Q and A: What Is Viscose?

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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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54 Responses to Q and A: What Is Viscose?

  1. So, if you see a velvet that is silky and has a lovely feel to it, but it’s got rayon in it, that’s not good? I’m trying to decide if I want to recover a couch with a 50/50 blend of rayon and cotton. What do you think?

    • It really depends on the processing and the finish that is used on the product. Many upholstery fabrics have a coating, that even though the fabric is natural, if it is coated with toxins I would not use it on most items. Something like an accent pillow that is not in contact with your skin as much would be fine. That said, a cotton / rayon blend would be far better than something that is made in a lab. Any fiber that comes directly from a plant such as linen or pure cotton is the best choice, in my humble opinion.

    • Hi, Nj Gardener & Jennifer:

      Please excuse our (very) delayed response! Nevertheless, we are so glad you both found our blog post during your search for the best fabric products…and we couldn’t agree more with what Jennifer said, pure cotton is the BEST choice

      As the leading US manufacture of PURIFIED COTTON™, A cotton/rayon blend fabric is fine for home furniture. The fabric will not wear as well (last as long) as nylon fabrics but will be softer. Most home furnishing fabrics will be made with natural fibers or synthetic fibers and treated with flame retardant finishes to meet federal and/or state testing standards. The active ingredients of these finishes in the past have been made with chemicals that were found to be carcinogenic. Those types of finishes have been outlawed and most of the finishes used today should be safe! 
      Best of luck to you on your upholstery project… likely it’s finished by now? We’d love to see how it turned out, please send us a picture! 
      As always, please feel free to contact us with any questions!

      For the love of Cotton,
      -The Barnhardt Natural Fibers Group

  2. Hi Sheila!

    Thanks for your great question. Viscose has long been used in traditional clothing, which is in contact with skin, and has a history of not irritating skin. The chemical composition of viscose is cellulose, which is the same as cotton.
    We think you may find our Know Your Fibers: Cotton vs. Viscose Rayon blog post interesting, too. Once you’ve read it, let us know what you think! Please continue to visit our blog and comment!

  3. If something is describe as being made from Bamboo but says it is Viscose (from Bamboo) what does that mean? I am looking for clothing for my child that does not irratate her skin and was after pure Bamboo

    • Hi Maree!

      Thank you for your great question and we agree clothing labels can be very confusing.
      Bamboo is the original raw material, but the bamboo is then treated with harsh chemicals into a slurry that is then regenerated into an artificial fiber. The bamboo based viscose may be ok for your child’s skin but cotton is an all natural fiber that is very safe for sensitive skin.
      We hope this answers your question! Should you have additional questions, please feel free to contact us.
      We wish you the best!
      Sincerely,
      The Barnhardt Natural Fibers Group

  4. I have a rayon shirt. It is very soft and doesn’t wrinkle like cotton. It is often mistaken for silk. I wonder if a sport jacket made of 100% viscose made from bamboo is a good idea. I saw a jacket like this in an upscale catalogue so I haven’t been able to touch the fabric so I can’t tell if it is soft or scratchy, also it’s quite pricey. I’d appreciate your thoughts. Thanks, Philip

    • Hi Phillip,

      The rayon jacket should have the same soft touch as your shirt. Like many wool jackets it may require dry cleaning.

      Hope this helps!

  5. Well, I was just about to purchase some bamboo sheets because a friend has them and likes them. I went to her house to look at and feel them and I thought that they didi feel a little like rayon and they were wrinkled. After reading all your information I am not sure how to get some nice, SOFT sheets. I purchased some that were labeled wrinkle resistant and were 400 threads per square inch but they are very rough and heavy. How do I find what I am looking for?

    • Hi Jean,

      You just have to shop and find the fabric that feels best to you. Finer yarns will have a softer feel than coarse yarns. If you are looking at sheets the high count (number of yarns per square inch of fabric) fabrics are made with finer yarns. You have to have finer yarns to fit more yarns in a square inch. Therefore, a fabric of 600 count will feel softer than a fabric of 400 count if made from the same fiber.

      We hope this helps you in your search!

        • Hi Jeannie,

          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 Isaac,

      There is not a simple, easy test to tell the difference between cotton and rayon since they are both composed of the same chemical polymer, cellulose. That is why they both behaved and smelled the same in a burn test. A complex dyeing test or microscope is needed for identification.

  6. Can viscose garments be machine washed and dried? Does it shrink when dried?

    I recently bought a top and don’t want to ruin it.

    Thank you!

    • Hi Kathy,

      Some viscose garments can be machine washed. Your top should have a label with washing instructions, it is the law in the US. If there is no label I would recommend dry cleaning.

  7. I had a look at a few shirts on Amazon which are labelled as 60% cotton and 40% viscose. They are going at a great price and from a respectable brand. I am confused whether to buy one of them or not since I don’t know how they would feel. I am more concerned about the sweat factor during the hotter summer months here in India, plus any idea as to the flammability factor of such a composite fabric? Thanks in advance for the response.

    • Hi Sandeep,

      They should be comfortable in hot humid weather. Both rayon and cotton are composed of the same chemical polymer, cellulose. Often time cotton is substituted with rayon because rayon costs less. Unless treated to be flame retardant both cotton and rayon will burn.

    • I work outdoors under hot conditions. Rayon is much hotter to wear than cotton. Even though it is cellulose, it seems to trap heat. I have been looking for all cotton shirts: recently they are much harder to find. Blends like cotton and viscose are easier to find, but I would fully expect them to feel hotter than pure cotton.

      • Hi Linnea,

        The construction of the fabrics is what plays a role in trapping heat. If the fabric construction are the same rayon and cotton will feel the same.

  8. I think viscose was the material of a beautiful, LONG, cool, glamorous looking blouse I bought last summer. I wore it once. I washed it. I dryer it. It went from size 1x to 6x!! My motto? If you can’t wash (and dry it!), SQUASH IT!?

    • Hi Kelly,

      Sorry to hear about this. Some viscose can be washed some can’t. Follow the washing instructions on the label of the garment for optimal results.

    • Hi Sandi,

      Fleece is the fabric construction and it is made to incorporate air, which is a very good insulator. So any fleece, irregardless of the the fiber type, will be warm.

    • Hi Kristen,

      A sweater made from the same fabric construction will be warmer if made from wool. The fabric construction can effect warmness as much as fiber type. How big or small the yarns are and how tight the weave, etc.

  9. Hello,

    I just launched a new ethical and sustainable fashion brand. I use natural fibers only, such as silk and linen. The textile company I work with say that their viscose are 100% eco friendly as well as their silk and linen. Can this be true ?

    Thank you!

    • Hi Ophelie,

      Viscose comes from trees but is processed with harsh chemicals to refine it. Tencel process is more friendly to the environment. Often rayon is referred to as a natural fiber, it comes from a natural product, wood, but is refined by chemical and re-extruded, so it is really a man made fiber.

      It will biodegrade so that may be the angle they are coming from.

    • Hi Toni,

      It depends on how the fabric is made. If woven it will have little or no stretch. If knitted it will have some stretch.

      Hope this helps!

      • Thank you for your information. It has been helpful but I wish I was better versed in fabric construction. I’ve had viscose fabrics that shrink, and some that grow. Are there different grades of viscose? It seems to be here to stay, but you can’t beat a natural fiber. At least you know what you’re getting.

        • Hi Roz,

          There is only one type of rayon used in clothing. It is in the fabric construction. Knit fabrics will display more expansion (grow) than woven fabrics. The tightness of the yarn used to make the fabric, number of twists per inch, can also effect shrinkage and stretch. A good practice is to dry clean rayon fabrics to minimize the effects of water washing.

    • Hi Max,

      Washable viscose will shrink some but not nearly as much as viscose that doesn’t label itself as washable. Unless it is labeled as wrinkle free it will crease/wrinkle.

      Hope this helps!

  10. I have sensitive skin, but I am a college student on a tight budget. I just discovered that polyester is not a good fiber to wear so iv been looking at cotton clothing. However I have come across Viscose in a lot of clothing and I am wondering if this fiber is breathable like cotton? And I am also wondering if it will irritate my skin.

    • Hi Amanda,

      Cotton and Viscose Rayon are both the same polymer, cellulose. Cotton is stronger and more wrinkle resistant than rayon but both should be equally as comfortable.

      Hope this helps!

  11. May 2, 2017

    I just purchased a kaftan and a blouse on line. The kaftan is labeled 100% rayon and the blouse is labeled 100% viscose. Both say to hand wash separately or dry clean. I intend to wash them in my washer on the hand wash cycle and let them hang to dry. My biggest concern is fading, and will they require ironing?

    • Hi Pat!

      Viscose is another name for rayon. I would not recommend using a washer. Fading should not be a problem. Shrinkage could be a problem. Either they will require ironing.

      Hope this helps!

  12. The shrinkage question pops up on a regular basis. The misconception in the industry is that shrinkage is mainly controlled by the temperature of the wash and the temperature of the air in the drier[s]. In real fact it is the weaving process that pre-programs the amount of shrinkage to be experienced.
    The more tension on the warp yearns, the higher the shrinkage finally found.
    Lower temperatures in wash and drier can slow down the shrinking. But one cant avoid shrinkage. The final % of shrinkage will always be the same.
    Unfortunately for the buyer the shrinkage to be expected isn’t on the label..
    Sanforised fabrics have a maximum / very low shrinkage level.

  13. Maybe we’re just lucky, but most of my husband’s summer shirts are rayon (woven, not knit) and we have never had a problem throwing them in a washing machine. Granted, we don’t use a dryer on them (I only dry sheets and towels) but they have held up very well, some for years. The cotton ones fade a lot, even after just one season. Having said that, we both prefer the feel of cotton and linen, but they are much more expensive….

  14. 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!

  15. 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!

  16. 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!

    • 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.

  17. 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!

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