Soft and lightweight, viscose fabric is a fixture of many wardrobes and homes and has been in use since the late 1800s. Viscose comes from trees, but it is not as environmentally friendly as other types of rayon, such as modal, because the production process uses high concentrations of chemicals. Viscose is cheap to produce and is a versatile fabric used for clothing items such as blouses, dresses, and jackets, and around the home in carpets and upholstery.
What Is Viscose And Where Did It Come From?
Perhaps you have heard of viscose, or maybe you know it better as Rayon. This is the term for viscose in the United States. But what actually is it? Viscose is a type of rayon. Originally known as artificial silk, in the late 19th century, the term “rayon” came into effect in 1924. The name “viscose” derived from the way this fibre is manufactured; a viscous organic liquid used to make both rayon and cellophane. What does this mean in English? Viscose is the generalised term for a regenerated manufactured fibre, made from cellulose, obtained by the viscose process.
As a manufactured regenerated cellulose fibre, it is neither truly natural (like cotton, wool or silk) nor truly synthetic (like nylon or polyester) – it falls somewhere in between. Viscose is a low-cost fabric, which is popular thanks to its myriad of qualities. It can be found in cotton end uses, as well as luxurious velvet and taffeta. Viscose can also be found in feminine hygiene products, as well as tire cords.
Chemically, viscose resembles cotton, but it can also take on many different qualities depending on how it is manufactured. So, what is this fibre of many faces? To really understand what viscose is, we need to understand how it is made and what it is made from.
The first artificial silk was Chardonnet silk, made with celluloid and invented by Hilaire de Chardonnet. This fabric had just one problem: it was highly flammable. In "Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century," Stephen Fenichell describes how, in about 1891, “a fashionable young lady’s ball gown, accidentally touched by her escort’s cigar, disappeared in a puff of smoke on the ballroom floor." It was taken off the market.
Then, in 1892, viscose was invented by Charles Cross and Edward Bevan. They treated cellulose with caustic soda and carbon bisulfite, which yielded a thick honey-like thick liquid with high viscosity that they imaginatively named viscose. They turned it into a solid plastic to compete with the flammable celluloid, but didn't have much luck making a fiber out of it.
In 1899, Charles Topham bought the rights to make fiber from viscose, but was also having trouble making it strong enough. Inspired by a spinning bicycle wheel, he developed the “Topham Box,” which spun at 3,000 RPM and flung out perfect viscose fibers. Within months, he was cranking out 12,000 pounds a day, and he soon licensed it to manufacturers around the world.
The term “viscose” refers to the viscous organic liquid which is regenerated into fibers for making the fabric. Viscose rayon is derived from cellulose, the main constituent of plant cell walls. Cellulose is treated with chemicals to make a fiber mimicking the qualities of natural fibers, such as silk and cotton. Viscose fabric often looks like silk and feels like cotton. Some of the common trees and plants from which viscose rayon is derived:
It’s neither a synthetic nor a natural fiber. Viscose is a semi-synthetic fiber because it’s derived from a natural source, but needs extensive processing using chemicals. It’s a manufactured fiber, originating in natural wood cellulose, or protein, while synthetic fibers are completely man-made. There are different ways of manufacturing these semi-synthetic fibers, often referred to as “regenerated cellulose.”
The term rayon refers to a group of smooth fibers made from regenerated cellulose. It was first developed in France in 1883 as a cheap alternative to silk. Later in 1924, this silk alternative textile was officially named rayon.
Viscose, modal, and lyocell are all rayon fibers. They all originate from wood pulp. The difference lies in the method of treating them, leading to structural variations in the fiber. Essentially, all rayon fibers are named after the process in which they are treated. So modal, lyocell, and viscose rayon are manufactured using the modal, lyocell, and viscose processes respectively.
Viscose is semi-synthetic, unlike cotton, which is made from a natural, organic material. Viscose is not as durable as cotton, but it’s also lighter and smoother in feel, which some people prefer over cotton. One is not necessarily better than the other, except when you’re talking about durability and longevity.
Viscose has a nice, silky feel, and it drapes nicely. That’s why it’s so popular for clothing. It does have a stretchy feel when it’s combined with spandex, but by itself, it is not a naturally stretchy material.
According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the average citizen in the United States throws away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles annually. Textile waste occupies nearly 5 percent of landfills. To minimize this problem, consider environment-friendly fabrics that don’t leave large carbon footprints. Since viscose is made from a renewable resource, it’s biodegradable, making it environment-friendly. However, its production process causes some negative environmental impacts.
Deforestation is a major environmental concern because wood cellulose is harvested by chopping trees. To tackle deforestation, major fashion brands are now working with viscose fabric manufacturers who source their wood cellulose from sustainably-grown forests. Sustainable growth allows for the continual use of a natural resource without depleting it or causing any environmental damage.
Sometimes, harmful chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide are found in air emissions around viscose manufacturing sites. To counteract this problem, some viscose fabric manufacturers use the lyocell process. It generates significantly fewer byproducts as environmental waste. Viscose manufactured through this process is called lyocell, another type of rayon, which is commonly used to make cooling bed sheets The process of manufacturing viscose requires a lot of water, depleting one of our natural resources. In terms of eco-friendliness, viscose fabric is better than synthetic fibers but not as good as all-natural fibers.
Because viscose is made from renewable plants, it is frequently cited as being environmentally friendly, and sustainable. But is this actually the case? Viscose is the oldest manufactured fibre, first being produced in 1883 as a cheap alternative to silk. Viscose production generally begins with wood pulp, and there are several chemical and manufacturing techniques to make it. This is where some controversy comes into play.
To create viscose, and make it stand up to regular wearing and washing, it must be chemically treated. The recycled wood pulp is treated with chemicals such as caustic soda, ammonia, acetone, and sulphuric acid. We therefore have a fabric, which comes from a natural and sustainable source, but that is made with chemicals.
Because viscose is made from cellulose, there is an argument to say that it is a more sustainable fibre then other synthetic fibres, such as polyester. Viscose is increasingly being manufactured using the Lyocell process. This uses N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide as the solvent. This method produces little waste products, making it far more eco-friendly.
While many consider the viscose and polyester to be similar, there are a lot of differences between the two materials. Both polyester and rayon are made from long fibers, but polyester is a synthetic fiber, whereas viscose is semi-synthetic, i.e. using natural fibers but chemicals in the process. Polyester is more moisture-wicking while viscose is more absorbent.
- Polyester dries faster and does not wrinkle as easily as viscose.
- Polyester is stronger and does not shrink.
- Viscose is more likely to pill, whereas polyester resists abrasion.
- Polyester is made from oil while viscose is made from plants.
Modal is what’s called a “high wet modulus rayon,” which means it’s a type of rayon that’s stronger when wet and doesn’t lose its shape, which is not true for viscose. The production process for modal is almost exactly the same as that for viscose, but the fibers used in modal undergo more processing which makes the final product stronger, lighter, and more breathable. Modal is more environmentally friendly than viscose because lower concentrations of sodium hydroxide are used to make it.
How Viscose Is Made?
Traditionally, cellulose can be derived from many different sources, from wood fiber to bamboo to seaweed. It is first broken down with caustic soda, also known as lye or sodium hydroxide. Then, it is treated with carbon disulfide and diluted with more caustic soda, which results in the viscous syrup that was the source of its name. This syrup is then pumped through tiny holes of the spinning shower into a bath of diluted sulfuric acid, sodium sulfate, and zinc sulfate, where it congeals into fibers of almost pure cellulose. Viscose is made from tree wood pulp, like beech, pine, and eucalyptus, but can also be made from bamboo. Viscose is semi-synthetic due to the many chemicals involved in the viscose process, like sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide. The viscose manufacturing process is summed up in five steps:
- The plant is chipped into a wood pulp and dissolved chemicals like sodium hydroxide, forming a brown wood pulp solution.
- This brown wood pulp is then washed, cleaned, and bleached.
- To create the fibers, the pulp is treated with carbon disulfide and then dissolved in sodium hydroxide to create the solution referred to as “viscose.”
- The viscose solution is forced through a spinneret, which is a machine that creates filaments, called regenerated cellulose.
- This regenerated cellulose is spun into yarn, which can then be woven or knit into viscose rayon fabric.
What Are The Characteristics Of Viscose?
Viscose is a great option if you’re looking for a lightweight material with a nice drape, a lustrous finish, and a soft feel. It is relatively inexpensive and can convey luxury for a much lower price point. It also blends well with other fibers like cotton, polyester, and spandex. Viscose has a myriad of brilliant qualities, which makes it a popular fibre to work with. Thanks to its characteristics, several industries use it to create a wide range of products. Some of the most beneficial characteristics of viscose include:
- Absorbent. Viscose rayon does not trap heat, but it also absorbs water and sweat nicely, making it great for t-shirts and athletic wear.
- Lightweight. Viscose is extremely airy, which makes it nice for blouses and summer dresses.
- Breathable. It’s a very light fabric that doesn’t stick to the body, so it’s optimal for warm weather clothing.
- Soft. While the material looks like silk, it feels like cotton.
- Maintains Shape. The fabric is not elastic but can be blended with other textiles, such as spandex, to add stretch.
- Dye fast. Viscose can hold dye without fading, even after long-term use and washes.
These all sound great, but there are some slightly less positive traits to viscose. However, none of these are particularly negative. A little care during wearing and washing, will make these traits obsolete.
- It can shrink when washed
- Can wrinkle easily
- Deteriorates with exposure to light
- Susceptible to mildew
- Fibres can weaken when wet
Fabric Care Guide: How To Care For Viscose?
Viscose clothing needs to be dry cleaned, and sometimes spot treatments can lead to permanent stains. It can stretch and becomes much weaker when wet. If you do opt to wash viscose, always hand wash in cold water to avoid any dye bleeds. Use a mild detergent and gently work it into the fabric. Do not wring or squeeze the item so as not to stretch it. Rinse and shake out the water and hang it or lay it flat to dry.
Environmental Considerations In Viscose Fabric Production
When considering sustainability, viscose is not an environmentally friendly option, due to water waste in the production process, saturation of chemicals, and destruction of local ecosystems. Here are some things to consider before choosing to purchase viscose:
While the wood to make viscose can be sustainably harvested, it often does not come from sustainably-grown forests, wiping out large natural forests and negatively impacting local ecosystems.
The production of viscose uses a high concentration of toxic chemicals that pollute the air and water. Sulfur, nitrous oxides, carbon, disulfide, and hydrogen sulfide are found in air emissions around viscose manufacturing sites. Although the chemicals can be reused across the production cycle, it is not a perfect process, and production for other types of rayon, like modal, tencel, and lyocell, are cleaner.
Viscose production uses a lot of water, both in watering the trees and in the process of turning those trees into fabric. Viscose is biodegradable and made from a renewable resource, however, though the environmental impact of producing viscose is still high.
Viscose: A Misunderstood Fabric?
When a fabric is not labelled as “natural” then consumers can judge it harshly, without any true understanding of the fabric. Viscose is probably the most misunderstood of all fibres, manmade or natural. It is not a natural fibre, but nor is it synthetic. In regards to the use of chemicals in the production of viscose, as fabric technology advances, many manufacturers are making considerable and positive efforts to ensure clean production. As we continue to strive for a green-friendly world, increasing work is being put into the sustainability of fibres such as viscose.
Viscose has many desirable qualities, which makes it a wonderful fibre to work with in many ways. Because of its unique versatility, many industries use viscose, from fashion, to the medical profession, to everyday items in the home.
Viscose is a multi-faceted fabric with many advantages. However, its production process may lead to a negative environmental impact. To address this concern, many manufacturers are gradually shifting to eco-friendly, closed-loop lyocell manufacturing processes.