Viscose, also known as Artificial Silk or Art Silk, is the most frequent form of rayon. Its production involves various chemicals, many of which are hazardous to the environment when discharged into waterways.
Rayon is a manufactured fibre that consists of regenerated cellulose derived from wood pulp, cotton linters, or bamboo. Rayon is soft, smooth, and cool to the touch. It is a relatively low-cost fabric that may be used to make a wide range of apparel items. Those items include blouses, dresses, jackets, carpets, and furniture.
While it originates from natural materials (wood), is it sustainable? What is it exactly, and what is its environmental impact?
What you will find here:
- A bit of history
- What is viscose?
- Viscose’s production process, how is it Made?
- Key characteristics, pros and cons
- Environmental impact. Is it sustainable?
- Difference between viscose and modal
- Difference between viscose and polyester
- How to care for viscose
- Some interesting reads on the topic
A bit of history
Viscose has been in use since the late 1800s. It has a fascinating history. Hilaire de Chardonnet, a French scientist and industrialist (1839-1924), is credited with inventing the first commercial viscose fibre as a less expensive alternative to silk.
However, the cloth was so combustible that it was quickly removed from circulation until the German Bemberg Company developed an improved process.
British scientists Charles Frederick Cross, Edward John Bevan, and Clayton Beadle invented the viscose rayon manufacturing process in 1892. Then in 1905, after their development, the first commercial viscose rayon went on sale.
What is viscose?
Viscose is a kind of rayon fabric that is produced from wood pulp. It’s often promoted as a more environmentally friendly option than cotton or polyester. That fabric is also popular in the fashion sector as a cost-effective and more durable substitute for silk, having the same drape and smooth feel as the luxury material.
Viscose is often used to make drapey summer dresses, skirts, soft vests, and synthetic velvet. But it’s not just in our clothes that it’s utilized; it’s also used in making upholstery, bedding, or carpets…
The term “viscose” refers to the solution of wood pulp that is processed into fabric.
Viscose’s production process, how is it Made?
Viscose’s versatility lies in the fact that it can be blended with different fabrics such as cotton and polyester to boost their benefits. As mentioned, it comes from wood cellulose that goes through several steps leading to the final product, viscose fabric.
Viscose rayon is derived from some of those trees and plants:
Five key steps of the viscose production process:
- The tree is transformed into a wood pulp, which is then dissolved using chemicals such as sodium hydroxide. It then forms a brown wood pulp solution.
- The pulp solution goes through a washing, cleaning and bleaching process.
- To produce the fibres, the material is treated with carbon disulfide and then dissolved in sodium hydroxide to form the “viscose” solution.
- The solution is pushed through a spinneret, a machine that makes cellulose strings known as regenerated cellulose.
- This regenerated cellulose is spun into yarn, which can then be woven or knit into viscose rayon fabric.
- The final fabric is obtained after the regenerated cellulose is spun into yarn that can then be woven or knit.
Key characteristics, pros and cons
Viscose is an excellent option if you’re looking for a lightweight material with a nice drape, a lustrous finish, and a soft feel. In addition, it is relatively inexpensive and can convey luxury for a much lower price point. It also blends well with other fibres like cotton, polyester, and spandex.
- Breathable. It’s a featherweight fabric that won’t cling to the body, making it perfect for summer wear.
- Lightweight. Viscose rayon is derived from natural resources and is extremely light and airy.
- Absorbent. Viscose fabric is an excellent choice for activewear since it is highly absorbent. It doesn’t retain heat, and it wicks away sweat effectively.
- Free-flowing. Because of its silky, flowing feel, it drapes nicely.
- Keeps Shape. Combined with spandex, it becomes a little more stretchy.
- Easy to dye. Viscose fabric has long-lasting colour. Despite many items of washing, it maintains its colour well.
- Hypoallergenic. It’s hypoallergenic since it has a low permeability.
- Soft. While the material looks like silk, it feels similar to cotton. It’s a more affordable option than silk.
- Fragile. They may break apart if you wash the delicate viscose rayon fibres in a washing machine.
- Easy to mark. Stains and marks are difficult to remove from this fabric.
- Shrinkable. Viscose fabric may shrink after each washing.
- Bad durability. Fabric quality degrades with exposure to direct sunlight.
- Age badly. Viscose fabric somewhat encourages the development of mildew.
Environmental impact. Is it sustainable?
As we mentioned, production generally begins with wood pulp. Unfortunately, this type of rayon is not inherently hazardous or polluting, even as a plant-based fibre.
For example, because of the fast fashion business’s reliance on synthetic fibres, a large percentage of today’s viscose is produced cheaply, using damaging processes for workers, local communities and the environment. Those processes rely on using lots of energy, large volumes of water and chemically intensive processes. Manufacturing that rayon ends up polluting and releasing many toxic chemicals into the air and waterways surrounding production plants.
Furthermore, because of its production process, viscose encourages the rapid depletion of the world’s forests, which are being cut down to make way for pulpwood plantations. Around 30% of rayon used in fashion is made from pulp sourced from ancient and endangered forests. This leads to habitat destruction, posing a significant risk to threatened species; it also frequently entails human rights infringements and land grabbing from indigenous communities.
Taking its sources from cellulose, viscose is considered a more environmentally-friendly fibre than other polyester alternatives, according to some. It is now being made using the Lyocell process, which involves utilizing N-Methlymorpholine N-oxide as the solvent. This technique generates minimal waste, making it much more eco-friendly than previous processes.
Difference between viscose and modal
Modal is mainly made from the beech tree, and though the production process is very similar to the one of viscose, it generates a fibre with slightly different properties.
Some key differences:
- Production. Modal is produced in the same manner as viscose, but the fibres are subjected to more significant treatment, resulting in a more robust, lighter, and more breathable end product.
- Durability. Modal is more durable and flexible.
- Strength. Modal is a “high wet modulus rayon,” which means it’s a kind of rayon that’s more robust when wet and doesn’t lose its form. When wet, modal has a greater fibre strength, making it simpler to wash and retain its shape.
- Sustainability. Because lower amounts of sodium hydroxide are employed to create modal, it is more environmentally friendly.
Difference between viscose and polyester
Viscose and polyester have a lot of similarities. But, at the same time, these materials have many differences.
They are both breathable, moisture-wicking, and non-stretchy fabrics. However, the most significant distinction between polyester and viscose is that polyester is a 100% synthetic fabric, whereas viscose is a semi-synthetic fabric, like cupro. Polyester is more versatile, whereas viscose is often used as a silk substitute.
Some key differences:
- Origins. Polyester is a synthetic fibre made from oil, while the other is semi-synthetic, made from plants but using chemicals.
- Breathability. Viscose’s plant-based fibres allow for more breathability than polyester, which is manufactured from synthetic chemical polymers. However, polyester can be treated to become more breathable.
- Durability. Viscose is not as long-lasting as polyester. Because plant fibres are used to make it, it can considerably shrink when washed and dried. Unfortunately, it wrinkles quickly as well. Polyester is the way to go if you want something that will last.
- Texture. Viscose is a smooth and soft fabric and usually has the consistency of silk. On the other hand, polyester can render many more different kinds of textures.
- Warmth. Polyester is a little warmer because it can be produced in various textures. Fleece, for example, is a warm polyester fabric, but not all types of polyester are necessarily warm.
- Moisture-Wicking. Polyester is the superior option if you’re looking to choose between polyester and viscose based on moisture-wicking capability. The plant-based material does absorb water more. Therefore, it may take longer to dry than polyester.
- Ease of Care. Because viscose shrinks more than polyester, it needs a little more attention. Polyester dries faster and does not wrinkle as much.
How to care for viscose
It is recommended to dry clean it. Sometimes spot treatments can lead to permanent stains. In addition, it can stretch and becomes much weaker when wet.
It is a delicate, absorbent textile that is relatively inelastic and highly susceptible to damage when wet. Carefully hand-wash the fabric in cold water to minimize dye bleeds if you must wash it. Then, use a mild detergent and massage it into the cloth. If stains have developed on viscose, use a mild detergent to gently massage the afflicted region for several minutes to avoid damaging the material.