What is Viscose Fabric?
Viscose is a soft, lightweight fabric, a wardrobe staple since the late 1800s. Although it’s produced from trees, this type of rayon is manufactured using chemicals, making it less environmentally friendly than other rayon varieties. Still, viscose is cheap to produce and highly versatile, a popular choice for garments and home furnishings.
A French scientist developed the world’s first commercial viscose fiber in 1883. He used flammable fabric in the initial testing; unsuitable for human use, the product was pulled off the market. The German business Bemberg refined the method a few years later, but three UK scientists patented the production process in 1892. By 1905, viscose was available worldwide.
How Viscose Fabric is Made
Manufacturers create viscose from wood pulp. They often use beech, pine, and eucalyptus, although they sometimes use bamboo and other plant materials. Viscose is considered semi-synthetic because of the chemicals required to make it. Production involves mixing wood pulp with sodium hydroxide, and the resulting brown pulp is then bleached to remove impurities. Another chemical, carbon disulfide, treats the mixture. After it’s dissolved in more sodium hydroxide, a spinneret transforms the viscose solution into fibers of regenerated cellulose. Those fibers, once dried, become like yarn, which machines then weave or knit into viscose fabric.
Viscose production is a global affair. China, South Africa, the U.S., Brazil, and Canada provide most of the dissolved pulp, while China (accounting for more than 60% of total production), the U.S., India, Austria, and Indonesia produce most of the fiber.
Viscose Fabrics We Like
Characteristics of Viscose Fabrics
It’s obvious why viscose is popular: it’s soft, lightweight, and shiny. It conveys the luxury of silk, yet it’s relatively affordable. Viscose also works well with other fibers such as cotton and polyester. Not only does it keep wearers cool, but it also absorbs sweat, making it an excellent choice for t-shirts, summer dresses, and sportswear.
Viscose maintains its shape, too. Although the fabric doesn’t have any elasticity, it mixes well with spandex, allowing it to stretch. It can also hold dye well, which means the color won’t fade after repeated washing and use.
Caring for Viscose Fabric
Here’s the less-convenient thing about clothing made from viscose: it should be dry cleaned. Avoid spot treatments, as they can leave stubborn stains. Another con: viscose can stretch and becomes significantly weaker if it gets wet.
If you choose to wash viscose yourself, hand wash it in cold water to avoid color bleeds. Gently work a mild detergent into the fabric, and don’t wring or squeeze it. Hang it up or lay it flat to dry.
Popular uses of viscose
Because of the benefits of viscose, its’ uses go far beyond clothing. Manufacturers use it for window treatments, cooling sheets, mattress flame retardants and protectors, and cellophane.
Drapes for Windows
Viscose’s silky feel makes it a popular choice for curtains. It flows nicely, too, sprucing up the living space.
Many food manufacturers use viscose in their cellophane packaging as air, water, and germs struggle to permeate it.
Fabric for Mattress Protectors
Since all rayon varieties absorb water well, mixing them with polyester and cotton creates great mattress protectors. Most mattress covers use viscose to keep them waterproof.
Flame Retardants for Mattresses
Flame-retardant mattresses use a combination of viscose and silica. Direct contact with silica can irritate skin and cause breathing difficulties, but manufacturers found a way around this by mixing the silica with rayon.
The cellulose in rayon is combustible. Under high temperatures, however, adding silica to viscose causes the rayon to crystallize into bead-like structures. (You know those tiny white envelopes inside other packages which say “DO NOT EAT“? They help keep products fresh). These tiny beads are flame-retardants. Using a rayon-silica mix as a mattress flame retardant is more environmentally friendly than using hazardous chemicals.
Sheets to keep you cool
Remember how viscose is often used in summer clothing? Lightweight and breathable, it’s great for people who get too hot when they sleep. If you’ve ever spent the night in the hospital, then you’ve slept on viscose fabric. The medical field uses sheets made of bamboo or eucalyptus cellulose, which have also been treated with N-Methylmorphine N-oxide. Even though they’re referred to as “lyocell,” these fibers are actually a form of rayon. Viscose manufacturers are switching to the environmentally-beneficial lyocell method, making viscose and lyocell hard to tell apart.
Viscose vs. Rayon
Viscose and rayon are alike in both their properties and appearance. They’re each produced using cellulose, but rayon can come from both wood and bamboo cellulose, whereas viscose is only derived from wood cellulose.
Whether derived from wood or bamboo cellulose, both rayons are synthetic fibers. Rayon is an artificial fiber instead of a natural fabric like cotton. It is created from regenerated cellulose and was initially designed as a substitute for genuine silk to reduce environmental impact.
Viscose, commonly known as wood cellulose acetate, is a kind of cellulose also present in nature. Among the manifestations of viscosity is cellophane, a cellulose sheet widely used in packaging.
Viscose vs. Polyester
Polyester and viscose are artificial materials; however, oil-based polyester repels water, while plant-based viscose attracts and absorbs it. As a result, polyester fabric is excellent at wicking away moisture, making it a perfect choice for raincoats, bags, or wearing to the gym.
Because viscose has a strong affinity for water, it’s ideal for highly breathable fabrics that absorb moisture and water vapor, allowing the body to release heat. Also, the way viscose inhibits the growth of microorganisms makes it less likely to stink. It’s perfect for clothes worn closer to the skin, like underwear, socks, and undershirts.
Viscose Fabrics We Like
How the Creation of Viscose Effects the Environment
Viscose may be highly-versatile, but it’s not a very green product. Its’ manufacturing wastes water, uses a lot of chemicals and devastates local ecosystems.
First, viscose production uses huge amounts of water. The wood used is frequently sourced from non-sustainable forests, destroying enormous tracts of natural woodland. Not only that but many toxic substances are used in its creation, polluting air and water. Many pollutants exist in the air emissions around viscose production facilities, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon, disulfide, and hydrogen sulfide. Although the chemicals can be reused throughout the production cycle, it’s not a flawless process. Other varieties of rayon, including modal, Tencel, and lyocell, are produced in a more environmentally-friendly manner.
Viscose itself isn’t harmful to the environment. It’s biodegradable and derived from a renewable resource. Unlike polyester, it’s not derived from petrochemicals, and it won’t contribute to the increased amount of plastic in the ocean. Still, its’ production has a substantial environmental impact.
Only a few organizations are actively engaged in cleaning up the viscose supply chain and persuading businesses to be more transparent about their manufacturing procedures.
Canopy is a good example. This Canadian non-profit helps brands ensure their viscose wood pulp comes from sustainable sources. Now, other companies in the chemical industry are being urged to adopt closed-loop manufacturing techniques, collecting and pumping used chemicals back into the system to minimize harm to plant workers and surrounding populations.
According to the latest industry study from Changing Markets, 14 of the world’s top 100 fashion businesses have signed on to the group’s road map, vowing to work toward a more responsible business model. A positive step forward, but there’s more work to be done. Joss Whipple of The Right Project (a sustainable fashion company that focuses specifically on materials and design thinking) states that the absence of regulation in the viscose business is a major impediment to the industry’s advancement.
A greener way to develop a viscose-like fabric has come to life: EcoVero. Instead of the bamboo or eucalyptus commonly used in viscose production, EcoVero is produced by Lenzing, a leading cellulose fiber producer located near the Attersee Lake in Austria. EcoVero is made from sustainable wood from controlled sources that are either FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified or PEFC (Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes) certified in Europe. More than 60% of the trees used to create EcoVero fibers are sourced from Austria and Bavaria, minimizing emissions.
The cellulose fiber is generated on-site at a state-of-the-art facility using a revolutionary environmental technique. EcoVero production reuses most chemicals in other products, so the whole process produces 50% fewer emissions and consumes half the energy and water of traditional viscose production. Pulp bleaching is 100% chlorine-free compared to conventional viscose production. Plus, transport is less of a concern, as manufacturers can turn European timber into fiber right on-site.
Another reason Lenzing gets kudos: they are completely transparent about their supply chain, and the company’s identification technology can identify EcoVero fibers in the final product. Lenzing’s Chief Commercial Officer, Robert van de Kerkhof, states, “We are embracing the trend in the fashion sector towards greater transparency. It is becoming increasingly crucial to know where the products come from and what road they have taken.”
EcoVero is still a viscose product. Creating it requires potentially hazardous chemicals, even when using newer, more environmentally-friendly manufacturing processes. However, the new fiber is a welcome alternative to conventional viscose, and it should be encouraged. As part of its commitment to being as ecologically friendly as possible, Lenzing has invested several million euros into enhancing their viscose production.
While viscose may not be the greenest, it’s certainly not the worst-produced material. Overall, viscose appears to be a versatile, quality material used in many products, from fashion to flame-retardant mattresses. It’s a great fabric to consider for any project.