What Is Viscose?

What Is Viscose?

Written by Dreamcloud Editorial Team

Last Updated on Jun 13, 2022

In this article:

    Coming in vogue since the late 1800s, viscose has emerged as the third most widely used textile material. But, what is viscose? Popularly also called rayon, it is a semi-synthetic material that is soft, lightweight, and a staple of many homes.  

    Here, we unravel everything you need to know about viscose fabric.

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    What is Viscose?

    The viscose fabric is one of the three types of rayon, the other two being modal and lyocell. Each fiber has different properties owing to its various manufacturing processes.  

    Viscose is a manufactured fiber crafted from natural materials. Despite this, it does not count among environment-friendly fabrics as its manufacturing entails the use of plenty of chemicals, including harsh ones.  

    Viscose is often called cheap silk or artificial silk, as it mimics the look, smoothness, and drape of silk but feels like cotton when worn. Many also refer to viscose rayon as a sustainable alternative to polyester and cotton. 

    The answer to ‘what is viscose made of?’ lies in its name. The term ‘viscose’ explicitly means a viscous organic liquid cellulose. It is transformed into viscose fibers and then the fabric.  

    Brief History of Viscose  

    The production of viscose traces back to European history. It was first invented in 1883 by the French scientist and industrialist Hilaire de Chardonnet as a cheaper alternative to silk. However, its highly flammable quality took it out of the market soon.  

    Later, its safer version was crafted by the German Bemberg Company. Its production process was first created in 1892 by the British scientists Edward John Bevan, Charles Frederick Cross, and Clayton Beadle. But it was only in 1905 that the world’s first commercial viscose was manufactured.  

    Trees and Plants from Which Viscose Rayon is Derived  

    Illustration Of Trees and Plants from Which Viscose Rayon is Derived

    Few common trees from which the organic liquid of cellulose, the primary constituent of plant cell walls, is derived are:

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

    Characteristics of Viscose  

    The viscose fabric is coveted for its luxurious vibe at a throwaway price point compared to silk. It has several characteristics that contribute to its popularity. 

    • Lightweight 

    Viscose is super light, thanks to its super airy characteristic.  

    • Absorbent 

    Viscose fabric absorbs water and sweat well thanks to its moisture-wicking property and high absorbency like cotton. 

    • Breathability 

    Its airy and absorbent characteristic is attributed to the fabric's breathability. Moreover, despite being artificial, it is not a hundred percent synthetic fabric and is breathable.  

    • Soft and Lustrous  

    As viscose was invented to mimic the silk fabric, it has a similar lustrous vibe and is super soft to touch and feel. Its softness rivals that of the cotton fibers.  

    • Drapes Well Without Losing Shape 

    The fabric has a rich weight to it, due to which it drapes well and does not lose its shape.  

    • Excellent Color Retention 

    This ability of viscose helps dye the fabric in a myriad of colors. Moreover, the colors do not fade even after repeated washes and long-term use.  

    • Versatility 

    Viscose is highly versatile because of its ability to blend well with other non-synthetic and synthetic fibers like polyester, spandex, etc. 

    Viscose Production Process

    Viscose is made from tree wood pulp, but it is semi-synthetic due to the involvement of chemicals in the process. 

    The process of creating viscose is as below:

    • A plant is split into wood pulp and suspended chemicals like sodium hydroxide are added, forming a brown wood pulp solution.
    • This solution is then washed, cleaned, and bleached.
    • The pulp is mixed with carbon disulfide and then dissolved in sodium hydroxide to create a viscose solution.
    • This solution is pushed through a machine (spinneret) that creates filaments called regenerated cellulose.
    • This regenerated cellulose is spun into yarn, which can then be woven into viscose rayon fabric.

    Process of Viscose Production

    We now know that the viscose fabric is manufactured from the wood pulp or wood cellulose collected from several trees. Post collection, the pulp goes through several steps to yield the semi-synthetic fiber, the viscose.  

    The breakdown of the viscose production process is as follows. 

    • The plant is first chipped to get wood chips. The chips are then dissolved in chemicals like sodium hydroxide to yield a brownish wood pulp solution containing cellulose.  

    • Then the solution is dissolved in caustic soda to remove all impurities and yield an alkali solution. After washing, cleaning, and bleaching, the obtained solution serves as a clean raw material for manufacturing viscose.  
    • The alkali solution is pressed between rollers to eliminate excess liquid to get the pressed sheets.  

    • The pressed sheets are now shredded into crumbs.  

    • The crumbs are first treated with carbon disulfide and then dissolved in chemicals like sulfuric acid or sodium hydroxide to obtain the viscous solution. It is from this step that this material gets its name, viscose.  

    • The viscous solution is first filtered to eliminate all undissolved elements and then degassed to remove all trapped air bubbles. If not removed, they would cause weak spots in the resultant fiber.  

    • The purified viscose solution is now forced through a spinneret machine to obtain slender thread-like filaments of regenerated cellulose.  
    • Finally, the regenerated cellulose fibers are spun into yarn and then woven or knit into the viscose rayon fabric.

    Is Viscose Environment-Friendly?

    The raw material for viscose manufacturing is renewable and sustainable, making it eco-friendly. However, it is not so because of three prime leading factors.  

    • The raw material for viscose, the wood cellulose, entails chopping trees which implies deforestation. You can address it by sourcing the wood cellulose from sustainably-grown forests. 

    • Harmful chemicals like hydrogen sulfide used during viscose manufacturing pollute the air by emissions. You can tackle it by following the lyocell process to yield lyocell rayon, one of the popular cooling bedding materials. 

    • The viscose manufacturing process needs plenty of water, depleting a natural resource.  

    Hence, while viscose fiber is better than synthetic fiber, it falls short compared to wholly natural fibers and is not entirely eco-friendly.

    Viscose Fabric: Pros & Cons

    Like any other, viscose fabric has its pros and cons. Let’s explore that for this versatile fabric.  

    Pros: 

    • A breathable fabric, ideal for summers. 

    • Super-absorbent, moisture-wicking, and no-heat trapping feature makes viscose ideal for activewear.  

    • Excellent color retention and non-fading property. 
    • Free-flowing, silk-like feel with superb draping.  

    • Light, airy, soft, and comfortable to wear. 

    • It is versatile as it blends well with other fibers like spandex, polyester, etc., to enhance its properties. 

    • Strong and robust.

    • Affordable alternative to silk.  
    • Hypoallergenic due to its low permeability.  

    • No static build-up.  

    Cons: 

    • Viscose fibers are delicate and can easily break if washed in a washing machine. Hence viscose fabrics are often non-washable in machines.  

    • The threads often weaken when wet. 

    • The fabric often shrinks with every wash.  

    • The quality of the fabric tends to deteriorate with exposure to light.  

    • The material is susceptible to mildew. 

    • The fabric tends to stain, which gets difficult to remove. Hence, spot cleaning is highly recommended.  

    Uses of Viscose Rayon

    Because of its versatility and coveted characteristics, viscose rayon has many uses. A few of them are: 

    Clothes  

    Because of its silk-like luxurious vibe and feel, it is used to make classy and luxurious-looking dresses at a much lower price than silk. It is also used to make synthetic velvet, an inexpensive alternative to genuine velvet.  

    Its moisture-wicking and airy features make it ideal for summer and as activewear.  

    Mattress Protectors  

    All forms of rayon have super-absorbent properties. Because of this, they are often blended with polyester and cotton to manufacture mattress protectors.  

    Mattress Flame Retardants  

    When blended with silica, viscose makes excellent mattress flame retardants. While there was an initial concern about direct exposure of the skin to silica as it might cause breathing problems and skin irritation. The problem is taken care of by infusing silica into viscose first. This mixture is then placed inside the mattress cover. 

    The problem arises because cellulose is flammable. However, when silica is integrated into viscose, it forms bead-like structures under high temperatures. These structures are flame-resistant. Moreover, this infusion proves to be a better choice than the usual toxic chemicals used as flame retardants.  

    Bed Sheets 

    Another widespread usage of viscose is as bedding materials, specifically cooling sheets. It is manufactured by using the lyocell process on bamboo and eucalyptus cellulose. They are treated with N-Methyl Morphine N-oxide to get the cooling sheets types of fabric.  

    With many manufacturers following the eco-friendlier lyocell process, viscose and lyocell are increasingly blurred as a single type of rayon.  

    The other viscose characteristics further enhance the cooling properties and are sublime for people with natural heat build-up issues.  

    Window Drapes  

    Because of its luxurious silk feel and vibe, viscose is a popular choice for window drapes. It effortlessly adds to the aesthetic of any room.  

    Cellophane 

    Generally, all food items are packaged with a transparent sheet, crafted using regenerated cellulose. Hence, viscose becomes an ideal choice. Its added advantage is its low permeability to air, water, and contamination like bacteria.

    Other Types of Rayon

    As stated, modal fibers and lyocell are other types of rayon apart from viscose. They use the same raw material but differ in processing or manufacturing methods.  

    The modal rayon fibers are more breathable and eco-friendlier than viscose. It is also more durable and flexible, has better shape retention capacity, and with higher fiber strength when wet. 

    Lyocell is the most eco-friendly fiber among the three. It has a higher absorbency and better drape ability than viscose. Given that, viscose is more widely used in the apparel industry, while lyocell is preferred for everyday clothing wear like denim, chinos, etc., upholstery, medical dressings, specialty papers, and conveyor belts, etc.

    Let’s check out how the viscose fabric compares to other popular fabrics like silk, cotton, and polyester. The comparison tables prove self-explanatory.  

    Viscose Rayon vs. Silk 

    Even though viscose rayon imitates silk, there are certain differences between them. 

    FeaturesViscose Rayon Silk
    TextureSoft, smooth & silky Soft & smooth
    Luster Has a glossy sheen. Shinier as it refracts more light at an angle.
    Breathability Highly airy and breathable. Breathable but less comparatively.
    Eco-friendlinessLess eco-friendly than silk due to its manufacturing process. More eco-friendly as it is a natural fiber.
    Affordability Very cheap compared to silk.Highly expensive compared to viscose
    Fabric CareHandwashing and drying in the shade without any direct sunlight is best. Dry-cleaning and air-drying with no exposure to sunlight.

    Viscose Rayon vs. Cotton 

    The viscose rayon might give a silk-like ooze, but it feels like cotton. Hence, they are used rampantly in the clothing and bedding industries. Let’s check out how they compare to one another.

    Features Viscose Rayon Cotton
    Texture Soft, smooth & silky. Smooth & crisp. Gets softer with every wash.
    Origin Manufactured from wood cellulose after chemical treatment. All-natural cotton fibers are used to make the fabric.
    Availability Less available comparatively Highly available
    Breathability Cool and breathable with a moisture-wicking property.Cool and breathable but has no moisture-wicking property.
    Versatility Highly versatile; blends well with other fabrics. On the same par as viscose.
    Fabric CareHandwashing and drying in the shade without any direct sunlight is best.Easily machine washable, unless specifically labeled. Can be dried in the sun, but the color can fade.

    Viscose Rayon vs. Polyester

    Viscose rayon and polyester are both artificial fabrics and have long fibers, but both use different sources. Let's see how they compare to each other.

    Features Viscose Rayon Polyester
    Origin Derived from petroleum oil and its chemical treatment. Derived from natural wood cellulose and its chemical treatment.
    Type of FabricSemi-synthetic fiber. Synthetic fiber.
    Moisture WickingHighly absorbent but less moisture-wicking than polyester. Not so absorbent but has comparatively more moisture-wicking properties.
    Wrinkling More prone to wrinkling comparativelyLess prone to wrinkling comparatively
    Strength & Shrinkage Less strong comparatively and more prone to shrinkage. Stronger and less prone to shrinkage.
    Resistance to PillingCan pill more than polyester. Comparatively less likely to pill.

    Viscose Rayon vs. Modal Rayon

    Finally, we compare viscose rayon and modal. Originating from the same raw materials but undergoing a different manufacturing process, let’s understand their similarities and differences.

    Features Viscose Rayon Modal Rayon
    Origin Manufactured from wood cellulose.Manufactured from wood cellulose.
    Eco-friendlinessNot too eco-friendly More eco-friendly comparatively due to the use of a lower concentration of sodium hydroxide in its manufacturing process.
    Breathability Less breathable and lighter comparatively More breathable and lighter comparatively
    Durability Less durable comparatively More durable comparatively
    Strength of fibersTends to break when wet and lose its shape. Does not break when wet and retains its shape.

    How To Care for Viscose Rayon?

    The best way to take care of the viscose rayon fabrics is as follows: 

    • The viscose material should preferably be dry-cleaned. It should be hand-washed in cold water and with gentle detergent if washing at home. 

    • The fabric should not be squeezed hard or exposed to direct sunlight to dry. It deteriorates the fabric. 

    • The fabric becomes weak when wet and even loses its shape due to stretching. Hence, it should be delicately handled without any wringing or squeezing and preferably laid flat on a clean surface to dry.  

    • The fabric is highly vulnerable to staining. Hence, its spot treatment must be done but such that it leaves no permanent stains behind

    Conclusion

    The multi-faceted viscose fabric is an amazing alternative to expensive silk. With an excellent look, feel, and texture, viscose offers a plethora of advantages. However, its adverse environmental impact cannot be ignored. But with many manufacturers treading the eco-friendly procedures, viscose is the fabric to embrace with open arms.

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