Rayon has always been a popular yet mysterious beauty. You pick it up when sampling fabric, it’s so lovely, lusciously soft, and drapey.
It is love at first sight. Only then do you realize that you actually don’t know much about it.
Rayon is so versatile that understanding the fabric for most people has been like trying to find the exit to a maze – in a good way. It is derived from the natural wood mash and made to imitate the qualities of different fibers such as silk, wool, linen, or cotton, through synthetic chemical processes.
That’s such a unique profile that fitting rayon into one specific classification is near impossible. Precisely what makes it so fascinating.
Is rayon stretchy? Rayon fibers and woven rayon materials don’t stretch. Instead, rayon materials drape well. It can also shrink and expand from sensitivity to heat and moisture. However, sometimes more elastic materials will be blended with rayon to combine drape and stretch.
And for that matter, how breathable is rayon? Can it be machine-washed, or will it shrink? Is it 100% natural or synthetic fiber? Is it a type of cotton or silk? So many questions from budding sewers. If you are one, these are probably running through your mind too.
Well, this article is dedicated to unraveling the mystery behind this fabulously interesting fabric. We’ll explain why rayon doesn’t stretch and other characteristics of this lovely material.
We’ll answer all your questions related to rayon to help you work with it better and know exactly what to expect once you decide to knit, crochet, weave, or sew with it.
What Is Rayon?
Rayon, also known as artificial silk, is a textile fiber processed from the wood pulp of trees such as beech, pine, spruce, cane, hemlock, soy, and bamboo. In its earliest forms, it was derived from cotton linters. Cellulose from such plant matter is regenerated into fibers through chemical reactions.
Perhaps you are more familiar with the names viscose, modal, or lyocell. These are all types of rayon created from regenerated cellulose but with distinct manufacturing processes under the umbrella name rayon.
Many people ask, is rayon polyester, a cotton, a silk…?
We understand the confusion and why rayon is often poorly misunderstood. It borrows the molecular composition, physical attributes, and processing method from diverse natural and synthetic fibers.
Rayon is not polyester. Polyester is developed from plastic (PET) polymers. Rayon is created out of natural polymers from plant bases, even though they are extruded the same way.
Cotton and rayon are nearly identical in properties and molecular structure but are different fibers. The former is a 100% natural fiber spun from the bloom of the cotton flower or boll. The latter is obtained from cellulose matter and processed chemically.
Rayon is not a true silk. Actual silk is a natural fiber spun by silkworms. Rayon is simply formulated in its likeness, thus the name artificial silk, but again, it is obtained from plant cellulose.
How Is Rayon Made?
Rayon has a long manufacturing history. The earliest method of producing its fibers is the cuprammonium method.
It utilized copper and ammonia reagents and had a severe adverse environmental impact. It has since been discontinued in the United States, so we won’t dwell much into it.
Now the viscose method is the popular way of producing regular rayon. Here is a summary of the steps:
- Usually, cellulose fibers get extracted from the wood pulp of trees. It undergoes a purification process by being dissolved in caustic soda into soluble alkali cellulose.
- After that, it is pressed in between rollers into sheets to release excess liquid. The sheets are then shredded into what is known as white crumbs and left in containers to air dry for a couple of days.
- Next, after the aging phase lapses, the dried white crumbs are treated with carbon disulfide to form yellow crumbs in a process known as xanthation.
- The crumbs are swirled in caustic soda into a heavy, viscous solution with honey-like consistency – now you know where the name viscose came from.
- The thick solution is then filtered to eliminate any solid matter from undissolved crumbs. It is also degassed to get rid of air bubbles. Trapped air bubbles left in will transform into weak spots in the final yarn.
- The next phase is wet spinning. The thick viscous liquid is extruded through a spinneret into long filaments; the same way polyester is spun.
- The filaments are solidified using acid chemicals in a coagulation bath, drawn, cleaned, and trimmed into yarn.
The fibers will typically resemble silk in appearance but can be delustered to be more like cotton, wool, linen, or any other fibers. My favorite viscose rayon fabric is this one on Amazon.
Other post-processing treatments include pre-shrinking, and water, flame, and wrinkle-resistance.
Is Rayon Synthetic?
Rayon is not a synthetic fiber. We know we did mention carbon disulfide and other chemical terms, but that’s just a part of the process and not enough to qualify rayon as a synthetic fiber.
Fibers within the synthetic class will primarily be composed of chemical compounds, which is not the case for rayon. Only the process of manufacturing rayon is synthetic but the base component is all-natural cellulose from trees and plants.
So, is rayon a natural fiber? Not quite. Rayon is not entirely a natural fiber, either. While its building blocks are plant cellulose, synthetic treatments regenerate it to give it desirable properties, which disqualifies it as 100% natural or organic.
Therefore, where does this part-natural, part-synthetic fiber belong? Some people refer to it as semi-synthetic, or man-made natural fiber. However, the scientific tag for rayon is a regenerated cellulose fiber.
Is Rayon Stretchy?
Rayon fibers do not stretch. Neither does woven rayon fabric. Knit rayon will stretch as a structural characteristic of any knit fabric and not of the fibers. Stretchy material may, however, be blended into rayon to give it an elastic boost.
The shrinking and expanding of rayon should not be confused as being stretchy but rather dimensional instability. The ‘stretch’ only happens due to its fibers’ sensitivity to wetness and heat.
Being hydrophilic, rayon will suck up moisture from its surrounding. Its fibers lose their tensile strength when wet and expand. Once dry conditions prevail, they shrink back.
Does Rayon Shrink?
As mentioned, rayon shrinks, and the material can be worse for it. The shrinkage may happen unevenly and fail to recover when attempting to wash and dry it.
The air that surrounds us is more humid at certain times of the day or year. Rayon will naturally shrink and recover based on that. However, once the fibers are damaged, they may not be able to bounce back to its original shape.
Wetness and high heat shrink and damage rayon fibers, particularly untreated rayon. The reason it is often best preserved by dry cleaning. Washing it in a machine in a hot water cycle or tumbling dry is not recommended. Even treated rayon, which is supposed to be more stable, may shrink a little when washed.
Knit rayon will shrink more than woven rayon unless the weave is very loose. When there are larger spaces within the fabric, they create more surface area for water to penetrate and soak the fibers increasing the extent of the shrinkage.
Before sewing with rayon fabric, it is advisable that you gently wash it by hand in cool water and hang dry to get rid of initial shrinkage. Most rayon fabric comes already preshrunk.
Other Characteristics of Rayon
Now that you have an idea about what rayon is and know some basic characteristics you are likely interested in knowing its other properties. To determine rayon’s suitability for your textile crafts, we’ll start by answering some of the most relevant questions.
Now that you know whether rayon stretches or shrinks for fitting purposes, you’ll want to know about comfort and handling of the material.
Does Rayon Wrinkle?
Yes. Rayon wrinkles badly, especially after getting wet.
Heat and rayon do not go well together. You can still attempt to get rid of the wrinkles using an iron, as you shall see later in the section on how to care for rayon.
Another anti-wrinkle hack is to opt for a rayon treated with a sizing stiffener. It minimizes the tendency of the fabric to crease by maintaining its form.
Is Rayon Breathable?
Rayon is breathable and highly absorbent, the perfect summer combo. The fabric will be a pleasure on your skin on a hot day. It has the finest threads, is soft, and bears a similar chemical structure to cotton.
While commonly used in a wide range of apparel, drapery, and other household soft furnishings, rayon is a favorite for activewear and comfy summer clothes precisely because of these two properties.
Here is a summary of the properties you enjoy with rayon-made clothes:
- Cotton-soft feel
- Lustrous appearance
- Highly absorbent
- Drapes well
- Delicate with thin threads and weak when wet
- Poor crease recovery
- Dimensionally unstable and shrinks
Note that these are typical characteristics of regular viscose rayon, the most prevalent type of rayon.
There’s a different kind produced from high-quality cellulose known as high wet modulus rayon or HWM. It is produced with higher molecular alignment than regular viscose to alter some of the disadvantages of regular viscose rayon and turn them to strengths.
HWM is more dimensionally stable and has an elevated tensile strength. Therefore, it will not shrink or weaken when wet. It still retains the softness, absorbency, breathability, and high gloss of regular viscose rayon.
High tenacity rayon is the sturdiest type of rayon and is utilized industrially in tire cords and belts production.
Is Rayon Biodegradable?
If you are into sustainable dressing or eco-fashion, then this is one of the most vital questions when selecting a fabric. You are interested in knowing what happens to rayon when it finally gets to the landfill.
Rayon is highly biodegradable. Studies have shown it has an accelerated rate of decomposition in comparison to cotton, which is awesome news for the environment. It is compostable in soil, water bodies, and aqueous mediums.
Its hydrophilic properties contribute significantly to its biodegradability. Therefore, rayon esters treated to have water repellent traits -such as acetate rayon, takes the longest time to break down.
On the flip side, rayon has been associated with massive deterioration of forests over a long time. Its processing uses lethal chemicals such as carbon disulfide which has a huge negative health impact. Greenhouse gas emissions and wastewater both degrade the environment.
But recently, rayon manufacturers have started working to control pollution and depletion of natural forests.
They employ newer technology to capture and recycle the sulfur emissions back into the plant in what is known as the closed-loop manufacturing process.
Also, the wood is harvested from certified forests only. These are forests grown ethically and sustainably, ensuring continuity and without negative impacts on the environment.
Is Rayon Flammable?
Rayon is quite flammable as it contains cellulose within its fibers that burn with a yellow-colored flame. It ranks highly among flammable fabrics together with cotton and linen.
When introduced to fire, it shrinks rapidly away from it and could bind to the skin causing severe burns. However, some types of rayon are treated to be flame-resistant. Still, we recommend being careful just in case.
Uses For Rayon
Wondering what to make out of your rayon yarn or fabric? A lot. Rayon is lightweight, drapey absorbent, and breathable making it ideal for a wide range of wearables as well as anything you want to drape well.
It is particularly a crowd puller for its flattering shine and cottony feel which is one way of enjoying the benefits of the pricier cotton and high-end silk but for only a fraction of the price.
You can sew flowy dresses and skirts, sheer blouses and tops, shirts, socks, scarves, neckties, lingerie, and nighties. Rayon fabric, like cotton, also absorbs dye really well and is an excellent candidate for tie-dye crafts. You will get the most vibrant colors.
Soft furnishings such as bedspreads, curtains, cushion slipcovers, and upholstery are also made out of rayon. It is especially ideal for cooling sheets and pillows meant for hot sleepers.
Commercial sports and athletics wear brands give preference to rayon for its enhanced comfortability and inexpensive nature, although they tend to blend other materials with it for the sake of elasticity.
Industrially, rayon is woven into carpets, lined in sanitary pads, and diapers. It is a primary component in bandages and dressing for use in the medical field. It is also a key component in the processing of cellulose sausage casings and cellophane used for the manufacture of food packaging products and tapes.
Rayon fibers are the key elements in the making of artificial velvet fabric. They are also made into soft puffy balls that make up stuffing for cushions, pillows, and squishy toys.
Even tire manufacturers are now lowering their production costs by using rayon in tire cords as opposed to nylon. Rayon is everywhere!
Before diving into how to care for and clean rayon, I encourage you to pause for a moment and check out this video by Beate Myburgh!
How Do You Care For Rayon?
Rayon is no doubt a beautiful fabric with attractive sheen and playful drape. Nonetheless, its delicate nature and tendency to shrink and crease make it burdensome to care for with ordinary laundering without damaging the fibers.
Dry cleaning is the best way to clean your viscose rayon products. Most ready-made rayon item tags state that it should only be dry cleaned solely because viscose rayon does not do well with water or heat, ruling out any other cleaning method.
However, spending regularly on dry cleaning services is not a cheap deal for the average American.
If dedicating a significant part of your finances to cleaning your rayon at the dry cleaners isn’t exactly what you have in mind, you can try handwashing. It is the next best method of cleaning a rayon.
Unless advised otherwise by the manufacturer, treated rayons such as HWM or Tencel are washable by hand and machine. Untreated rayon like viscose is exclusively dry cleaned, or you risk shrinkage and washing off the colors.
How To Clean Rayon
Here’s how to clean rayon at home:
Start by eliminating any visible stains using mild stain remover, preferably diluted. Spot clean the stained patch using a soft cloth to remove the stain. Note that chlorine bleach will badly damage rayon if applied in its concentrated state. Always weaken it by diluting with water.
To handwash rayon, do the following:
- Pour lukewarm or cool water in a bucket, basin, or sink tub and add a small amount of mild detergent. Whisk the water with your hands until there are enough soap suds foamed.
- Immerse your rayon and soak in the solution for 15 minutes.
- Gently stir and agitate the item to loosen the dirt in the soiled parts and let sit for another 15 minutes.
- Rinse under cool running tap water.
- Do not squeeze, wring, or twist the fabric. There are gentler ways of removing excess water.
- You can roll it up in an absorbent towel like a swiss roll, or lay it flat between two towels and press with your hands.
- Never leave a wet rayon article crumbled for whatever reason. It will leave unimaginable stubborn wrinkles.
Machine wash can come out too strong for 100% rayon and is not recommended as a method of cleaning it.
If you can’t avoid it, invest in washing bags or net bags and use those for laundering your rayon in a washer using a low spin cold water cycle. Then dry and store as prescribed below.
Never tumble dry rayon. The heat is unbearable for the fibers, and they will shrink badly. Rayon is best to air-dry. You can hang it to drip dry, or lay it flat on a drying rack away from direct sunlight.
As beautiful and elegant as rayon is, wrinkles can be a complete letdown to your overall look. A handheld steamer comes in handy to smooth out wrinkles. Simply hover it over the rayon garment.
What if you do not have the appliance, can you iron rayon? Yes, you can try your luck with ironing, but with some reservations. You might use a steam iron or iron while your item is still damp.
Most importantly, use a wool setting or a low heat setting. Ensure the garment is inside out – or better, with a pressing cloth between the iron and the fabric.
Hang your rayon items in your closet on a padded hanger. Alternatively, fold them nicely and pack them on a flat shelf or suitcase.
Is Rayon Better Than Cotton?
Rayon shares so many similarities with cotton but has the added charm of its glorious sheen. Does that make it much better than cotton? Let’s weigh their strengths and weaknesses.
Both cotton and rayon are smooth and soft. Although cotton is more on the crispy side and is good for structured garments while rayon leans towards the silky side of texture and is excellent for drapey items.
They are both breathable and absorbent though rayon is more absorbent and possesses moisture-wicking properties, unlike cotton.
From a price point, rayon is much cheaper to produce than cotton hence more affordable to the end-user than cotton.
That’s a lot of highlights right there for rayon. Still, it has a synthetic component, a deal-breaker for a significant part of the consumer population. Some people will never wear anything with an artificial aspect making cotton superior.
Again, cotton is reliable, stable, and easy to care for. You can throw it in the washer, it will take a beating from the hot water, all the tumbling in the dryer, a hot iron, and still come out stronger.
Rayon is lacking in strength and needs special attention to clean it, which costs either time or money. It tears easily, and durability is not guaranteed.
The two fabrics are versatile and popular. The number of applications of either is shocking.
Rayon is predominantly a fashion spectacle but cotton is the real giant and polyester the closest competitor in applications across multiple spheres.
A rayon blend is perhaps a match made in heaven. You get all the excellent qualities from rayon and the other stronger more stable fabric whether cotton or polyester makes up for its weaknesses.
Rayon: The Bottom Line
Rayon is a cheaper alternative to both cotton and silk. It is a manmade natural fiber regenerated from plant cellulose.
Plus rayon boasts the desirable properties of cotton and the flattering sheen of silk. It is such a stunning beauty with marvelous color intensity and good drape.
Rayon is comfortable, soft, breathable, and absorbent. It is not stretchy but can be transformed by incorporating elastane. It is everything you would want for formal, or casual clothing.
Not without some downsides, though. The fabric wrinkles, shrinks, it is flammable and very weak when wet.
It is also susceptible to being attacked by mildew. Therefore, it needs a whole lot of care to stay in top shape. It is best blended with fibers that complement its cons.
In matters of sustainability, rayon is biodegradable which is a thumbs up. Sadly, its production also depletes resources like forests, water, and pollutes the environment. Measures are in place to keep emissions under control and preserve forests.
Many textile companies, designers, and dressmaking hobbyists are shifting their attention to rayon for its cotton traits and silky looks, at a cheaper cost.