What Is Rayon Made Of And How Easy Is It To Work With?

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Rayon is a light, breathable fabric most commonly used as a silk substitute. Rayon is plant-derived, so some describe it as a natural material. On the other hand, because of the intense processing of that material, others consider rayon to be synthetic. What is rayon made of? Is it eco-friendly? And, most importantly, how do you care for it?

What is Rayon Made Of?

pink-viscose-rayon

Rayon is made from cellulose. Cellulose is derived from the fibre of different types of plants. Your rayon may come from one kind of plant, or from a mixture of plant fibres and other materials. Some examples of plant material that goes into rayon include:

  • Bamboo
  • Wood pulp
  • Agricultural byproducts
  • Cotton waste
  • Oranges

How is Rayon Made? 

Different types of rayon are made through slightly different processes. But here are the basics.

First, rayon manufacturers turn the plant fibre into pulp. Next, they treat the pulp with chemicals to break it down into a cellulose solution. Then they push this viscous material through a spinneret, which extrudes the pulp into fibres. After extrusion, the fibres go into another chemical bath. 

Finally, the fibres are spun into the thread that will be woven into rayon cloth.

You can watch the entire process here.

Different Kinds of Rayon

There are several different types of rayon.

Viscose is made using the viscose process [1]. The most common fibres used in viscose rayon are wood and bamboo. Viscose rayon has a wide variety of uses, from clothing to industry to cosmetic products like wipes.

Modal is made from reconstituted cellulose from beech trees. Most often, it appears in fabrics combined with cotton or Spandex. Modal is primarily used in clothing.

Lyocell is made using a process called dry jet-wet spinning. Its primary use is as a cotton substitute in clothing. It also appears in medical dressings, conveyor belts, and some types of paper. Much, but not all Lyocell is made from bamboo.

Tencel is a type of Lyocell.

Cupro (also called Bemberg) is produced using copper and ammonia.

What is Rayon Used For? 

This versatile material appears in a wide range of household and industrial products that many people use every day:

Clothing

Rayon began as a silk substitute. But it substitutes for cotton, as well. It also stands on its own.

Silk Substitute

In 1855, Frenchman Georges Audemars created the first artificial silk through a process called nitrification [2]. He called the result “rayon.” 

Almost 30 years later, in 1884, Hilaire de Charbonnet, the Comte de Chardonnet, created “Chardonnay silk” through a similar process. 

Finally, ten years after that, in 1894, Charles Frederick Cross, Edward John Bevan, and Clayton Beadle patented their version, viscose

Cotton Substitute

Rayon and cotton share some characteristics. Both are soft and breathable. In addition, both hold color well. On top of that, some rayon is even made from cotton fibres. Most importantly, though, rayon is less expensive than cotton.

For these reasons, rayon is a popular cotton substitute in clothing manufacture.

Yarn and Thread

Yarn manufacturers make both all-rayon yarn and yarn that’s a mixture of rayon and other materials like wool. You might find rayon yarn and thread marketed as viscose, linen viscose, or even vegan silk.

Bedding and Housewares

Rayon’s soft texture, breathability, and moisture-wicking properties make it a popular fabric for sheets, pillowcases, blankets, and bedspreads.

Upholstery

Although rayon isn’t durable enough to use for upholstery on its own, when blended with stronger fibres, it adds softness. Rayon blends are a popular upholstery fabric.

Carpeting

Viscose rayon is soft and holds dye well. For this reason, it’s a popular material for decorative area rugs.

Medical Uses

You’ll find rayon used in medical dressings and medical tape, as well as in “cotton” balls, wipes, and cosmetic swabs.

Tyre Cords

Rayon has been used to make tyre cords since 1935.

What is Rayon Material Like?

Because of its use as a silk substitute, you can probably guess that rayon is a light fabric with a soft texture. Some of its other properties include:

A natural shine that comes from extrusion. This shine can vary in appearance and intensity. Some types of rayon look different when seen from different angles or in a different light.

Rayon is both breathable and heat conducting. This makes it ideal for use in clothing for warm, and even humid climates.

It’s absorbency and moisture wicking ability make rayon a natural for cosmetic and medical use, as well as for bedding and housewares.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Rayon

There’s a lot to be said for this revolutionary fabric, but it’s not perfect for every use. Moreover, its unique qualities give it unique drawbacks.

Advantages

Rayon is an incredibly versatile fabric with a wide range of industrial and home uses.

It accepts dye very well and has a natural shine.

Rayon is highly absorbent. At the same time, it’s moisture-wicking. This makes it an excellent material for warm weather clothing.

Rayon is also naturally mildew-resistant

And, interestingly, rayon doesn’t gather static electricity.

Disadvantages

Rayon isn’t very strong. It’s less resilient than either cotton or silk, and it doesn’t resist abrasion very well.

Water weakens rayon. Most rayon items are recommended for hand-wash only.

Rayon is prone to shrinking, sagging, and wrinkling. The edges also ravel easily.

Rayon is heat-conducting, which means that heat passes through it easily. This makes it a good fabric for warm weather, but a poor fabric for cold weather.

Unfortunately rayon doesn’t hold its shape well

How Easy is Rayon to Sew?

Do you know how to sew rayon? It can be difficult.

Rayon can be slippery. It can shift and slide around. Also, pins and needles can leave their mark.

However, the largest issue by far with sewing rayon is the material’s difficulty holding its shape. Fortunately, there are a number of tips and tricks that can make it a bit easier.

Here are a few.

Choose the Right Rayon

Pure rayon can be difficult to work with. However, there are a lot of rayon blends on the market that might make your job easier. The right rayon blend can give you the qualities of rayon that you want, such as softness, with added stability.

Choose the Right Pattern

Rayon’s light, silky texture means that it’s great for flowing, drapey garments. What it’s not so great for, however, is sharply-shaped, tight-fitting items. So to maximize your chances of success, start with the right type of garment.

Prewash

Although the labels of rayon garments recommend hand-washing or even dry cleaning, some experts recommend pre washing rayon fabric in the washing machine before sewing with it. This is because rayon is very susceptible to shrinking. So you want to get any shrinkage out of the way before you begin putting your garment together [3].

Needles and Pins

Use the appropriate size needles and pins for your fabric weight. Also, make sure that both are sharp, in order to avoid making unnecessarily large holes in your fabric, or even snags. 

Rotary Cutter

Some experts recommend using a rotary cutter to cut your rayon, as it can provide greater accuracy [4].

Stitch Curves and Edges

To help your pieces hold their shape, staystitch curves before you put the pieces together. Also make sure to stitch your raw hem edges to keep them from unraveling.

Give it a Rest

Consider hanging your almost-finished garment on a hanger for 24 hours before hemming it. Again, this is because rayon tends to sag and bag. Hanging it will give the fibers a chance to settle into their final configuration before you sew that hem.

Is Rayon Durable?

Unfortunately rayon is not particularly durable. It’s subject to abrasion and shrinkage. It can lose its shape over time. The fibres also become weaker when they get wet.

Some rayon blends, however, are reasonably durable. These include rayon blended with cotton, rayon blended with wool, and rayon blended with linen.

How to Care for Rayon

caring for rayon

Rayon garments have such a wonderful look and feel. How can you keep them looking their best? And if the worst happens, how can you fix it?

How to Clean Rayon

Dry-cleaning is your first and best option. But if you want to wash your garment yourself, treat it as a delicate. This means:

  • Mild detergent
  • Cold water
  • Hand wash or machine wash in the gentle cycle
  • When machine washing, turn the garment inside out and wash inside a mesh bag
  • Never twist or wring the fabric. Squeeze gently instead.
  • Do not machine dry
  • Air dry the garment flat or on a padded hanger

Does rayon shrink when washed? You bet it does. It can also lose its colour and softness. Modal and Lyocell have chemical finishes that make them better able to withstand machine washing. Still, it’s important to treat them as delicates and avoid the dryer.

You might find that air-drying your rayon garments leaves them stiff and feeling a bit rough. They may also wrinkle. Ironing can help. But, again, you have to be very careful.

How to Iron Rayon

Ironing delicate fabrics like rayon can be almost as tricky as washing them. The biggest danger is scorching the fabric. Ironing can also leave an unattractive shine on rayon. Therefore:

  • Set your iron to medium hot (setting 3)
  • Use a press cloth between the iron and your garment
  • Iron on the wrong side of the garment, just to be safe

It might seem intimidating at first, but once you know how to get wrinkles out of rayon, the process is quite simple.

How to Shrink Rayon

There are times when you might want to shrink rayon, such as when prewashing it before sewing with it. It’s easy. Here are a few ways to do it safely.

Method 1: Hand Washing 

First, gently hand wash it and let it soak in the water for several minutes. 

Next, dry your fabric. If you want subtle shrinkage, press out the extra water then air-dry your fabric either flat or hanging. 

For more dramatic shrinkage, place your fabric in the dryer on the gentle setting.

Method 2: Machine Washing

Earlier, we recommended against machine washing because of the potential for shrinkage. However, if shrinking your rayon is the goal, then machine wash it in warm, or even hot water on the gentle cycle. Again, take care to turn your garment inside out and wash it inside a mesh bag.

Again, you can either air dry your fabric, or, for maximum shrinkage, pop it in the dryer on the gentle cycle.

How to Unshrink Rayon

The first and best defense, of course, is knowing how to prevent rayon from shrinking in the first place. But if the deed is done, never fear. There are a few things you can do. You may not be able to get your garment back to exactly the way it was, but you might be able to make it better.

Method 1: Relax and Stretch

Think of your shrunken fibres as tense muscles. What they need is a bit of warmth and TLC, and a hug from a fuzzy towel.

  1. Fill a bucket with warm (not hot!) water.
  2. Add one cap full of baby shampoo or hair conditioner.
  3. Soak your garment in the warm water, gently massaging it to relax the fibres.
  4. Rinse your garment in cold water.
  5. Press out excess water. Do not wring!
  6. Lay your garment on a towel.
  7. Gently roll the towel up with your garment inside. This will stretch the fibres.
  8. Press to release more water.
  9. Unroll the towel.
  10. Use your hands to gently stretch the garment back to its original size.
  11. Air dry your garment flat.

Method 2: Steam Ironing

Warmth, heat, and moisture. Are you sensing a theme? Steam ironing can also help your rayon garment to regain its original proportions. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Fill a spray bottle with warm water.
  2. Put your steam iron on the lowest setting.
  3. Turn your garment inside out and lay it flat on the ironing board.
  4. Spritz your garment with water.
  5. Iron your garment gently. Make sure it doesn’t dry out.
  6. Stretch the garment, also gently, until it regains its original dimensions.
  7. Air dry your garment, either flat or on a non-metal hanger.
  8. You can increase the stretch by weighting down the fabric during drying, or holding it in place with clothespins.

Is Rayon Eco-Friendly?

That’s a good question. On one hand, rayon production often relies on waste materials or sustainable crops like bamboo. So that’s good.

On the other hand, processing of those eco-friendly materials requires huge amounts of toxic chemicals, which is bad for the environment.

The production methods for modal and lyocell are exceptions, as these methods reuse the chemicals rather than releasing them as waste products.

To add even more confusion, all rayon is biodegradable to some degree [5]. Viscose even biodegrades faster than cotton.

So, is rayon eco-friendly? In some ways, yes. In other ways, not so much.

What Alternatives Are There to Rayon?

Rayon was invented as a cheaper alternative to natural fabrics like silk and cotton. And, if price isn’t your first concern, these are still good alternatives.

Linen, which is made from flax fibres, is another good alternative. It’s excellent for warm weather, and is relatively easy to work with.

Hemp fabric has a similar feel to cotton and linen. Hemp uses half the water that cotton crops use. It can also be either woven or knit.

Final Thoughts

Rayon is a semi-synthetic fabric made from chemically processed plant fibres. There are several different types of rayon, and their uses range from clothing manufacture to medical and industrial uses. 

The materials that go into rayon production are generally eco-friendly and sustainable. At the same time, rayon production methods can be highly polluting. Different kinds of rayon are biodegradable to differing degrees.

Rayon is incredibly versatile. At the same time, it can be very delicate. Special care must be taken when cleaning it and sewing with it.

Still, when it comes to a budget-friendly alternative to silk or cotton, rayon is difficult to beat. And there’s nothing like its silky texture or drapability.

Do you enjoy working with rayon? Do you have any tips or tricks for working with it or keeping it in tip-top shape? If so, we’d love to hear about it!

how easy is rayon to sew

REFERENCES

  1. Ahasan Habib | Viscose Manufacturing Process | https://textilestudycenter.com/viscose-manufacturing-process/
  2. EDinformatics | Great Inventions: Rayon | https://www.edinformatics.com/inventions_inventors/rayon.htm
  3. Saki Jane | How To Sew With Rayon | https://www.seamwork.com/issues/2019/03/how-to-sew-with-rayon
  4. Katie Whittle | Sewing with Rayon Challis | https://blog.colettehq.com/fabric/cs-x-colette-rayon-challis
  5. Mary Warnock, Kaaron Davis, Duane Wolf, and Edward Gbur | Biodegradation of Three Cellulosic Fabrics in Soil | https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/4fe5/ebfdb75bcbe84202b8fd5fab95b384f827f0.pdf

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