Q and A: What Is Viscose? What is Rayon?

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Viscose has come up a lot in this space in the past. We’ve compared it to purified cotton, and also discussed false labeling claims where viscose rayon was used instead of bamboo. Whether you’re a product developer or a consumer, online search numbers show that people are always eager to have a better understanding of viscose, so today we thought we’d offer a quick Q and A on the subject in an attempt to continue the conversation.

Is it called viscose, or rayon?

Great question. There is some confusion between the two terms. Viscose is actually a type of rayon, even though “viscose,””viscose rayon,” and “rayon” are often used interchangeably. What started as “artificial silk” in the late 19th century became known as rayon in 1924, with the name “viscose” coming from “a viscous organic liquid used to make both rayon and cellophane.” Per Swicofil.com, rayon is “the generic term for fiber (and the resulting yarn and fabric) manufactured from regenerated cellulose by any one of six processes.” Keep in mind that modal and lyocell, along with viscose, are also considered types of rayon.

So rayon wasn’t invented until the end of the 19th century?

Actually, according to this abstract the idea of an “artificial silk” dates back to 1664. In 1885, a Frenchman used mulberry bark pulp and gummy rubber to create a viscous substance, but it wasn’t economically viable. The first true commercial synthetic fiber wasn’t patented until 1884. He finally manufactured it in 1889.

How well did it do in the marketplace?

Not well. It was removed fairly quickly.

Really? Why?

Because it was extremely flammable.

Yikes. So when did it finally become viable commercially?

A group of Englishmen figured out the viscose process in 1891. A company called Courtaulds Fibers delivered the first commercial viscose rayon in 1905. Later, in the U.S., the American Viscose Company launched a product called “Artificial Silk,” which ultimately became viscose rayon.

So where did the name “rayon” come from?

Let’s circle back to 1924. Actually, the U.S. Department of Commerce, along with some other commercial organizations, came up with the name “rayon.” It combined “ray” (sun) with “on” (cotton). The main theory is that the name combined the fiber’s brightness in color with its similarities to cotton.

How do you feel about that?

Honestly, we’re torn. Viscose rayon certainly has its benefits and uses, but calling it “like cotton” isn’t fair since cotton is natural, while viscose is manmade, and they have wildly different processes. Again, as the intro mentioned, we’ve touched on all the differences between the two, from cellulose composition to cotton fiber properties, from processing to supply chain.

So as a cotton manufacturer, you don’t take issue with that?

Obviously, we can’t control how a product is named. However, it does bother us when products are touted as cottony soft or has the cotton feel, etc., but the products actually contain manmade fibers. This happens more than consumers think. Luckily, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) keeps an eye out for this. In fact they require that woven and knit fabrics be labeled with the fiber content but this does not apply to nonwoven fabrics such as disposable wipes and diapers.

Why is that so important?

Cotton is customer-preferred. Imagine if you bought an all-cotton baby wipe or tampon only to find out it had these manmade fibers in it. You wouldn’t be happy, would you?

No. That’s false advertising. But remember, I’m asking the questions here.

Sorry.

No problem. Last question: if rayon is really wood pulp, is it that big a deal that it’s manmade?

Not to beat a dead horse, but yes. It all comes down to processing. While cotton and rayon fibers are both made from cellulose, cotton’s cellulose is grown in five to six months by plants, while rayon’s comes from trees—which require years to grow. The trees are chemically processed to remove everything (bark, lignin, etc.) but the cellulose, and then the remaining cellulose is regenerated into manmade fibers.

Well, you got kind of technical there.

Well, you asked.





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67 Responses to Q and A: What Is Viscose? What is Rayon?

      • No as far as I know moth larvae only eat wool. Some Hornets and Wasps recognize viscose as genuine building material for nest building and chew up non woven fiber from cushion fillings Cotton probably has it’s own critters that chew on it but moths dye if they can’t find wool.

  1. Is Visco and viscose amd memory foam the same thing? I have found that if I touch a garment etc that says viscose, I start wheezing. Same thing with memory foam. I am looking for a new mattress and most say memory foam or visco, viscose. I can’t figure out exactly what I am allergic to. I guess the chemical in the process of making rayon viscose?

    • Hi Beth,

      Memory foam is made from a viscous (visco) solution of polyurethane. Viscose rayon is made from desolving cellulose from trees in a vicose organic solvent. The two are not related. Hope that helps.

  2. I prefer cotton or linen but find they both wrinkle badly in hot or humid areas. Rayon wrinkles all the time except in knits. And as posted before it’s more expensive where I shop.

  3. I am always HOT! I look for cotton clothing because it tends to breathe better, therefore keeping me cooler. Will Viscose or Rayon work the same way? Thank you! =^..^=

    • Hi Elisha,

      First viscose and rayon are the same fiber. If the fabrics are constructed the same i.e. same size yarns, same number of yarns per inch and same weave of knit, rayon will breathe the same as cotton. Both are fibers made of cellulose polymers.

      Hope this helps!

    • Hi Sabbir,

      Rayon is made from dissolving wood and extruding the cellulose into fibers. Spandex is made from oil based products and has elasticity. It is normally used in combination (blended) with other fibers and used to make stretchable yarns. Spandex alone does not have a good feel or touch.

  4. I have upholstery fabric labeled 55 viscose 45 polyester.
    Cleaners afraid they will harm fabric. What is risk. They need major cleaning in home. Chairs have flowers on fabric that look like silk

    • Hi Vivien,

      Sorry, we are a cotton company so we have no experience in cleaning viscose or polyester. Hope you find what you are looking for!

  5. Hello,
    Taking consideration of environmentally friendly of world wide brand is taking about, can you explain in more details on tencel, modal and viscose, which one is more eco friendly ? If I have to twist all these to green concept (for example cotton change to organic cotton) how can I change all these 3 qualities ? Thanks

    • Hi Vivian,

      I’m not quite certain I get your question but I’ll try to answer the best I can. Rayon is classified as a fiber made from regenerated cellulose. The cellulose source can be tress, bamboo, cotton and other plant materials.

      Tencel is a tradename of Lenzing, its made of is lyocell which regenerated cellulose rayon created by a more environmental friendly process.

      Viscose is rayon manufactured by the viscose process.

      Modal rayon is a type of viscose that is processed under different conditions to produce rayon with stronger wet strength.

      As far as cotton and organic cotton. Most of the cotton grown around the world is grown (greater than 95%) with seeds that have been genetically modified (GM cotton) to be resistant to pests and herbicides. The farmer can use less pesticides and can spray herbicides to kill weeds without the herbicide killing the cotton plants.
      Organic cotton uses seed that have not been genetically modified. The farmer using only organic pesticides and fertilizers. The fiber yield per acre is less that GM cotton and since it can not be chemically be defoliated for picking the fiber contains more leaf trash than GM cotton.

      Hope this helps!

  6. Hi.
    Just a comment to your article. Cellulose fibers and PA fibers are the main ingredients in baby diapers and tampons. No cotton there
    Regarding viscose and rayon, I believe that they both have a tent of PE and PA fibers to stabilise the material structure. In fact I believe it’s around 20-30 %. Do you have a comment

    • Hi Marianne,

      First we are not sure what PA fibers mean. Could be a number of different fibers (polyacetate, polyacrylic, etc.). Most single use diapers are composed of a back layer made of film, and absorbent layer made of wood pulp cellulose fibers and a super-absorbent powder (polyacrylate), and the top sheet that touches the baby is polypropylene fabric or an extruded perforated film. Most tampons are made with rayon or a blend of rayon and cotton. There are some brands available that are all cotton, including the outer wrap (tent). However most contain an outer wrap of polypropylene that is less than 5% of the weight. Tampon manufacturers are not required to label the the percentages of fibers in the tampons. So most will say “can contain, rayon, cotton, polypropylene”. But today women are now becoming concerned and want to know what is in their tampons. Check out our article on this: https://www.barnhardtcotton.net/blog/what-is-in-my-tampon/

      Hope this helps!

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