They have some cute viscose fabric at my local store. I’m tempted to use some in my next project. The only thing is, I’m not sure what viscose fabric can be used for. It looks a lot like silk, but is it the same? What is viscose fabric?
Viscose fabric is a semi-synthetic material derived from cellulose. Introduced as a cheaper alternative to silk, it has a similar feel and drape. Made from woody plants like bamboo and pine, viscose is a mixture of wood pulp and chemicals. Better known as rayon, the fabric is popular for summer wear.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at viscose fabric and how it compares to other materials. You will discover the characteristics, pros, and cons of this popular textile.
- What Is Viscose Fabric?
- What Is Viscose Made Of?
- How Is Viscose Fabric Made?
- What Does Viscose Feel Like?
- Is Viscose Stretchy?
- Viscose Fabric Properties
- Viscose: Pros and Cons
- Viscose vs Polyester vs Cotton: Which Is Better?
- Viscose Fabric Uses
- Is Viscose Good for Summer?
- Is Viscose a Sustainable Fabric?
- How to Care For Viscose Fabric
What Is Viscose Fabric?
Viscose is a lightweight fabric with the look and feel of silk. Introduced back in the 1880s, viscose was hailed as a cheap alternative to silk, making luxurious clothing affordable to the masses. Up until that point, the decadence of silk was reserved for the rich and royalty.
Its popularity was initially short-lived, however. Early viscose fabrics were highly flammable and removed from the market until improvements were made. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that viscose came back. It was this comeback that saw the material get a name change.
Viscose wasn’t seen to be a particularly attractive name. So a new name was introduced. Today viscose is also known as rayon or rayon viscose.
The fabric is derived from plant matter. Unlike cotton or linen, it doesn’t come from the seeds of plants but rather the cellulose found within the plant stems or stalks. Or in the case of viscose, the woody parts of trees and bamboo.
Although it comes from plants, viscose isn’t considered a natural product. To make the wood pulp soft enough to use as a fabric, it is treated with chemicals. This fact prohibits viscose from being classed as a natural fiber. Instead, adding chemicals puts viscose, or rayon, in a hybrid class of its own.
All viscose and rayon fabrics are known as semi-synthetics. Not totally man-made but not completely natural, these materials have the qualities and some of the disadvantages of both natural and synthetic materials.
There are three types of rayon. The best-known version is rayon viscose or viscose. Other members of the rayon family include Lyocell and Modal. While they are all derived from wood pulp, they have different production processes, giving the different variations slightly different properties, making them suitable for different uses.
Model fibers are lighter and tend to be used in outerwear and home décor. Lyocell is treated with an organic substance rather than chemicals, giving it a more ecological footprint. Viscose, however, looks like silk but has the feel of cotton.
It’s not easy to tell the three types apart. You’ll have to refer to your care label to find out which one you are dealing with. However, you may find your fabric is identified by the more generic heading of rayon.
What Is Viscose Made Of?
Viscose is a semi-synthetic material made from the cellulose of wood pulp. Popular trees used to make viscose include beech, bamboo, pine, spruce, and sugarcane. You can also find viscose made from eucalyptus.
The wood pulp is treated with chemicals to soften it up. One such chemical is sodium hydroxide. Another is carbon disulfide. It’s the addition of the chemicals that give viscose its semi-synthetic classification.
Once softened, the wood pulp becomes a viscous solution that can be turned into fibers. It’s this solution that gives the material its name. Viscose is an amalgamation of the terms viscous and cellulose.
How Is Viscose Fabric Made?
There are several steps in the production of viscose fabric. Although it’s a relatively straightforward process, it can be labor-intensive and heavy on the use of resources.
The first step is to collect the wood pulp from either bamboo, pine, or any other woody plant. This is done by chopping down the plant or tree and chipping it into little pieces.
These pieces are added to a solution of sodium hydroxide and dissolved into a woody pulp-like mush. The next step is to clean and bleach the pulp.
Once bleached, the fibers are treated with another chemical called carbon disulfide. The mixture is then dissolved in some more sodium hydroxide to create a syrup-like viscous solution.
This solution is forced through a spinneret to create filaments of regenerated cellulose. The final stage is to weave these filaments or fibers into a yarn. It’s this viscose yarn that is either knitted or woven into a viscose fabric.
What Does Viscose Feel Like?
Viscose is a bit of a hybrid in more ways than one. Being plant-based, it can have the same feel as cotton. But it looks more like silk.
The fabric’s duality is what gives it some unique characteristics. Combine the appearance of silk’s sophisticated luxury with the super softness of cotton, and you get a romantic, flowy fabric that oozes comfort.
When you add the moisture-absorbing qualities of cotton to the quick-drying properties of synthetic fiber, you get a fabric that does more than feeling cool against your skin. It keeps you cool as the water dissipates and the fabric dries around you.
Viscose can also feel rough, particularly if it has become wet. Although viscose is super absorbent, it doesn’t really like water. Viscose fibers are easily damaged by moisture. When they dry, the fabric can feel as rough as cardboard. All rigid and stiff. A bit like a line-dried bath towel left out in the sun too long.
Is Viscose Stretchy?
Viscose can be a little bit stretchy depending on whether it’s a woven or knitted fabric. Knitted fabrics are naturally stretchy up to a point. So a knitted rayon will have a bit of stretch.
Woven fabrics aren’t normally stretchy. A woven viscose will have a little bit of ease along the width, thanks to the weave. But, it’s nowhere near as flexible as a knit viscose.
If you want your woven rayon to have a bit of stretch, look for garments with added elastane. You probably know elastane better under the brand names of lycra or spandex. When added as part of the weaving process, a touch of lycra gives the fabric a higher level of ease, making it more comfortable to wear.
It’s still not going to be the same level of stretch you can get in a knit fabric. Nor is it comparable to the stretch needed for sportswear. But then rayon wasn’t designed to be super stretchy.
It was introduced as a cheap imitation of silk fabric. Silk is known for its soft, sensual drape rather than as a fabric for figure-hugging outfits. It’s not a textile usually associated with activewear or support wear, so it doesn’t need that much stretch.
As viscose is silk’s doppelganger, it needs to behave and feel like a silk fabric. This means rayon fabrics don’t necessarily need that much stretch, either.
Viscose Fabric Properties
Being part synthetic and part natural fiber, viscose has inherited some characteristics from both sides. Let’s take a look at some of the properties of viscose in more detail.
Unlike its fully synthetic cousins, viscose is a breathable fabric. Its natural fiber content allows viscose to absorb water. By removing moisture from your body, viscose can help you cool down in warmer temperatures.
This breathability makes viscose or rayon more comfortable to wear than polyester. There is a limit to its capacity to breathe, though.
While cotton and linen can suck up moisture like sponges, viscose is hampered by its synthetic side. Rather than soak up water, viscose is drapey enough to allow moisture to evaporate through the gap between your fabric and your skin.
Rayon’s issues start when it gets wet, which happens when it’s exposed to a lot of moisture. Its fibers can only absorb so much before they become saturated.
When the fabric can take no more, its breathability factor becomes compromised and stops working, leaving you feeling as hot and sweaty as you would in a polyester garment. This inconsistency makes viscose a bit unpredictable on the breathability scale. Because of this, you shouldn’t use this fabric for baby clothes.
You might be surprised to learn that rayon fibers have commercial uses. They can be used to reinforce fabrics and to make tire cords. Viscose material has a plastic side and, just like polyester, can be incredibly strong.
The strength of viscose lies in the production process. This can change depending on the end product the viscose solution is being made for. Clothing grade rayon was designed to imitate silk. So it’s delicate with an excellent drape. As such, it can’t be used to make tire cords.
Although viscose clothing can be durable enough to withstand regular wearing, it can’t take rough treatment. Nor can it survive too much exposure to water. A viscose textile will lose integrity and durability when it’s wet. Any scrubbing, spinning, or twisting of the viscose fibers will damage them.
It’s also a fabric prone to pilling and can rip and tear easily. Rayon viscose is not a fabric you should use if you want durable and hard-working. This fabric is better suited to delicate romance or a night out at the opera.
Viscose and drape go together like macaroni and cheese. It’s the perfect material for a sensual summer dress with a drapey silhouette.
One of the reasons viscose is so popular is its ability to drape exceedingly well. With a lightweight feel and silky-smooth texture, rayon viscose moves with a delicate flowing motion. It seems to float around your body, leaving you feeling ethereal and feminine.
It’s not just great for dresses and summer blouses either. The delicate drape of viscose can add a hint of romantic mystery to bedroom drapes, particularly if they are on a canopy bed.
Moths, Mildew, and Mold
Being a hybrid fabric, viscose has characteristics in common with natural and synthetic fibers. Sometimes the synthetic side of rayon viscose overrules the natural and vice versa, giving the fabric the best of both.
For instance, the synthetic content in rayon makes it impervious to moths. They don’t like it and are repelled by it. This is a trait viscose fabrics have in common with polyester and nylon materials.
Unfortunately, that trait is a bit bitter-sweet. While nylon and polyester are also immune to mold and mildew, rayon viscose isn’t. When it comes to mold and mildew, viscose tunes into its natural side.
Following in the footsteps of cotton, viscose attracts mold like a bee to a honey pot. The bad news is that viscose is harder to clean than cotton, so getting rid of mildew damage isn’t easy.
Cheaper than cotton but more expensive than polyester, viscose bridges the gap between two of the most popular fabrics in the garment industry. As an alternative to cotton, it can fill the need for summer wear at a budget-friendly cost. Yet, it can outshine polyester by adding a hint of luxury to affordable fashion.
The actual price you pay for viscose fabric depends on where you purchase it from. It also depends on the quality of the viscose. A high-quality rayon fabric from a place like Mood will set you back more than a low-quality viscose from a less well-known outlet.
Viscose: Pros and Cons
Viscose is a popular fabric with a multitude of uses. However, it does have some characteristics that determine what the textile is best suited for. Although viscose can feel like cotton, it has much more in common with silk. That’s a key fact to remember.
Designed to be a silk substitute, it mimics the properties of its natural cousin. Just like silk, viscose can be durable, yet it can also be delicate.
Unlike cotton, viscose isn’t the right choice for the clothing worn for manual labor. It’s too delicate for that and will rip easily. But, like silk, it is durable enough for elegant bedsheets and drapes.
Knowing the material’s pros and cons will help determine if it’s the right fabric for your project. I’ve put together a table so you can compare the main advantages and disadvantages.
- Immune to static build-up
- Soft and comfortable to wear
- Easy to dye and retains color well
- Cool in warm climates
- Absorbs moisture
- Excellent drape
- Cheaper alternative to silk
- Dries quickly
- Shrinks when washed
- Can stretch out of shape
- Wrinkles easily
- Not resistant to mildew or mold
- Extremely fragile when wet
- Sunlight can make the fabric deteriorate
- Stains are difficult to remove
- Not very ecological
- Tendency to pill
Viscose vs Polyester vs Cotton: Which Is Better?
Viscose is a bit of a hybrid fabric. Made from chemically altered wood pulp, it is neither natural nor man-made. It’s a semi-synthetic which gives it a foot in both the natural fiber camp and the synthetic one.
Is this a good thing? Does it make viscose a better fabric than its synthetic or natural counterparts? To find that out, we need to compare viscose against two of its closest rivals. One is 100% natural and the other is a fully synthetic material.
In the synthetic corner, we have polyester. Although it has played a large part in the clothing industry since the 1970s, polyester has a reputation for feeling like plastic next to the skin. This isn’t surprising because that is exactly what it is.
Derived from petroleum, polyester is a type of plastic. The best-known form of polyester is Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). You’ll find PET in plastic water bottles.
These days, polyester tends to be blended with natural fibers. This combination gives the wearer the comfort of a natural material with the wrinkle and stain resistance of polyester. It also counteracts the clinical coldness found in many synthetic fabrics.
Representing natural fiber, we have cotton. One of the oldest of all clothing fibers, cotton has been a firm favorite for generations. Available in a range of weights and thicknesses, there is a cotton weave suitable for most climates.
Soft next to the skin yet incredibly durable, cotton’s adaptability makes it the go-to fabric for many different clothing types. From a stretchy t-shirt to your favorite blue jeans.
In the following table, the properties of viscose, polyester, and cotton are listed side by side. This will help you see how they fare against each other. More importantly, you’ll see at a glance which fiber is the easiest to care for and which one is less likely to break you out in hives.
|Absorbency||Very Absorbent||Water resistant||Very Absorbent|
Dry clean only or delicate hand wash
Do not use a dryer
Cool machine wash and air dry naturally
|Can withstand some heat
Machine or hand wash
air dry or use a dryer
|Durability When Wet||Damages easily when wet||Very durable||Gets stronger the wetter it gets|
|Durability When Dry||Durable||Very durable||Very durable|
|Feel||Smooth and soft|
Feels like cotton but looks like silk
|Smooth and cold|
Can feel like plastic
|Can be smooth and soft, or rough depending on the weave and weight|
|Fiber Content||Cellulose from wood pulp||Man made material derived from oil||Flax from the cotton plant|
Can cause skin irritation
Can cause skin irritation
Suitable sensitive skin
|Stains||Not easy to remove||Stain resistant||Relatively easy to remove depending on the type of stain|
|Shrinking||Shrinks on the first wash and subsequent washes||Does not shrink||Shrinks the most on the first wash|
|Wrinkles||Wrinkles easily||Does not wrinkle||Wrinkles easily but can be ironed on a hot setting|
Comparing a semi-synthetic against a synthetic and natural fiber is slightly unfair to the fabrics. Each one was introduced for a specific purpose. Their characteristics make them better suited to some projects and not so great for others.
Polyester is the perfect material for outerwear, particularly waterproof coats, and can even help keep you warm when used as an outer layer like a fleece jacket.
You wouldn’t want it next to your skin, though. It’s a fabric that needs to be layered over the top of something like cotton. Otherwise, the wind will blow straight through on cold days and warm weather will make you feel hot and clammy.
Cotton is hypoallergenic and extremely breathable, making it the safest choice for baby wear and clothing for toddlers. It can be used as underwear, outerwear, and every layer in between.
Depending on the weave and weight of the cotton fabric, you can use it for a summer blouse or a pair of canvas work pants. A versatile and immensely popular fabric, it’s little wonder this one has been around for eons.
Viscose is durable yet delicate. Perfect for a light summer dress with plenty of drape, it can keep you cool when the temperature rises. Also known as rayon, viscose can be almost as adaptable as cotton.
It’s not able to withstand the rough stuff, though. A viscose fabric won’t last long on a construction site. This material is best suited to the dainty side of life. Posh frocks for summer parties are right up rayon’s street.
Viscose Fabric UsesViscose tends to be used as a generic term for any fiber made from a cellulose solution. In much the same way as rayon does. They are both terms for a multi-functional fiber that can be used for a whole host of items. All you need to watch for is you match the right type of rayon to the project you want to make.
Take modal fibers, for instance. These are longer, lighter and finer than regular viscose. This makes them more resilient to water and a lot more durable. You can find modal rayon in outdoor wear and home décor fabrics.
Modal fiber viscose is also commonly used in a commercial setting. It’s this type of rayon that gets used in tire cords and as a reinforcement agent for fabric.
Regular rayon is the type used in general apparel. This is the one that has excellent drape and is ideal for cool and airy blouses and dresses. With much in common with cotton and polyester fabrics, regular viscose can be used for many of the same apparel projects.
Is Viscose Good for Summer?Usually, yes, viscose is good for summer. But, sometimes, the answer is no, not really. It’s all down to your climate and the weather extremes in your area.
Viscose is a good fabric for summer wear because it is breathable, lightweight and drapes away from the body. All those characteristics make it an ideal textile for when the temperatures are climbing. The hotter it gets, the more you’ll sweat. That perspiration gets soaked up by viscose.
Under normal circumstances, the drape of a viscose garment allows air to move freely between the clothing and your skin. Moisture evaporates and you feel cool. Viscose is quick-drying, so this is a win-win for summer wear.
Unfortunately, viscose can become saturated with moisture all too quickly. If the temperature is too high, or there has been a sudden summer downpour, viscose stops being able to either soak up moisture or allow it to evaporate.
This means moisture accumulates next to your skin, making you feel hot and clammy. As there is too much water in this scenario, viscose can’t dry out. Leaving you wearing a soggy blouse in the mid-summer heat.
Viscose is a good summer fabric. But be careful when you wear it. If your humidity levels are rising as high as the temperature, you might find your viscose ends up feeling more like polyester.
Is Viscose a Sustainable Fabric?
You would think that the wood pulp base of a viscose fabric makes it sustainable. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Although you can get more ecological versions, like lyocell, for instance, viscose doesn’t score highly on the sustainable scale.
There are a couple of reasons for this. The main one is the collection of the base material. The wood used in the making of viscose can come from several places. You can use pine trees, beech trees, spruce trees and eucalyptus trees, to name but a few.
Which is where the problems start. Not all the trees that can be used to make viscose are harvested from sustainable forests. The production of viscose can add to deforestation issues around the globe.
Not even viscose made from bamboo can claim environmentally friendly credentials. Production of viscose, regardless of where the wood pulp comes from, uses a large amount of water. It’s a highly resource-intensive procedure.
Putting the natural resources of wood and water use to one side, the next issue with viscose is the chemicals used in the manufacturing process. Although Lyocell uses an organic compound to turn the wood pulp into a viscous solution, other rayons use toxic chemicals.
These chemicals include caustic soda and carbon disulfide. These can pollute the air and water and produce toxic emissions in areas close to viscose manufacturing plants.
There is some good news, though. Processes used to make viscose are slowly improving. With breakthroughs in technology and production methods, the fabric’s ecological footprint will also improve.
How to Care For Viscose Fabric
One of the main drawbacks of viscose is also one of its main benefits. It’s a light and flowy material with the delicate feel of silk. That delicate nature might make the fabric a pleasure to wear, but it also makes it a difficult fabric to care for.
You can avoid damaging your rayon garment if you take extra care in the laundry room. The key with viscose is to treat it as though it is silk and not just a cheap imitation.
Before you attempt to clean your garment, always check the care label. You’ll find it inside your viscose clothing, either close to the collar or attached to one of the seams near the hemline.
Follow the care instructions carefully and as specified by the garment manufacturer. They make lots of clothes using viscose and will know the best and safest ways to care for the fabric.
You’ll notice that most of the time, rayon garments are dry clean only. There is a very good reason for this. Viscose shrinks and wrinkles. Not only that, but the wrinkles can be hard to remove. Particularly as viscose doesn’t like hot irons.
Viscose is also incredibly susceptible to damage when it’s wet. Just like silk, the fibers in viscose can become weak, causing the fabric to rip or tear. Even with the softest of twists and turns. Because of this, you should avoid the washing machine if you have to wash your rayon fabrics.
Washing machines, even on a delicate cycle, can ruin a viscose garment simply because they are too rough.
There is an exception to this. As Lyocell is made using a different technique, it is slightly stronger. However, you have to be certain your rayon is lyocell before plunging it into your machine.
Although dry cleaning viscose fabric is the safest method, you can hand wash your garment if you take care. Keep the water temperature to cool or hand hot and don’t wring the excess moisture out of the garment. Avoid any kind of scrunching or twisting as this will damage the fabric.
Never put your viscose in the dryer! Always air dry rayon, either outside on a clothesline or on a hanger indoors. Dryers can be as rough as washing machines and they can also get too hot.
If you need to iron your viscose, use the cool setting on your iron. A silk setting is ideal. But, use a pressing cloth in between the iron and your delicate viscose, just in case.
Viscose is a summer-weight fabric ideal for drapey blouses and dresses. A mixture of wood pulp and chemicals, viscose has synthetic and natural elements. Making the fabric your answer to affordable chic fashion with the look of silk.
Have you added viscose clothing to your wardrobe? Do you like wearing it? Has this article helped you decide whether it’s the right fabric for your next project? Let me know in the comments.