There have been cases of exposed factory workers and, after they’re used, these substances get chucked back into the environment.
Lyocell and Cupro, face many accusations of rainforest destruction and community displacement. However, for these newer versions of rayon, the positives are massive. Not only are they biodegradable, the newer, circular production process means there is very little chemical waste. They also use much less water than traditional textiles, which is a big win in our book.
So in theory, this family has huge potential. Sustainable fabrics with a relatively low eco-footprint. Loads of brands are now using them, from Reformation to big retailers like H&M. Now, as more and more of them appear on the market, it’s good to know a little more about them when thinking about your next wardrobe upgrade.