Many sewists would agree that viscose (also known as rayon) is one of the dream fabrics to sew with. It’s ease of handling, price point and of course, beautiful draping qualities make it a highly desirable fabric amongst many sewists as well as many ready to wear brands.
This fabric is however not without controversy and there are various issues around sustainability that many people might not be aware of.
Rayon/viscose is one of the oldest manufactured fibres, first produced in the 1880s where is was used as a cheaper alternative to silk and initially known as ‘artificial silk’. The name “viscose” is derived from the way this fibre is manufactured; a viscous organic liquid is used to make the textile. This means that viscose is the general term used for fibre manufactured using this process. Rayon and viscose are often used interchangeably.
How it’s made
Viscose is not categorised as a natural fibre fabric however it is not entirely synthetic either. The raw material of viscose is cellulose. Cellulose is the main component from cell walls and various plants including soy, bamboo and sugar cane can be used. The wood pulp is then treated with chemicals such as caustic soda and carbon disulphide allowing it to be spun into fine rayon thread. The chemical process required to create rayon fibres is the reason that viscose is not considered an entitrely natural fibre.
Sustainability concerns around the production and use of viscose are numerous. The manufacturing process releases toxic chemicals into the air and waterways, risking polluting fertile farmland and oceans. There are also concerns about the environmental impact leading to health risks to factory workers and communities who live near viscose factories.
Furthermore, the production of viscose is contributing to the rapid depletion of the worlds forests which are being cleared away to make space for pulpwood plantations. It is estimated that around 30% of viscose fashion is made from pulp sourced from endangered and ancient forests. This leads to habitat destruction, threat to endangered animal species and human rights violations where land is being grabbed from Indigenous communities.
How you can source ethical viscose/rayon?
There is much work going on to create more ethical and environmentally friendly rayon production.
Tencel Lyocell is rayon produced in a slightly different way to regular rayon. It uses a closed loop system which means both solvents and water are reused and recycled. For more detail, the Tencel website is extremely informative.
EcoVero produce rayon from only certified and controlled wood sources. It is produced using significantly lower fossil energy and water than generic viscose. More detailed information can be found via their website.
Why we love it
Rayon is a highly desirable fabric both in industry fashion and for home sewists. It is lightweight with beautiful drape, soft and smooth on the skin and breathable. Due to it’s ability to be easily dyed, it is available in many, many beautiful patterns- another highly sought after feature.
Many garments made of viscose are labelled dry-clean only. This is because viscose fibres can be damaged by the wringing and twisting action associated with machine washing. For more expensive or structured items, it is best to stick with the label recommendations. However dry-cleaning your everyday items can is costly and inefficient so for unstructured items such as dresses, top, scarves etc, gently hand-washing in cool water and mild detergent is sufficient. Remember not to wring and twist the wet garment but rather gently squeeze the fabric to remove excess water before hanging or laying flat to dry.