Rayon, viscose, modal, lyocell—these are all words you’ve probably seen on garment tags in the store or your closet. But what is rayon fabric? Is it a plant fiber, an animal fiber, or something synthetic like polyester or elastane?
Rayon fabric is a material made from wood pulp. Manufacturers treat the pulp with a series of chemicals to change the structure of the cellulose into long filaments. The resulting threads make soft, buttery fabric that mimics the feel of silk or cotton at a fraction of the cost.
Since its invention, rayon fabric has found its way into all corners of the textile industry. From athletic wear to summer bed sheets, rayon is a versatile, breathable fabric. This guide will tell you more about how it’s made and why it’s become a staple fabric.
What Is Rayon Fabric?
Rayon fabric is a semi-synthetic fabric usually made out of the chemically treated wood pulp. It’s synthetic because of the chemical processing even though the raw materials are plant matter, called cellulose.
Many manufacturers use rayon fabrics for inexpensive clothing because it is cheap to produce and shares many of the qualities that natural fibers have. The processing also lets manufacturers manipulate these qualities so that the finished fabric more closely resembles a specific fabric.
For example, the earliest rayon fabric was supposed to mimic silk to help save the floundering silk industry in 1860s France. Diseased silkworms created a shortage, so French scientist Hilaire de Chardonnet set out to find a way to make the fabric another way. His discovery is the first known rayon.
Since then, others have adjusted and improved on Chardonnet’s processes. Now, rayon can imitate the look and feel of cotton and linen, not just silk.
What Is Rayon Made of?
The primary ingredient in rayon is plant fiber or cellulose. All plants have cellulose, and you can make rayon from a wide variety of plant materials. Wood pulp is the preferred material from a variety of trees. Spruce, hemlock, beechwood, and bamboo are common choices for rayon.
Agricultural by-products, like wood chips, tree bark, and other plant matter, are also a frequent source of rayon cellulose. The ready availability of these by-products helps keep rayon affordable.
Cotton linter is another common rayon material. Any pieces of the plant that are leftover after processing cotton to make cotton products can be linter. These cellulose bits are the good source material for rayon.
The chemical processing that turns the plant material into fabric doesn’t actually change the fiber content. At the cellular level, rayon is still plant cellulose. The processing changes the structure of the material and makes it usable, but it is ultimately still plant pulp.
How Is Rayon Made?
There are many production methods for rayon to get various thicknesses and textures, but the basic principles are the same.
First, the manufacturer purifies the raw plant material and presses it into sheets. Then they cook these sheets in a caustic soda. The cooking process turns the raw material into something called alkali cellulose.
Once it’s dry, manufacturers crumble the alkali cellulose into tiny pieces and let the pieces age in large metal drums for several days. Then they bathe the aged crumbs in a liquid, usually carbon disulfide.
This liquid mixture gets another caustic soda treatment. The result is a thick, gooey solution that looks and feels similar to honey. The viscous property of this solution is where the term viscose (a type of rayon) comes from.
Next, the manufacturer pushes the viscous liquid through a machine called a spinneret into an acid bath. The spinneret makes the cellulose liquid into thin filaments and the acid bath helps the filaments keep their shape. Even though the filaments have gone through several chemical processes when they dry, they’re just plant cellulose in a different structure.
After they’re dry, the manufacturer can spin the filaments into yarn and then weave or knit it into the fabric. Some manufacturers treat the filaments with other chemicals to prevent things like shrinkage or wrinkles.
Each manufacturer has its own proprietary methods. Some even blend other fibers like cotton or linen with the rayon during the treatment process to harness properties from the other natural fibers.
Types of Rayon FabricThere are three common types of rayon: viscose, lyocell, and modal. The primary differences between them are the raw material they come from and which chemicals the manufacturer uses to break down and reshape the cellulose.
Viscose is the earliest and most common method for rayon production in the United States. It originated in England in 1894 but was popular in America by 1910. Eventually, the term viscose was replaced with the word rayon in the U.S., but the production method remained the same.
Viscose is the weakest type of rayon, especially when wet. It loses shape and elasticity faster than other rayon fabrics, so it’s often a dry-clean-only fabric.
Lyocell is the result of a newer rayon-production method. It started in the United States in 1972. It’s less common than viscose because it is more expensive than viscose processing. It uses a similar process to dissolve cellulose and restructure it as fiber. However, it doesn’t use carbon disulfide.
The lyocell process is more environmentally friendly than the viscose process. However, because it is more expensive, the viscose method is still more common.
Modal is the third type of rayon. It is the most expensive type of rayon. Modal uses the viscose production method, but the filaments are smaller than other rayon, making the finished fabric softer and more luxurious. This method originated in 1950s Japan.
The other aspect that makes modal stand out is that it uses exclusively beech trees for cellulose. Beech trees don’t need as much water as other trees, so using them for pulp is more sustainable than some other sources.
What Does Rayon Fabric Feel Like?Rayon is a soft, smooth fabric. It has the next-to-skin softness of high-quality cotton with additional silkiness.
The fabric is incredibly flexible, which contributes to the silky quality. The smoothness comes from the processing. The chemical treatments lengthen the individual fibers, so the fabric lies flat and has an even texture.
It’s also lightweight and breathable, so it moves easily. The flowy movement and softness make it a good choice for fabrics with high contact with your skin, like undergarments and athletic wear.
Characteristics of Rayon
The benefit of being a semi-synthetic fabric is that rayon has characteristics from both natural and man-made fabrics. Over time, manufacturers have adjusted their techniques to maximize the good qualities without raising production expenses too high.
Like most fabrics, rayon isn’t suitable for everything. There are some characteristics where it doesn’t compare well to natural fabrics or other synthetics. Understanding all of rayon’s characteristics will help you know when it’s best to use it and when to avoid it.
Rayon is not particularly durable. It is highly absorbent but also very weak when it is wet. Wet rayon can easily stretch out of shape or warp. Over time, it will also lose its elasticity, especially if you machine-wash it.
Too much sunlight can also damage rayon, weakening the fibers. However, there are some chemical treatments that can strengthen rayon against both water and light damage to extend its life.
Rayon is incredibly breathable. Because it has the same cellular structure as many natural fibers, it has similar breathability as cotton. The fibers let air pass easily between them without trapping it. This means it won’t retain heat, including your body heat.
Most rayon has a smooth texture. It has the same “watery” texture like silk, which gives it a pronounced drape. It hangs in a flowy, fluid manner and doesn’t hold shape by itself.
The longer and thinner the individual threads in a piece of rayon fabric, the smoother the finished product will be. Modal rayon has the longest thread filaments, which is why it is the smoothest type of rayon.
Rayon is not a warm fabric. The breathability and thinness mean it doesn’t retain your body heat, nor does it block wind or cold air. It isn’t a good insulator, either. It’s best for warm-weather clothing and textiles.
Rayon is an incredibly wrinkly fabric. It absorbs moisture easily, and the moisture weakens the fabric and causes it to lose its shape. Wrinkle-resistance treatments and rayon blends solve this problem, but 100% rayon garments without any treatment are very wrinkle-prone.
Heat shrinks rayon very easily, especially if the fabric is already damp. Most rayon is hand-wash/line dry or dry clean only to avoid this. There are also chemical treatments and pre-shrinking techniques manufacturers can use to reduce the risk of shrinkage.
Rayon absorbs moisture very easily and effectively. It can wick moisture away from your skin and then let it evaporate, which makes it a good summertime fabric. It’s more absorbent than cotton.
It is weakest when it is wet, however. Be mindful of stretching or wringing wet rayon, which can damage the fiber and leave you with a misshapen garment.
Since rayon is primarily wood pulp, it is unsurprisingly very flammable. The only fabrics that are more flammable are natural plant fibers such as cotton and linen.
However, most rayon gets a flame-retardant treatment during the manufacturing process. Pajamas and children’s clothing generally get this treatment to significantly reduce the garments’ flammability.
It is cheaper to manufacture rayon than to process most natural fibers. The harvesting step in the process is significantly less expensive than it is for cotton or linen as the plant material is easier to collect. This is especially true for rayon that comes from agricultural by-products.
Even the pricer types of rayon, modal and lyocell, are cheaper to produce than 100% cotton. Inexpensive production is what made rayon into its own industry after the silk shortage that inspired its invention ended.
What Is Rayon Fabric Used For?Rayon has wide usage, especially in the clothing and textile industry. Whether on its own or blended with other fibers, rayon is a common choice for:
- Athletic Clothing
- Loose blouses or pants
- Some upholstery
Because it is cheaper to process than cotton but shares similar qualities, some manufacturers use rayon blended with cotton to reduce costs. You can find rayon blends in everything from casual wear to formal apparel.
Aside from fabric, rayon filaments are also useful for cellophane, tire cords, conveyor belts, and even sausage casings. The rayon that doesn’t become fabric goes through separate processing after it reaches the filament stage, so you won’t have much luck trying to sew a t-shirt out of sausage casings.
Advantages of Rayon
Rayon’s greatest advantages are its versatility and cost. It blends well with other fibers, reducing the cost of clothing without sacrificing a luxurious, high-end feel. It can easily replace both cotton and silk for a fraction of the cost.
The absorbent fibers also mean it dyes well. You can find rayon in a wide variety of vibrant colors, which increases its versatility. That same absorbency also makes the fabric breathable and moisture-wicking, which can make athletic clothing more comfortable.
Finally, most of its weaknesses are easily solved. There are treatments for wrinkles, flammability, and shrinking that can turn rayon into a more hard-wearing, durable material.
Disadvantages of Rayon Fabric
The primary disadvantages of rayon fabric are that it is tricky to care for and is easy to damage. Water and heat are both bad for rayon. Machine washing or drying it can leave you with wrinkled, shrunken, misshapen garments.
You also need to be careful line-drying it as excessive sunlight can degrade the fibers. A lot of rayon is dry-clean-only to extend the life of the fabric. However, blending rayon with other fibers can reduce or eliminate these problems.
Rayon is also a very flammable fabric. However, it is no more flammable than other plant-based materials. Manufacturers often treat rayon for flame resistance, like many modern fabrics.
Is Rayon Sustainable?
In short, rayon is not sustainable. Even when the wood pulp comes from a sustainable source, the chemicals that transform the pulp into fiber are harmful to the environment. Carbon disulfide is particularly bad.
Exposure to carbon disulfide can contaminate drinking water and cause nervous system damage. The carbon disulfide doesn’t stay in the fabric after production, but it can harm workers and leak into the environment during production.
Lyocell rayon is less harmful to the environment because it doesn’t use carbon disulfide. It does use other chemicals, however, including caustic soda. Caustic soda can alter the pH of water, which can contaminate drinking water sources.
However, rayon is biodegradable in many instances. The cellulose that makes up the fabric is more biodegradable than cotton is. That’s not to say that you can compost your old rayon clothes, but unlike polyester, rayon will not live forever in a landfill.
How Does Rayon Compare to Cotton?
Cotton and rayon have similar qualities: they are lightweight and breathable and incredibly soft. Manufacturers frequently blend the two fibers because they mimic each other so well in terms of weight and texture.
There are important differences in the fabrics, however. Cotton is a more durable fabric. It isn’t nearly as fragile when it gets wet, and it retains its shape better. It is also slower to fade, so it will withstand more sun exposure than rayon.
Cotton is generally more expensive to manufacture than rayon. The crop is more water-intensive than the beechwood trees that produce most rayon. While there are fewer chemical processes required to take cotton from a plant to a fabric, the processes are more expensive for largely the same result.
How to Care for Rayon Fabric
Rayon fabric should always get delicate treatment. Never heat-dry your rayon garments, and use caution when you machine-wash them. Rayon garments will last longer if you handwash or dry clean them. If you choose to machine wash them, always use a gentle cycle and cool water.
Line-drying your rayon items will help you avoid wrinkling. When you use a clothesline, make sure to hang rayon items in a shady spot. You can also lay them flat on a drying rack.
When it does wrinkle, you can iron rayon with low heat. Do not use steam, and always iron on the wrong side of the fabric. A pressing cloth or other protective material will help you avoid scorching the delicate fabric, too.
Tips for Sewing with Rayon Fabric
The slippery quality that makes rayon so soft also makes it tricky to sew with. The smooth surface easily slides against itself, so pins and pattern weights are crucial to success in rayon projects.
Make sure to pre-wash your fabric before you cut it out. Rayon is prone to shrinkage, so this step will save you heartache later. When it’s dry, pin your pattern or weigh it down thoroughly and cut out your pieces with a rotary cutter rather than straight scissors. This will give you cleaner lines.
Pins will also be critical for seams and any mending or alterations you do with rayon. Even if you press all your seams before you sew them, rayon is liable to slip around and give you uneven lines unless you pin them securely first.
Use a very sharp, small needle like a 65/9 when you’re working with rayon. The thinness of the fabric means a large or dull needle could leave visible holes or snags. Smaller stitches will also help you avoid these issues.
Whether you love it or hate it, rayon is a huge part of the garment industry. Its silky texture and affordable production make it popular with commercial manufacturers and home sewists alike. It’s an easy way to add a touch of luxury to a project without breaking the bank.
What’s your favorite garment to sew with rayon? Let me know in the comments what your favorite use for this fabric is!