What is Viscose? Understanding this Popular Rayon Type

By Sanchita Sen
Last Updated On February 15th, 2021

Viscose is a semi-synthetic material used in clothes, upholstery and other bedding materials. It’s derived from wood pulp, which is treated and spun into yarns to make fabric. The soft,…

What is Viscose? Understanding this Popular Rayon Type

Viscose is a semi-synthetic material used in clothes, upholstery and other bedding materials. It’s derived from wood pulp, which is treated and spun into yarns to make fabric. The soft, lustrous and lightweight viscose fabric drapes perfectly.

What is Viscose?

Viscose is a manufactured fiber made from natural materials. It’s one of the three types of rayon: modal, lyocell, and viscose. Each is treated differently and made into fabrics with different properties.

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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:

  • Beech
  • Pine
  • Spruce
  • Hemlock
  • Eucalyptus
  • Bamboo
  • Soy
  • Sugarcane

Viscose Production Process

Viscose was first manufactured in 1883 as an affordable alternative to natural silk. This versatile fabric, often known as artificial silk, is found in jacket linings, t-shirts, activewear, fashionable dresses, and tunics. Its versatility lies in the fact that it can be blended with different fabrics such as cotton and polyester to boost their benefits. The wood cellulose goes through several steps leading to the final product, viscose fabric.

Here we break down the process of viscose production in 10 steps:

  1. Wood chips are dissolved in chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, making brownish wood pulp.
  2. This wood pulp containing the cellulose is then dissolved in caustic soda, turning it into an alkali solution. The process removes all impurities from the solution, making it a clean raw material for the fabric.
  3. The alkali solution is pressed between rollers, eliminating excess liquid, forming pressed sheets.
  4. These pressed sheets are then shredded into crumbs.
  5. Crumbs are treated with carbon disulfide.
  6. The treated crumbs are dissolved in chemicals such as sulfuric acid, creating the viscous solution. The “viscose” fabric or the viscose process of manufacturing rayon owes its name to this viscous solution.
  7. The viscous solution is filtered to remove any undissolved element
  8. Next is degassing, required to eliminate bubbles of air trapped in the solution that may cause weak spots in the fiber.
  9. The solution is then forced through a spinneret, a machine making filaments (slender thread-like fiber) of regenerated cellulose.
  10. The regenerated cellulose fibers are then spun into yarns to be woven or knit into viscose fabric.

Is Viscose Environment-Friendly?

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.

Pros and Cons of Viscose Rayon

Viscose fabric looks luxurious, but it isn’t expensive. Its soft feel and silk-like sheen make viscose rayon popular. However, there are certain disadvantages to this fabric, making it difficult to care for.

ProsCons
Viscose rayon is very breathable, making it a cool fabric for stylish summer wear.The delicate viscose rayon fibers may break apart if you wash them in the washing machine.
The super absorbent nature of viscose fabric makes it a convenient option for activewear. It doesn’t trap heat and wicks away sweat too. Viscose fabric may shrink with every wash.
Viscose fabric has excellent color retention. It can hold dye for a long time despite numerous washes.Fabric quality deteriorates with exposure to bright sunlight.
The free-flowing, silk-like feel of viscose causes it to drape well.Spot cleaning is recommended for this fabric, but it’s still very difficult to remove stains and marks from this fabric.
Viscose fabric isn’t elastic, but it can be blended with spandex for some extra stretch.Viscose fabric is susceptible to mildew.
Originating from natural resources, viscose rayon is very light and airy.
It’s an affordable alternative to silk.
Its low permeability makes it hypoallergenic.

Other Types of Rayon

Viscose, lyocell, and modal are all rayon fibers originating from wood cellulose. The difference between the three is how they are processed.

Viscose and modal share many similarities because their manufacturing processes are very similar. The chemicals added at each stage of production are almost the same. Unlike viscose fibers, the modal fibers are stretched after the spinning stage. Stretching makes them finer, lighter, and longer than viscose fibers.

Lyocell is also derived from the same wood cellulose as viscose and modal, but its production process is more eco-friendly. Instead of sodium hydroxide (also known as caustic soda), a non-toxic organic compound named N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMMO), is used in lyocell production. This organic solvent can be easily filtered and re-used in an eco-friendly closed-loop system. The lyocell manufacturing process reduces harmful byproducts.

Uses of Viscose Rayon

Viscose rayon has numerous benefits, making it a convenient option for many utility products. It’s commonly used for making clothes, window drapes, cooling sheets, mattress flame retardants, mattress protectors, and cellophane.

Clothes

Viscose fabric’s silky feel makes dresses look classy, without having to pay for original silk. Viscose rayon is also used to make synthetic velvet, which is a cheaper alternative to velvet made with natural fibers.

The look and feel of viscose fabric is suitable for both formal or casual wear. It’s lightweight, airy, and breathable, perfect for blouses, t-shirts, and casual dresses.

Viscose is super absorbent, making this fabric suitable for activewear. Moreover, viscose fabric retains color well, so it’s easy to find it in almost any hue.

Window Drapes

The silk-like feel of viscose makes it an excellent material for curtains. The flowy fabric drapes over your windows, enhancing the beauty of your room.

Cooling Sheets

Bamboo or eucalyptus cellulose treated using N-Methylmorphine N-oxide is commonly used for making cooling sheets. Though technically known as lyocell, these fibers are a type of rayon. Since many viscose manufacturers are now adopting the environment-friendly lyocell process, the lines between viscose and lyocell are getting blurred. The lightweight, soft, smooth, and breathable properties of this rayon make it a lucrative option for sleepers who struggle with body heat buildup.

Mattress Flame Retardants

Viscose rayon is blended with silica for making mattresses flame retardant. Though there have been concerns about exposing silica directly to the skin, the issue is tackled by infusing silica into rayon and then placing the mixture inside the mattress cover. Direct skin contact with silica may trigger skin irritation or breathing problems.

Cellulose in rayon is flammable. However, integrating silica into viscose causes the rayon to form into bead-like structures under high temperatures. These structures block flames. Using rayon infused with silica is a better alternative than using toxic chemicals as mattress flame retardants.

Mattress Protector

Viscose

All forms of rayons are good at absorbing water, so they are often blended with polyester and cotton to make mattress protectors. Rayon’s super absorbent properties boost the waterproofing feature in mattress protectors.

Cellophane

The transparent sheets used to package food are made using regenerated cellulose. Because of its low permeability to air, water, and bacteria, viscose is a good option for food packaging.

Caring for Viscose Rayon

Washing viscose rayon fabric, especially in older washing machines may spoil the fibers making the material rough. It’s best to hand wash any rayon fabric in cold water with mild detergent. Some lyocell rayon fabrics may be machine washed on a delicate cycle.

Wringing or squeezing viscose rayon may damage its fibers, spoiling the look and feel of the fabric. You may line dry the fabric, but it’s best to avoid direct sunlight.

Viscose Rayon vs. Silk

Viscose rayon imitates many qualities of silk, which is why this fabric is commonly known as artificial silk. Semi-synthetic viscose fabric and natural silk fabric share certain features, but they are also different in some aspects.

FeaturesViscose RayonSilk
TextureSmooth, soft, and silkySmooth and soft
AffordabilityLess expensive than silkMuch more expensive than viscose-rayon
BreathabilityVery airy and breathableBreathable, but not as much as viscose-rayon
LusterHas a sheenMore shiny and refracts light at an angle
Eco-friendlinessNot as eco-friendly as the natural fiber, silkSince it’s a natural fiber, it’s eco-friendly
Fabric CareHandwashing is considered best; avoid exposure to sunlight when drying
Dry-cleaning is recommended; avoid exposure to sunlight when air-drying

Viscose Rayon vs. Cotton

Though viscose rayon is popularly called artificial silk, this fabric feels more like cotton. Both the fabrics feel comfortable, which is why they are commonly used in the clothing and bedding industries. Here are some similarities and differences between the two types of fabric.

FeaturesViscose RayonCotton
TextureSmooth, soft, and silkySmooth, and crisp; gets softer with every wash
OriginWood cellulose is treated with chemicals to make this semi-synthetic fabricAll-natural cotton fibers are used to make this natural fabric
BreathabilityCool and breathable, and also wicks away moistureCool and breathable, but doesn’t wick moisture
AvailabilityNot as availableCommon
VersalityVersatile fabric, blends well with other materialsEqually versatile and blends well with different materials
Fabric CareHandwashing is recommended, some may be machine washed in a gentle cycleEasily machine washable, unless specifically instructed otherwise in the care label

Our Amerisleep Rayon and Cotton Products

We have both rayon and cotton sheets, which are soft, breathable, and airy. Both are comfortable for hot sleepers; however, rayon goes one step further as it wicks moisture away. On the other hand, cotton sheets are more affordable because cotton is produced more extensively.

Our Amerisleep Rayon Sheets

Our rayon cooling sheets are manufactured using lyocell, commonly known by its brand name Tencel®. We use eucalyptus cellulose from sustainable farms in our Tencel® Sheets. Our cooling sheets come with a Smartsheet system to prevent bunching and wrinkling.

Prices of our Rayon Sheets

These sheet sets include 1 fitted sheet, with 18 inches deep pocket, 1 oversized flat sheet, and 2 pillowcases. They are available in two neutral shades: pearl and dove.

SizePrice
Twin$155
Twin XL$190
Full$215
Queen$230
King$275
California King$275
Split King$315

Our Amerisleep Cotton Sheets

Our Amerisleep Cotton Sheets are made with long-staple cotton fibers for enhanced smoothness and durability. The tight percale weave of fabric reduces pilling, a problem common to cotton sheets.

Prices of our Cotton Sheets

Our sheets are available in all standard sizes, including the rare split king option.

SizePrice
Twin$110
Twin XL$120
Full$130
Queen$150
King$170
California King$170
Split King$180

Viscose Rayon vs Polyester

Viscose rayon and polyester have long fibers, but each comes from different sources. Viscose rayon comes from natural materials and is a more eco-friendly option than polyester, a synthetic fabric. Here are some of the similarities and differences between these two fabrics:

FeaturesViscose RayonPolyester
OriginDerived from natural wood cellulose, which is chemically treated leading to this semi-synthetic fiberDerived from petroleum oil, which is chemically treated leading to this synthetic fiber
WrinklingMay wrinkle more than polyesterDoesn’t wrinkle as viscose-rayon
Resistance to PillingViscose rayon is more likely to pill than polyesterPolyester is less likely to pill than viscose-rayon
Moisture-wickingViscose rayon is absorbent, but not as moisture-wicking as polyesterPolyester is more moisture-wicking than viscose-rayon

Viscose Rayon vs Modal Rayon

Both viscose rayon and modal originate from wood cellulose, and they also go through a very similar manufacturing process. However, they are slightly different from each other.

FactorsViscose RayonModal Rayon
BreathabilityLess breathable than modal rayonModal rayon fibers are stretched to make finer, stronger, and more breathable fabrics
Eco-friendlinessNot very eco-friendlyMore eco-friendly than viscose rayon because of the lower concentration of sodium hydroxide used in the manufacturing process

FAQs

Is viscose a synthetic or natural fabric?

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.”

What is rayon?

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.

What is the difference between viscose, modal, and lyocell?

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.

Is viscose better than cotton?

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.

Is viscose fabric stretchy?

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.

Conclusion

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.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.


About the author

Sanchita Sen is a full-time writer focusing on the sleep health and mattress industry. She is a former journalist who has written numerous articles on the healthcare sector. Some of the topics she has covered include how to lucid dream, fever dreams, melatonin for sleep, and best gel memory foam mattress. Sanchita holds a Master of Arts in Communications from Convergence Institute of Mass Media and Information Technology Studies. She is also a published author, who seeks inspiration from both real life and the world of fiction.

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