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A Guide to Rayon

Rayon is a versatile semi-synthetic fabric that can be used in almost any type of garment.

It can be spun into knits and woven into a fabric that resembles silk. It absorbs dyes with ease, making it a great backdrop for vibrant colors and prints that seem to float on top of the finished fabric.

This beautiful material revolutionized the garment-making industry and forever changed how we look at synthetic silks.

Rayon Through The Years

The concept of rayon fiber and fabric was first introduced in 1664 when English physicist Robert Hooke had the idea that it might be possible to spin a fiber from cellulose. The concept of a cellulosic fiber came to him as he examined a cellulose-based substance that strongly resembled silkworm secretions. Although this thought prompted many scientists to attempt to turn the material into artificial silk, it took an accident in a lab in 1846 to create the fiber that we call rayon today.

Officially created in 1846, rayon is the first man-made fabric ever produced. It was originally discovered during an attempt to create a new type of explosive in a chemistry lab. However, it took another 40 years before its manufacture and use in the garment industry began in earnest. It was the French Count Hilaire de Chardonnet who devised a process that made it commercially feasible to produce rayon fibers for use in making fabrics.

French Count Hilaire de Chardonnet, father of rayon production

This breakthrough in production led to other methods of manufacturing rayon, but the fabric didn’t take hold as an alternative to silk until the 1900s. Courtalds, a fabric manufacturer in England, also came out with their version of rayon around the same time. The manufacturer called it viscose due to the viscous nature of the material before being processed into a fiber. A third method of manufacturing rayon emerged in 1905 and was developed by the Swiss brothers Henri and Doctor Camille Dreyfus. The brothers invented something known as cellulose acetate and initially used it for cellulose acetate film and plastics.

The American Viscose Company, 1910

Courtalds opened a factory for the production of rayon in America in 1910 known as the American Viscose Company. Meanwhile, the Dreyfus brothers began manufacturing their product in England at the British Celenase plant. Some of the rayon fabrics produced at this plant were known as Celanese during this era.

Swiss brothers Henri and Doctor Camille Dreyfus, who invented cellulose acetate -- leading to the production of Celanese rayon manufacturing

Courtalds opened a factory for the production of rayon in America in 1910 known as the American Viscose Company. Meanwhile, the Dreyfus brothers began manufacturing their product in England at the British Celenase plant. Some of the rayon fabrics produced at this plant were known as Celanese during this era.

Nowadays, rayon is produced all around the world, but it’s not necessarily considered a sustainable fabric. In fact, one popular type of rayon, known as Bemberg, was banned from manufacturing in the U.S. Bemberg, or cuprammonium rayon, requires a highly toxic process to produce fibers for weaving. Cuprammonium rayon requires the use of copper and ammonium for its production. Textile manufacturers were unable to clean the wastewater from the production process to a level of cleanliness that satisfied the EPA.

Courtalds responded to the issue of the toxic manufacturing process of rayon by developing a rayon known as tencel. The manufacturing process for tencel doesn’t pollute and is a more eco-friendly way to manufacture the fibers.

Rayon comes in a variety of manufacturing processes, finishes, and blends. There are different types of manufacturing processes for rayon, but they all result in a material that has a distinct hand and drape. All rayons are made from a cellulose base that’s chemically transformed into a cellulose fiber. This fiber can be blended with other fibers before being woven or knit into a finished material. The fashion industry embraced rayon when it became widely available in the 1920s, and it’s still a popular material for clothing 100 years later.

Rayon production at an industrial rayon corporation

What is Rayon?

The core nature of rayon fabric is that of a material derived from a regenerated cellulose base. The production process begins with sheets of purified cellulose that are then steeped in caustic soda. 

After the sheets have dried, they’re shredded into crumbs, then put into metal containers for up to three days. Liquid carbon disulfide is added to the crumbs, turning the mix into yellow crumbs and now called sodium cellulose xanthate. This mix is then put into a caustic soda bath, resulting in the viscose solution that gives viscose rayon its name.

The solution is then put into a machine that uses centrifugal force to push the liquid through a nozzle known as a spinnaret. The spinneret looks like a shower head, but instead of spraying water into a bathtub, it spins the viscose solution into an acid bath. The size of the holes in the nozzle dictate the size of the fiber, and the fibers harden into a finished thread once it hits the acid bath.

Rayon fiber, via Textile Engineering Students

The finished fibers resemble silk and are collected from the acid bath and rolled onto spools for the weaving of the fibers into a finished fabric. Other fibers are introduced at this point to create a blended fiber. Rayon is used in knits and wovens alike and is turned into greige goods for printing, or woven as a solid color according to the dye that was introduced during the creation of the fiber.

Once rayon has been turned into a finished fabric, it can be used in a variety of garments, such as blouses, dresses, skirts, shirts, and pants. Rayon tends to be a light-to-medium weight fabric with a lot of drape, making it perfect for looser garments that flow, such as skirts, dresses, and oversized blouses. When blended with other materials, rayon can also be used for jackets and garments that call for a heavier fabric.

Its Many Uses

Rayon is a wonderful semi-synthetic fabric that’s used in garments and home decor. As previously mentioned, you can make just about any type of garment with rayon as long as you use an appropriate blend. Its silky sheen is hardy, it has strong wrinkle resistance, and smooths out nicely under the iron. 

One of rayon’s most popular uses is as a lining due to its colorfast and lightweight properties. The silk-like feel of rayon lets you slide into a jacket without a struggle, and its strength means it won’t tear easily.

The material also lends itself nicely to draperies and lasts longer than silk. Rayon draperies can resemble shot silk, raw silk, satin, and just about any other silk finish you can think of. It’s usually blended with another fiber to create a finish, provide strength, and improve resistance to UV fading.

In general, there are 4 types of rayon:

Regular Rayon Fabric: The standard, also known as viscose rayon, this type is the most popular rayon and can be found in both apparel and furnishings. It offers rayon’s smooth, lightweight properties but suffers when wet or washed without care.

HWM (High Wet Modulus Rayon): Often known as Modal rayon, HWM adds wet strength to the mix, giving you the option of machine washing when paired with a delicate tumble dry cycle.

High Tenacity Rayon: Used for high-strength applications like tires cords, this version of rayon has been chemically coated, finished, or rubberized for additional moisture and damage resistance, giving the material remarkable strength (but rendering it useless for the production of garments).

Cupramonium Rayon (Cupra): A different animal from standard rayon, the production process for cupra rayon consumes considerable amounts of energy and water, and uses corrosive chemicals like copper, ammonia, and caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) for production — which are both harmful to the environment and worker health.

Sewing Tips for Rayon

Sewing rayon is easy and doesn’t require any special preparation of your sewing machine. As you lay out your pattern pieces, use pins that are appropriate for the weight of the fabric, such as a lightweight pin for thinner fabrics and a mediumweight pin for thicker weaves. When it comes to sewing your seams, a universal needle works well. However, you may want to get an extra sharp needle, such as a 75/11 or 80/11 for a smooth piercing of the material and catching of the bobbin loop.

It’s always a good idea to use a fresh needle when you start sewing a garment out of any fabric, but if you can’t feel a burr on the tip of your needle, it’s still good for sewing rayon. The issue you want to avoid is punching large holes in the seam allowance because the needle is dull.

Rayon is best sewn with polyester or poly-blend thread. Polyester easily slides through the fibers and is less likely to pucker. The resulting seams are smooth and strong, and won’t damage the material at any point during the garment’s construction and eventual use.

Caring for Rayon

Proper care and feeding of rayon garments, via The Spruce

Rayon, in its purest form, is a delicate fabric that requires careful handling when it’s washed. You can put a rayon garment into your washing machine on a delicate cycle with other delicates and an appropriate soap. Don’t put a rayon garment into the washing machine with heavier materials as this can cause the rayon to snag and tear. If you have a net bag for washing, you can put the rayon garment into the bag and wash it with heavier garments because the bag protects the fabric from abrasion.

Don’t wring out a rayon garment as it can tear while it’s wet. Instead, hang your rayon garments to dry if at all possible. Heat makes rayon shrink and this can ruin your garment. If you don’t feel comfortable washing rayon at home, bring it to the dry cleaners and have them take care of the special handling.

Iron rayon under low heat and press when it’s slightly damp from the wash or by using a spray bottle. Iron the garment from the inside. When ironing the front side, use a pressing cloth to protect it from getting shiny.

Outside of the laundry room, you can hang rayon the same as any other garment, but you want to avoid getting it wet as it can affect the finish of the fabric. Make sure that the garment is dry before hanging it to avoid rust spots from forming and transferring to the fabric.

Rayon Vs. Cotton

Sometimes rayon gets its base ingredients from cotton plants, making them almost related. They share similar properties in terms of moisture wicking, breathability, and comfort, but cotton will never be able to look like silk in the way rayon can. Their major difference comes in the way they’re manufactured. Cotton doesn’t require a chemical process to create a fiber, whereas rayon has to undergo a toxic process to create the fiber.

Rayon Vs. Polyester

Rayon is considered a semi-synthetic cellulosic fiber in that it uses wood and other cellulosic fibers in its creation. In comparison, polyester is a fully synthetic fabric that’s derived from petroleum products. In essence, polyester is a plastic, while rayon is derived from wood pulp and related fibers. Both are used to create fake silk fabrics, but each type of fabric has very different properties in terms of its drape and hand.

Rayon Vs. Silk

Silk is an all-natural fiber that’s also expensive. Rayon was developed as an alternative to natural silk, but it’s not a true imitator even though it can go a long way towards looking like silk. Both fabrics have a lustrous sheen, require special care and handling, and are derived from natural sources.

FAQs

Is Rayon stretchy?

Rayon itself doesn’t stretch, although it can “fall out” when cut along the bias. Rayon is stretchy when used for the manufacture of woven fabric and knits, and blending rayon with an elastic material such as spandex will create a much stretchier end result.

Is Rayon breathable?

Yes, 100% rayon is breathable. It’s also breathable when blended with natural fibers like cotton, but its breathable properties are impacted when blended with synthetic fabrics such as polyester, acrylic, and nylon.

Will Rayon shrink when washed?

Rayon is a sensitive fabric and is prone to shrinking when washed in hot water or improperly dry cleaned. The best way to clean rayon is to follow the instructions on the fabric bolt or garment label to prevent shrinkage. If there are no instructions, wash on a gentle cycle with cold water or ensure the dry cleaner is aware that the garment is made from rayon.

Is Rayon biodegradable?

Yes, rayon is biodegradable, even when blended with another fiber. Since rayon is made from wood pulp, it’s gone long before the other fibers have even begun to degrade.

How long does Rayon take to decompose?

A 2010 study found that viscose fabric like rayon decomposes faster than cotton. It took about 42 days (or six weeks) for the rayon to degrade as compared to 11 weeks for cotton.

Is Rayon environmentally friendly?

Rayon isn’t very eco-friendly due to its method of manufacturing. It’s primarily made from wood fibers which requires the cutting down of pine trees and other species to get the base material. 

Turning wood pulp into rayon fiber requires using toxic chemicals that are harmful to the environment when not properly disposed of

Zipping it up

Rayon has earned its place in the world of fashion fabrics even though it’s not always the easiest material to care for. Its manufacturing processes have been improved to be less toxic over the years, but it will always require the use of chemicals for its production. Ethically, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wearing rayon as it comes from renewable resources, and manufacturers have minimized the impact of the chemicals on the environment.

There’s a lot to like about rayon overall. It’s versatile, vibrant, and feels good to the touch. Rayon is also easy to sew and turn into finished garments without fuss. Provided you handle and wash rayon according to its instructions, you’ll have a garment or home decor item that lasts for years, holds onto color, and resists deterioration over the long term. It’s a fabric to enjoy no matter how you use it.

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