Purchasers often compare viscose rayon to cotton products. In previous articles, we’ve compared viscose to purified cotton, and we’ve also discussed false labeling claims, where viscose rayon was used instead of bamboo in fabrics that claimed to be natural. Whether you’re a product developer or a consumer, you’re probably quite familiar with the historic strengths and advancements in cotton applications, while you may need to learn more about viscose material.
Take a look at this brief Q + A that establishes some definitions and points of contrast between all-natural cotton and its artificial counterpart, viscose rayon.
Viscose versus rayon–what’s it really called?
Confusion about this fiber often begins with confusion over what to call it. 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. The term “viscose” derives 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.
When did rayon become commercially viable?
Viscose fiber has its origins in the UK, France, and here in America. 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, with manufacturing dating to 1889.
An English 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?
In 1924, 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.
So is viscose rayon really like cotton?
While some of the two fabrics see similar application–primarily in fashion–there’s no real comparison. Cotton is natural, while viscose rayon is manmade. While they both derived from cellulose (cotton from its plant, viscose from trees of different varieties), viscose rayon is produced from a harsh, chemical-laden process. So while viscose rayon certainly has its benefits and uses, saying it’s like cotton isn’t really fair. Again, we have previously outlined all the differences between the two, from cellulose composition to cotton fiber properties, from processing to supply chain.
So as a cotton manufacturer, do you take issue with close comparisons between cotton and viscose rayon?
While products made from other fibers may certainly be promoted as “cottony soft,” we take issue, as have government regulators, when manmade fibers are touted as natural. These practices happen much more often than most consumers would imagine. Thankfully, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) keeps an eye out for false claims, and they require that woven and knit fabrics be labeled with the fiber content. However, this regulation does not apply to nonwoven fabrics such as disposable wipes and diapers. Since these products are not currently protected by FTC oversight, consumers should be aware of what is in their products and where they originate from. Apparel manufacturers are turning to Blockchain technology to identify the origin of their raw materials. We would look for manufacturers utilizing nonwoven products to do the same in the near future adding accountability to the entire supply chain.
Where might a consumer prefer rayon?
Viscose rayon is used in a variety of fashion applications. Manufacturers like viscose rayon because it’s inexpensive and drapes well on the human body. In addition, it’s breathable, like cotton. It gives a luxurious, silky look at a lower price point. However, viscose material is prone to spotting, is easily stained, and loses its shape. It’s prone to stretching, which really limits its applications, unlike cotton, which holds its shape well in products like drapes and upholstered furniture.
Why is it so important to know what rayon is made of?
The fact of the matter is that consumers overwhelmingly prefer cotton. Imagine if you bought what you thought was an all-natural, cotton baby wipe or tampon, products used for the most sensitive hygiene applications, only to find out they contained manmade fibers. Cotton has been proven to be customer-preferred by many surveys. Imagine if you bought what you believed to be 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?
If rayon is really wood pulp and thus a cellulose fiber, why isn’t it considered a natural fiber?
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 cellulose comes from trees—which require 25-35 years to grow. The trees go through a high-polluting chemical process to remove everything (bark, lignin, etc.) but the cellulose, and then the remaining cellulose is regenerated into manmade fibers.