As part of the fashion revolution month celebrations Sustainability in Style has been introducing you to eco-ethical-sustainable fashion labels and getting you familiar with what your clothing is made of! So far we have looked at Cotton and Merino Wool but todays post looks at another very popular fabric Rayon.

Viscose/Rayon: What are they and is there a difference between the two 

Rayon is a manufactured fibre that come from regenerated cellulose fibres (usually wood pulp but it can vary) that are put through a series of chemical processes to go from tree to soluble compound and through a spinneret to be made into usable fibre.  The process of turning a plant cellulose to fibre is a rather technical one that involves a series of steps all of which are explained by the video below.

Rayon is a fibre that goes by many names depending on the exact manufacturing process that it goes through and can be purchased as Viscose (a very commonly used fabric in fashion at the moment sometimes sold as Viscose Rayon), Modal and Lyocell (A.K.A Tencel).

The Eco Downfalls of Rayon

Within the three Rayon fibre selection types (an evolution of rayon over the years) there are goodies and the not-so-goodies.

  • Viscose Rayon

The production of viscose rayon can be chemically damaging and energy intensive. Firstly depending on the source of the cellulose fibre there can be issues associated with the use of farming land or cleaning of old growth forests to plant crops to be utilised for rayon fibre production. However this is not the case with all types of Rayon, Bamboo Viscose is better in this aspect as bamboo can be grown on land that is not suited for forestry, making it a more environmentally friendly and ethical option (as long as no farms or old growth forests were cleared for it’s growth).

According to data from the Natural Resources Defences council viscose rayon can be up to twice as energy and GHG intensive  than cotton. The process of transforming the cellulose into fibre also requires the use of solvents, some of which can be toxic to both to humans and the environment (a common solvent used is Carbon disulfide of which you can read about it’s nasty impacts here ). In addition to this the process of creating the fibres (as you may have seen above) requires large amounts of water however this can be less than the overall impact of other fibre’s such as cotton.

  • Modal Rayon

Modal is an evolution of viscose rayon which is made from Beech trees. Modal has a very high strength when wet in comparison to the traditional viscose rayon, which gives it greater longevity and the ability to survive a machine wash. Originally developed and named by Lenzing, Modal has been known to be harvested from sustainably managed Beech tree plantations. However, it can’t always be certain of the origins of the modal in the garments you are purchasing unless specifically stated by the manufacturer. Also, depending on the way in which the fibre is produced and the manufacturer itself, the process may still include the use of harmful solvents.

  • Lyocell

Lyocell is one of the ‘new kids on the block’ (hey 90’s references are OK for 90’s fabrics) in the land of rayons. It has a little higher eco-cred than the other two in that the production process uses more environmentally friendly solvents and that the manufacturing system is closed loop (up to 99.8% solvent recovery). Being the most sustainable of all Rayon fibre types Lyocell does have one little concern for some. The fabric uses Nanofibrils a nano fibre technology, so those who aren’t keen on nanotechnology due to it’s newness and the lack of long term product testing may want to give this a miss. Depending on the cellulose used for Lyocell this fabric can be quite a sustainable option, particularly if well managed bamboo plantations are utilised for it’s production.

Why Wear Rayon? 

If you choose to purchase Rayon garments you might want to do so for the following reasons.

  • Even though the fibres are manufactured rather than ‘natural’ all types of Rayon are comfortable and breathable to wear.
  • Rayon is SUPER soft! Depenind on how the fibre is used Rayon has been quoted as being as ‘soft as silk’. I personally have owned many viscose, Modal and Lyocell items and worked for companies that manufacture with these fibres and can vouch for their extreme comfort levels.
  • Modal and Lyocell are even more absorbent than cotton which means that they are excellent at drawing moisture away from the body.
  • Rayons resist the odour retention longer than cotton does. Meaning more wears before washing and less washing is always an eco bonus!
  • Rayons break down naturally (PLEASE SEE EDITORS NOTE BELOW) meaning that when you are done with your item they will return to a natural and non-polluting state. It also has the potential to be reused and remanufactured as long as it is 100% cellulose (blends make it trickier).
  • Modal and Lyocell wash and wear well. They retain shape nicely and are easy to care for. Viscose Rayon can be hit and miss. I own a few item made from this fibre and have had some horrible experiences with shrinkage in the washing process. Keep Viscose away from the spin cycle to avoid any mishaps.

Purchasing Considerations 

The best option when purchasing Rayon is to look for items that use a closed loop system for manufacturing. Lyocell is the best bet as far as this is concerned. When buying bamboo items ask questions to find out if the bamboo fabric was made using the traditional viscose rayon process or the Lyocell closed loop system. Keep in mind that Viscose isn’t as long lasting as tougher Rayon options like Modal. I can personally vouch for this in my experience in the clothing industry. I worked for quite some time as a production assistant for a Modal lifestyle clothing company. Many of the modal items I have own have lasted for 8+ years. This is a stark contrast to the cheaper fast fashion items I was required to purchase while working retail sales. Most of these items were rendered unfit for wear within 5-10 washes. Sometimes one wash would be enough to cause shrinkage or seam slippage. Viscose is also prone to spot wearing usually as pill-balls or just fabric thinning from overuse.

Rayon: My personal Verdict

I do love a good dose of Rayon! It can be wonderful to wear in all three of it’s evolutionary states. My personal favourite is Modal as it really feels luxurious and is super tough. Some of my basic tees are modal and have lasted five or more years of weekly washing and still look quite good for their age. Viscose is a touchy subject for me as I have had some bad experiences with shrinkage, seam slippage, and pilling. However when done right it can be beautiful and lasts quit well as long as you are kind to it during both wash (hand-wash is best) and wear.

Lyocell is a scary concept for as it flashes me back to the 90’s when it was first invented and ‘tencel’ (another name  for Lyocell) jeans were ‘all the rage’. Silky smooth flowing jeans was not a good look for poor old Lyocell. Fortunately I have forgiven it for it’s not-so-stylish beginnings and would happily embrace it in my closet (there might already be some in there I will have to do a closer analysis).

Editors Note: December 4th 2017- Hi guys! I know quite a few people are finding their way here to this archive article on Rayon. It should be noted that while studies have found rayon to be biodegradable in soil tests there are new studies something through that show that it’s become a bit of a nuisance for micro fibre water pollution. If you choose to buy, wash and wear Rayon/Viscose/Lyocell and want to be on the safe side for water pollution  you might want to invest in a wash bag

Do you have any thoughts you would like to share on Rayon?

Perhaps a favourite rayon item that you own?

Shout it loud and proud in the comments section below.


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