If you’re like me, your summer wardrobe probably contains lots of sundresses, t-shirts, and comfy, breathable shorts and pants! Sometimes I find a pretty shirt or dress that I love, but it ends up clingy and sweaty in the summer heat. While trying to pick the best material for summer, I found myself asking, rayon vs cotton: what is the difference?
The main difference between rayon and cotton is that rayon is semi-synthetic and cotton is all-natural. Rayon also has a silky feel and drapes well, while cotton has an exceptional softness and more breathability. Both cotton and rayon make good lightweight summer clothing such as sundresses and shirts.
In this article, you’ll find out where rayon and cotton come from. You’ll learn the key differences and similarities of these popular materials. Finally, you’ll discover the pros and cons of both cotton and rayon!
Rayon vs Cotton: Key Points
Rayon and cotton share many common uses but have quite different textures and appearances. Take a look at this brief overview to give you an idea of the main differences between these two kinds of fabric.
|Chemically processed wood pulp
|Strong tensile strength, though this depends on the quality of the staples
|Weak when wet
|Will last many years, but does stretch out and pill over time
|Holds its shape very well and will last many years with proper care
|One of the softest kinds of fabric
|Softer than many synthetic fabrics
|Somewhat elastic, especially when made into knit fabric
|Not elastic unless blended with spandex
|Highly absorbent, but does not dry quickly
|Even more absorbent than cotton, but can stretch when wet
|Pills over time
|Does not pill over time
|Does not wrinkle easily
|Renewable plant resource but not eco-friendly production
|Production requires lots of harmful chemicals, but is more eco-friendly than most synthetic fabrics
|Machine washable, though dryer use is not recommended
|Often requires drycleaning
|More expensive than synthetic fabrics
|Less expensive than real silk, but more costly than most synthetic fabrics
|Everything from clothing to bedding to medical bandages
|Lightweight clothing for hot weather
What is Rayon?
First invented in the late 1800s as a silk substitute, rayon fabric is made out of processed cellulose that comes from wood or bamboo. It is sometimes called a semi-synthetic, biosynthetic, or regenerative material because it starts as a natural material but undergoes significant chemical processing that alters its physical state.
It’s hard to believe this silky, soft material comes from wood pulp, though! Most rayon fabric looks and feels a lot like silk. When you wear a rayon garment, it will drape elegantly around you and feel smooth against your skin.
So, is a rayon a good quality fabric? The answer depends on what qualities you like most in any type of fabric. To help you decide, take a look at where rayon comes from and what types of rayon you can commonly find in clothing.
How is Rayon Made?
Rayon begins life as wood pulp taken from bamboo, beech trees, or pine trees. The wood pulp then gets dissolved in sodium hydroxide. This chemically alters the wood pulp, turning it into something called alkali cellulose.
The alkali cellulose goes through another treatment, this time getting soaked in carbon disulfide. Once again, the product changes its chemical structure and turns into something called cellulose xanthate.
At this point, factory machines called spinnerets extrude tiny bits of the cellulose xanthate out as filaments.
Finally, another set of machines spins the fibers together into fine, silky threads.
Manufacturers can choose to weave rayon fabric in many different ways. Every type of weave creates a slightly different cloth.
For example, a knit rayon will look like a silky, very fine knitted sweater made of loops instead of crisscrossing threads. A satin weave will create a lustrous, smooth surface on the top of the cloth, and a chiffon weave creates a slightly puckered, rough silk appearance in the fabric.
For this reason, rayon fabric can have a slightly different appearance depending on the type of weave used. That said, it almost always has a very lightweight, silky feel. It drapes well and also holds its shape in pleats or ruffles. It also remains dye-fast, and you can find rayon garments printed in thousands of different designs!
Types of Rayon
The three main types of rayon used in clothing today are viscose, modal, and lyocell.
As the first rayon invented way back in the 1880s, viscose rayon was intended to serve as a cheaper version of silk. It has seen some changes over the years as textile science advances, but it remains extremely popular for silky clothing like blouses, skirts, and swirly dresses today!
Viscose has the drapability and silky texture that you often think of when you picture rayon. Though it has many excellent qualities, like the ability to absorb moisture, it usually requires drycleaning. It also has a low “wet strength,” meaning that it can stretch or shrink easily when exposed to moisture.
Modal has a rapidly growing popularity in the fashion world as the softest, most comfortable form of rayon. It comes specifically from beech-tree pulp and often blends with spandex to create a stretchy, comfy material. This explains why you may see modal described as “the underwear fabric!”
Lyocell looks and feels similar to modal but undergoes a slightly different manufacturing process that doesn’t use as many harmful chemicals. You may prefer lyocell if you make clothing choices based on environmental friendliness!
What is Cotton?
Cotton comes from the woolly fibers grown inside cotton bolls. These cloud-like balls of white fiber go through several treatments before getting spun into thread.
Cotton has a long history stretching thousands of years. First grown and processed in India, it quickly became popular in many parts of the world because of its softness and strength.
During the industrial revolution, Britain became the foremost producer of this fabric. Factories and rapidly developing new technology made it possible to mass-produce fabric on a huge scale for the first time ever.
On top of this, an American invention allowed cotton growers to easily separate the seeds out of the fluff, which dramatically decreased production time. Tragically, the demand for cotton played a role in the terrible practice of enslaving people in both the United States and many British-governed areas of the world.
How is Cotton Made?
Cotton requires a lot of care and water as it grows. A long time ago, farmers had to pick each boll by hand. Today, a cotton picker machine performs this task!
Another machine called a gin fluffs the fibers and separates them from any clinging seeds. The raw cotton gets cleaned, pressed, and shipped out to a manufacturer for further processing.
At this point, the cotton usually needs carding to form into loose strands of fibers ready for spinning. Following this, factory machines spin the fibers into large spools of thread called yarns. Manufacturers can use these spools of yarn to create many different kinds of cotton cloth, from jersey knit for t-shirts to the luxurious percale weave of fancy bedsheets.
Types of Cotton
The four kinds of cotton most used today are Pima, Egyptian, upland, and organic.
Upland cotton is what you might think of as the “cheap” version. It has the shortest staple or fiber. This means it twists into slightly rougher threads and does not make as soft material. The United States grows a lot of this variety, especially in Texas.
In contrast, Pima cotton has the longest, finest fibers! It is considered a luxury material and can cost quite a lot. It is native to certain South American countries.
Egyptian cotton is native to Egypt, of course, but it is actually the same plant as Pima cotton! Both types of luxury cotton have famously long, fine staples that make soft, supple, and strong material.
Finally, organic cotton just means that the cotton plants did not get treated with any pesticides and also were not genetically engineered.
What is the Difference Between Rayon and Cotton?
As you now know, the main difference between rayon and cotton is that rayon is partially man-made, while cotton has natural fibers grown by a plant. You’re probably wondering if this makes one fabric more comfortable than the other.
Well, rayon often feels cooler, so if you run hot, you might like this fabric more! On the other hand, cotton has the softness of natural fibers, so you might find it more comfortable if you have sensitive skin.
Take a look at this brief comparison of rayon and cotton’s primary characteristics.
StrengthCotton is stronger than rayon, though lots of factors can impact the strength of either fabric. For everyday use, such as t-shirts or dresses, either fabric holds up just fine. That said, you may want to consider the strength of the material for long-term use, even in clothing!
For example, rayon has good tensile strength while dry–in fact, it has many industrial uses, as well as its popular use as fabric! But when rayon gets wet, it has a low wet strength. This means it can easily shrink, stretch, warp, or even tear when exposed to moisture!
Cotton, on the other hand, can vary in strength depending on the length and quality of its staples. Higher-quality cotton tends to have much greater strength than low-quality cotton.
Cotton and rayon both get only a middle-grade score for durability. When you talk about the durability of the fabric, you typically mean how well it holds up to wear and tear over time.
Cotton has a tough cellular structure that does it give it pretty good durability. It will withstand years of washing without falling apart, for example. That said, cotton does stretch out, soften, and pill over time as well.
Rayon, on the other hand, has excellent wrinkle resistance, fade resistance, and will hold its shape forever. That is unless it gets exposed to the wrong kind of heat or moisture! Rayon requires some tricky care and cleaning and gets damaged very easily.
SoftnessCotton often gets praised as one of the softest of all types of fabric. Rayon has a shiny, silky surface that can feel lovely against your skin, but it doesn’t have the softness of an all-natural material like cotton.
What makes cotton so soft? Well, it has naturally soft, pliable, and absorbent fibers. On top of that, other factors like a higher thread count and longer, finer stapes can also impact the softness of cotton. This means that high-quality, expensive cotton will feel even softer than your average upland cotton!
Rayon feels softer than many fully synthetic materials such as polyester. It has a smooth, silky surface and a lightweight texture that allows it to drape elegantly, just like silk. That said, its chemically altered fibers don’t have the natural softness of fluffy cotton strands!
ElasticityCotton has much more natural elasticity than rayon, though manufacturers typically blend both fabrics with something more elastic to create a truly stretchy material.
Cotton fibers can have a natural ability to stretch 3 to 5 % of their length. Rayon fibers do not stretch at all on their own. Typically, manufacturers will blend these materials with a small amount of spandex to make them stretchy.
You can also find lots of clothes made out of knit cotton or knit rayon. For example, you can find jersey knit made from cotton in most t-shirts! This kind of knitted fabric has a lot of stretch because of the way the threads loop together.
As a final note, rayon can stretch quite a bit while wet because of its absorbent abilities.
Both cotton and rayon have great absorbency, though rayon is slightly better!
Cotton fibers can soak up some moisture on their own. The typical loose weave of cotton also leaves spaces between the threads that help to hold moisture. The downside here is that the material will hang onto that moisture for quite a while, meaning that it can feel damp and sticky for a long time after it gets wet.
Rayon has a surprisingly excellent ability to absorb moisture. Most synthetic fabrics have moisture resistance, but rayon sucks it right up! For this reason, you’ll sometimes see it used in lightweight athletic wear intended for hot weather.
Most of the time, rayon withstands pilling much better than cotton. That said, better-quality cotton will hold up for years without pilling, and rayon can pill if not treated properly.
As a pro tip, you can often prevent pilling on any material by turning your clothing cyanide out before washing it. Using a gentle cycle for your washing machine also slows down the agitating movement that can create pilling.
Finally, if you can take the time to air-dry your clothes, do it! Air-drying will prevent all kinds of potential issues such as pilling, shrinking, and wrinkling for both cotton and rayon.
Rayon has excellent resistance to wrinkling and cotton wrinkles super easily. Most synthetic fabrics can retain their shape, meaning that if you scrunch up a handful of rayon, it will quickly smooth back into its pre-scrunched state. Cotton, on the other hand, will hang onto that new, scrunched appearance!
Now, any fabric can acquire wrinkles under some circumstances. If you ball up a rayon dress and leave it in your suitcase for a week, you will find some wrinkles in it when you unpack!
Some types of cotton undergo chemical wrinkle-resistant treatments during the manufacturing process. While this does give you bedsheets that don’t require constant ironing, the process also creates a lot of pollution and also applies dangerous chemicals to products you plan to sleep on or wear.
You will find lots of disagreement on whether or not rayon or cotton is more sustainable.
Rayon can have a far more sustainable form of production than many synthetic fabrics depending on how it is made. That said, it can also cause deforestation, and its production does involve harmful chemicals that require careful disposal.
As an all-natural material and a renewable resource, you would think that cotton would have greater sustainability. But actually, cotton production does a lot of harm to the environment. It uses massive amounts of water, and the manufacturing process usually involves many chemicals for special fabric treatments.
Cotton is much easier to care for than rayon. Many rayon garments require drycleaning, while cotton can almost always go in the washer.
That said, cotton’s natural fibers do stretch, fade, and even pill over time. It does not have the durability of a synthetic material like polyester. Cotton made with a higher thread count will hold up much better than cotton with a cheap, loose weave.
Rayon gets weak when wet. This means that washing it could cause it to stretch out dramatically. Because of this, manufacturers often recommend drycleaning rayon to maintain its shiny, silky surface.
Rayon and cotton costs vary a lot based on the quality of the materials involved. For example, Egyptian cotton costs far more than upland cotton. Modal often costs a lot more than viscose rayon, though any type of rayon costs a lot less than silk!
These varying costs mean that you can’t easily say rayon costs more than cotton or vice versa. Yes, a rayon blouse probably costs more than a jersey-knit cotton t-shirt. On the other hand, cotton bedsheets almost always have a higher price tag than rayon bedsheets!
As a general rule of thumb, natural fabrics usually cost more than synthetic materials. However, rayon has such a unique semi-synthetic manufacturing process that it costs a lot to make.
The bottom line is that the cost of either type of cloth depends on the manufacturing process and the quality of material used in either fabric.
Cotton has greater versatility than rayon, but both materials also have many similar uses. Both rayon and cotton feature prominently in lightweight summer clothing. You can also find both types of material in hot-weather athletic wear.
Cotton has thousands of common uses in household items like towels and bedsheets. It also has many uses in other industries, such as in bandaging for medical purposes. Of course, cotton t-shirts remain one of the most popular types of clothing in the world, too!
Rayon has a shorter history than cotton by far, and it primarily sees use in the fashion industry. It serves as a cheaper substitute for silk and makes lovely, drapable clothes in many fun prints and designs. That said, it doesn’t have the huge reach or extreme versatility of cotton.
Pros and Cons of Rayon
The biggest advantage of rayon is that it looks like silk but costs a lot less. The biggest disadvantage is that it requires careful care and cleaning to prevent it from shrinking. You could also make an argument that rayon production is not environmentally sustainable, which is another disadvantage.
- Lightweight, silky-smooth, and very drapable. It feels softer and more comfortable against your skin than most fully synthetic materials.
- Cheaper to produce rayon than to manufacture silk, meaning that it can save you money!
- Available in thousands of fun prints and colors because it holds dye well.
- Able to hold its shape and resist wrinkling.
- Prone to stretching or shrinking when exposed to heat and moisture. This means most rayon garments require drycleaning.
- Made with a complex chemical process that literally “regenerates” its cells into another cellular form. While this process usually uses fewer chemicals than making a fully synthetic fabric like polyester, it can still harm the environment.
As a few added notes on the pros and cons of rayon, hair experts find that silky synthetic fabrics like rayon work great with hair! These slippery materials do not cause friction when your hair touches them, which causes less tactic electricity and generally keeps your hair in good shape.
On the downside, people with sensitive skin may find that they have an allergic reaction to rayon because of all the chemicals used in its production.
Pros and Cons of Cotton
Cotton has several big advantages over other fabrics, including its ultimate softness and renewable nature. Its biggest disadvantage is that it costs a lot to grow and process cotton and the harm it can cause to the environment.
- Extremely soft because of its all-natural, fluffy fibers. It can also have increased softness depending on the thread count of the material and the quality of cotton staples used in the threads.
- Versatile and used in everything from t-shirts to bedsheets to medical bandages.
- Super breathable because of its porous fibers and loose weave.
- Easy to care for, though, it does wrinkle easily and will soften and wear out over a long period of time.
- More expensive than most synthetic fabrics because it takes a lot of work to grow and process.
- Arguably harmful to the environment, because it uses so much water during its production.
What is Cotton Rayon Fabric?
A cotton-rayon fabric blend merges the silkiness of rayon with the softness of cotton. This makes something called a fabric blend. Manufacturers often do this, twisting two or three kinds of fibers together into yarns to make materials that combine the best qualities of multiple kinds of fabrics.
You will often see cotton and rayon blended with other materials, as well. Some types of rayon blend very well with spandex–modal is a great example of this!
Cotton often blends with polyester to create more cost-effective material or with spandex to create super-stretchy material for leggings and tank tops.
Is Rayon Good for Summer?
Rayon has fine, silky fibers that give it a lightweight weave perfect for wearing in summer. As a bonus, this material has a drapey, floaty quality that prevents it from sticking to you like a second skin when you get sweaty!
Because of this, you will often find rayon featured in summer blouses and dresses. Knit rayon also makes great hot-weather athletic wear like tank tops.
While rayon has a breathable and silky feel, it doesn’t provide a lot of moisture-wicking like polyester or nylon. For this reason, it might not manage huge amounts of sweat as well as fully synthetic materials.
Rayon does have good breathability because of its fine threads and absorbent fibers, but even so, it isn’t as breathable as cotton. If you like a light, airy fabric to wear in the heat, you may want to stick with cotton.
Rayon vs Cotton vs Polyester
Rayon, cotton, and polyester are all popular materials for clothing, but they all work better in some circumstances than in others. Comparing three different kinds of fabric ends up looking like comparing apples, oranges, and pears! Each kind has its unique strengths and weaknesses.
For example, rayon drapes much better than polyester. Polyester has much greater durability than either rayon or cotton. Polyester also costs much less than the other types of material. Cotton has amazing softness but costs a lot to produce.
You could easily keep going in circles while trying to choose the best fabric! Instead, take a look at this summary of each fabric’s key characteristics.
- Rayon has a silky texture that makes it perfect for fancy dresses and summer blouses. It easily gets damaged while wet, so it requires dry cleaning or special care. That said, it costs much less than real silk!
- Cotton has thousands of years of history as one of the softest fabrics ever made. It costs a lot to grow and produce, meaning that it usually has a higher price tag than synthetic fabrics. It does wear out more quickly than polyester, but high-quality cotton will last for years.
- Polyester comes from petroleum and is entirely man-made. It causes a lot of pollution concerns but dominates the clothing market around the world because of its low production cost. It has amazing strength and durability and allows for very easy care.
Popular Products Made from Rayon and Cotton
Rayon and cotton both have hundreds of popular uses in clothing, including in t-shirts, dresses, and blouses. That said, cotton has more versatility and remains more widely sold, though rayon has plenty of popularity of its own!
Cotton also has a broader reach in home goods and other industries like the medical field, while rayon mostly sticks to the fashion world.
Check out a couple of product reviews to give you an idea of the broad range of clothing made from these materials!
Casual Short Sleeve DressesThiscasual, loose summer dress comes in a total of thirty different colors and patterns! It has pockets, a crewneck, and a loosely gathered waist.
You could easily dress it up with heels for a night out or wear it with sandals and a floppy hat at the beach!
The material in this dress contains 95% rayon and 5% spandex. This means you get the silky, free feel of rayon, plus a little added stretch from the spandex!
Women’s 100% Cotton Short-Sleeve Crewneck T-ShirtEveryone needs a couple of basic, solid tees to pair with everything from leggings to heels and a blazer! Thispair of 100% cotton shirts have a loose, casual fit and a rounded crewneck. You can select from fourteen fun pairings of colors and designs.
Like most t-shirts, these shirts feature jersey-knit cotton fabric that has a springy, slightly stretchy feel.
The fabric feels lightweight but not thin or acid-washed, and will hold up well for machine washing!
Cotton comes from all-natural, renewable sources, while rayon comes from chemically regenerated wood pulp. Cotton’s claim to fame is its incredible softness, and rayon stands out as a silky, shiny silk substitute in the fashion world.
Cotton and rayon both make popular lightweight clothing such as t-shirts, dresses, and blouses. Cotton and rayon blended also make a perfect material for summer apparel!
Have you tried wearing both cotton and rayon? Which did you like better? Leave a comment below to let us know!