1. This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Fabric Friday: The origin and characteristics of rayon/viscose

Discussion in 'PUBLIC Workshops - specialty vintage topics' started by denisebrain, Oct 1, 2021.

  1. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    Anybody miss me last week? I was away at the beach and fabrics were not far from my mind because it was 70-something Fahrenheit one day (cotton!) and very gusty and 50-something the next (wool!).

    Two weeks ago we talked about the manufactured fiber timeline. As you may recall, rayon/viscose was the first of these.

    Rayon is a generic name for a group of fabrics made from cellulose. Cellulose is a structural component of plants. For the purpose of textile production, wood pulp from trees is the main source of cellulose. There are several different manufacturing processes, which yield rayon types called viscose, cuprammonium, high wet modulus (modal) and lyocell.

    Rayon was the first man-made fiber. One part of the process, the extraction of cellulose from the inner bark of a tree, was achieved by the Swiss chemist Georges Audemars in 1855. In 1884, Frenchman Hilaire de Chardonnet developed a nitrocellulose process for creating the fiber—a process which involved exposing cellulose to nitric acid. Nitrocellulose could then be extruded, through a tiny hole, as a filament fiber. The fiber was expensive and dangerous to make—as evidenced by the number of early factories that blew up processing the highly flammable nitrocellulose. This earliest incarnation of rayon was called Chardonnet silk. Some of the factory workers called it "mother-in-law silk"—I think you can guess why.
    I suspect Monsieur Chardonnet is smiling because he's made it to old age without being blown up by his own invention!

    The much safer cuprammonium process was developed by the Bemberg Company of Germany in 1890. In this process, cellulose from purified wood pulp is exposed to a solution of copper and ammonia (cuprammonium), converting the cellulose to a liquid form. After spinning and washing, the cellulose is regenerated into a filament form. This process yields a smooth, fine filament fiber. Bemberg Italy still makes this fiber, under the trademark name Bemberg. Cupro is the generic name often used for rayon produced by the cuprammonium method.​

    Screen Shot 2021-10-01 at 1.24.54 PM.png
    I feel cooler already! 1949 Bemberg rayon advertisement
    In 1892, the viscose process was patented in Britain by Charles Frederick Cross and his partners. Unlike cuprammonium, viscose rayon does not require lignin-free (purified wood pulp) cellulose, making it cheaper and more practical to produce. This process, which takes place in many stages, allows for more modifications to the fiber. Soon after its patent—and to this day—the viscose method has been the principal method used for making rayon.

    The viscose rayon fiber, first known as artificial silk, was in commercial production by 1905 in Britain. In 1909, because of high import tariffs, the British company Samuel Courtauld and Co. Ltd. obtained the rights to produce rayon using the viscose process in the United States. The first U.S. rayon plant, in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, was in business by 1910. Courtauld called this new venture the American Viscose Company.
    Screen Shot 2021-10-01 at 12.04.49 PM.png
    Courtauld UK plant, c.1910

    The multistage viscose process follows a progression that changes wood pulp into a viscose substance, then into a filament fiber. It is a very versatile process. Viscose rayon can be blended with any other fiber, and the finished textile can be soft and silky or sturdy and strong. It can have a dull or bright finish, and can be silken, linen-like or even wool-like. It takes dye well. Its clothing uses range from delicate lingerie to heavy coats. The 1930s saw the first use of staple fiber rayon, allowing rayon to not only emulate the silk that inspired it, but also cotton.​

    Sears advertisement from 1925

    The name rayon (“beam of light” in French) was first used in 1924 in the U.S., whereas viscose was used as the name of the process and the cellulosic liquid from which the rayon was made. In Europe, viscose was adopted as the name of the fabric itself (with the name rayon disappearing after the 1970s). The U.S. Federal Trade Commission now considers viscose an alternative name for rayon.

    Viscose rayon’s biggest practical weakness is its lack of strength when wet. High Wet Modulus (HWM) or modal rayon was developed in the 1950s; it is a variation of viscose rayon which makes for a stronger fiber.

    was developed starting in the late 1970s by Courtaulds Fibres UK, and first manufactured in 1987. It differs in production from viscose rayon in that the solvent is reused, reducing its environmental impact (a major problem with older rayon processes). Tencel was the first trade name used for the staple fiber lyocell in North America, dating from 1992. Lyocell is also spun into filament fibers for silk-like textiles.

    I haven't read it, but this looks like a very interesting read. Carbon disulfide, used in producing rayon, caused insanity in some workers:
    Rayon, an Epidemic of Insanity, and the Woman Who Fought to Expose It
    also: The Buried Story of Male Hysteria from The Atlantic

    Many of the American Viscose Company's closed plants have become Superfund pollution cleanup sites. You can see some haunting remnants of AVC's main plant, in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania.

    We vintage clothing people tend to love rayon (I know I do!) because many of our favorite fashion era's pieces are made of rayon. They hold their bright colors, feel cool and soft. Many can be washed. However I must say that I'm glad I don't have friends and neighbors working in rayon plants. The moral to this story: Wear vintage rayon. (Second best: invest in modern clothing made from Lyocell.)

    I'm hoping to go through fabrics made of rayon in a future post, but please ask about or comment on any of them now.

    Now I have a question for you too: I know rayon can feel cool to the touch, but what exactly is "cold rayon"?
    Last edited: Oct 8, 2021
  2. Metro Retro Vintage

    Metro Retro Vintage VFG Member

    I just read the "Rayon, An Epidemic ..." piece and it was very interesting. The "powder monkeys" and "canary house" terms as described, reminded me of the Radium Girls and their situation.

    Thank you, Maggie -- I'm going to read the next linked article now.
  3. Midge

    Midge Super Moderator Staff Member

    Interesting reading.

    I accompanied my mom to fabric shops endless times as a child - one lasting memory is that she always asked for "Bemberg" when she bought lining fabric.
  4. Vintagiality

    Vintagiality VFG Member

    denisebrain likes this.
  5. claireshaeffer

    claireshaeffer VFG Member

    Maggie, this is nicely explained. Thx
    denisebrain likes this.
  6. Vinclothes

    Vinclothes Alumni +

    I can identify rayon as a fiber quite well, but I am not sure what else to add. For example, I can identify rayon crepe, but what about the plain weaves? What is an example of a complete rayon fabric identification?
  7. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    Marian, that's a great question. I can put together the weaves that I know are used for rayon in a coming week.

Share This Page