Know Your Rayon

General Facts

Popular Dress Rayons

Popular Dress Rayons, from the 1943-44 Fall-Winter Montgomery Ward catalog

- Rayon is not quite a natural fiber but not completely artificial, either. It is derived from cellulose (the structural component of green plant cell walls), but cellulose must be processed significantly in order to become rayon fibers.

- It has been around since the late 19th-early 20th century. It was first developed as a cheaper alternative to silk.

- It is drapey and soft, making it ideal for garments. It is also highly absorbent and easy to dye.

- There are many varieties, weights, and weaves of rayon, including knits. It’s a versatile fiber.

- New rayon solids, prints, and blends are available in most shops carrying garment fabrics, but my survey of what’s available over the internet indicates that the prints are rather uninspiring.

- If you are identifying fabric via a burn test, if the fabric burns rapidly, leaves only a trace of ash, and smells like burning leaves, it’s probably rayon.

- Modal, which seems to be the trendy thing to put in socks and undergarments these days, is a variety of rayon. It’s a machine-washable variety of rayon that has extra sheen and higher strength when wet.

Care

- The most common rayon is “viscose,” which loses strength when wet. This can lead to distortion and shrinking.

- Because of this, dry cleaning of viscose rayon is usually recommended. Handwashing is sometimes OK, just avoid wringing, then smooth and shape the fabric and dry flat.

Environmental Concerns

- So if it’s plant-derived, is it biodegradable? According to Wikipedia, Korean researchers found that rayon biodegrades faster than cotton. But that’s the only reference I found.

- According the Kate Fletcher in her book Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys, “the raw material for cellulosic fibres is frequently described as carbon neutral … [but] the rest of the viscose fibre production process has significant environmental implications.”

- According to this comment by Coral Rose of Eco-Innovations on this L.A. Times article on bamboo fabrics, any fiber labeled bamboo is actually viscose rayon that is derived from bamboo cellulose.

Swirly Rayon

Swirly vintage rayon print, from my collection

Vintage Rayon

- According to my very unscientific observations, as recently as a couple years ago, some wonderful rayon prints from the 1940s-50s were available on eBay for a song, but lately it seems like prices have increased significantly.

- When you find vintage rayon for sale it’s often a piece of 2+ yards, since the original buyer likely intended for garment sewing.

Sources:
Fibersource
Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet on rayon
Fabric Identification on Fabrics.net
Miracle Fibers: rayon and nylon,” by Joan Kiplinger on Fabrics.net, originally published May/June 2000
What Is Rayon? on WiseGEEK
Wikipedia entry

9 Comments

  1. Jen says:

    This is such geat information–thank you!

  2. Vanessa says:

    What a fabulous post, Kim – you really are a treasure in the fabric world! Just speaking on behalf of the vintage side – I think due to rayon becoming scarcer it’s sending the prices up. Also it’s a versatile fabric and looks special without having the upkeep of silk or the everyday of a sateen or a polished cotton. Some rayon prices are scary!!

  3. Melanie O says:

    Great information! Thanks for doing the research, I’ve been wondering exactly what rayon is for a while now…

  4. Georgi P. says:

    Thanks – this was really informative, I too have always wondered how “natural” rayon was…

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  6. frog says:

    So, the 1950s hawaiian print rayon I picked up at a garage sale ($10 for 5 metres) really was a bargain…

  7. Pretty Jane says:

    I remember being in a huge chain fabric store that rhymes with Joe Hamm and overhearing an older woman who had clearly lived through WWII say, “Oh, I hate that rayon, it’s such cheap stuff.” I was shocked, as I’ve always been very fond of rayon–and then realized that I hadn’t grown up in a time when rayon was the poor man’s silk. Perspective is everything, it seems.

  8. edgertor says:

    I can’t confirm this, but i remember reading somewhere that the formula for the old 1940s “cold rayon” was lost in a fire…and that it has not been reproduced exactly, since. Maybe vintage fashion guild has something about it on their site.

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