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.
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.
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.