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


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.

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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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