The Weekly Journal | Fashion

By Yenia Hernandez Fonseca- July 22, 2022


Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

The clothes we wear have a collective impact on the environment. Understanding where our clothes come from and what they’re made of help us make smart purchasing decisions. The building blocks of a conscious closet rely on—among other important factors—fibre content, or the make-up of any given material. Also known as fabric content, the materials that are used to make the clothes we wear can vary from natural, synthetic, or a blend of both, which can be easily found listed on the care label or fibre content tag of each garment.

Being intentional about what you bring into your wardrobe allows our clothing to not only be used for as long as possible, but also circulate responsibly and return safely into the biosphere when it’s no longer in use. 

Fret not, taking charge and exploring sustainable alternatives is easy. The more knowledge we have, the better choices we’ll make.

Let’s boost your familiarity with one of fashion’s most commonly used materials: rayon.

What is rayon?

Most fabrics fall into two categories: natural fabrics, such as linen, wool, and silk, and synthetic fabrics, like polyester and nylon. However, there are textiles that fall somewhere in between.

Rayon is made from purified cellulose fibres, typically created from wood pulp, like beech, pine, or bamboo, and plants, such as cotton. Once cellulose is dissolved, it’s converted back to insoluble fibrous cellulose. Since this process requires certain chemicals, rayon is considered a semi-synthetic fabric.

Rayon is known as the world’s first man-made fibre, developed in the late 19th century as an affordable alternative to silk. About 24% of the rayon produced in the world comes from Grasim of India. Other countries making rayon today include Germany, Italy, Austria, China, Laos, Canada, United States, and Brazil.

What are the characteristics of Rayon?

Rayon is one of the most versatile fabrics in the market as it can take on the properties of other materials, such as silk, cotton, linen, and wool.  There are primarily 3 types of rayon:

1. Viscose rayon. 

Made of wool pulp, viscose rayon is used as silk and cotton substitutes. It has a similar drape and smooth feel, and is the most common type of rayon. The use of woody sources of cellulose makes viscose cheaper, so it’s traditionally used on a larger scale than other types. 

2. Modal

Made from beech tree pulp, modal is generally considered a more eco-friendly alternative to cotton. As an ‘upgrade’ to viscose, this soft, luxurious textile is often favored by high-end designers. Modal can be blended with other fibres, such as cotton and spandex for added strength. Modal is known as a “high wet modulus rayon,” in other words, it’s stronger when wet and doesn’t lose its shape, which is not true for viscose.

3. Lyocell

Lyocell can be made from bamboo, beech or eucalyptus trees, and its production process uses fewer harsh chemicals compared to modal. Due to its remarkable qualities, such as elasticity, flexibility, breathability and sensitivity, it can be on the pricier side. Lyocell is similar to cotton or linen and is often blended with those fibres. Comfortable, soft, and durable, it provides UV protection and is also anti-bacterial.

What is rayon used in?

Rayon has a smooth, comfortable texture that feels soft to the touch, similar in comfort to cotton and linen. Rayon isn’t water repellant; its absorbency makes it an ideal fabric for activewear and humid climates keeping you cool and dry while exercising. Its fluidity also makes it a great choice for drapey tops and loose bottoms.

Viscose is a nice option if you’re looking for a lightweight material with a nice drape, a lustrous finish, and a soft feel. Its moisture-wicking, cool, and breathable properties makes it great for athletic wear. Viscose is extremely airy, lightweight and doesn’t stick to the body, which makes it great for summer. 

Modal is stretchy, soft, breathable, water absorbent, durable, doesn’t pill and is biodegradable. In clothing, modal is often used as an alternative to cotton or silk because it has the same lightweight and breathable feel. Since modal isn't highly absorbent, it isn't commonly used in everyday household textiles, like bath towels and bed sheets, and is also perfect for underwear and pajamas. 

While some garments are made entirely from lyocell, it is more common to see this fabric mixed with other types of fabrics like cotton or polyester. Lyocell has that “peach fuzz” feel which makes it incredibly smooth and gentle on the skin, so it can be used for intimates, day-to-day garments, and sportswear. Lyocell is a durable fabric that requires less washing than cotton. 

Is Rayon an ethical fabric?

These days sustainability is on everyone’s radar, so it’s important to understand the advantages of the fibres that are used in making our clothes, especially when it comes to water waste and the chemicals involved. 

Production of rayon uses much less water and energy than that of non-organic cotton or synthetic fabrics. Essentially, rayon is biodegradable. Studies reveal that rayon decomposes faster than cotton. 

Rayon is often blended with other fabrics, such as polyester and cotton, therefore washing instructions can vary significantly. For instance, viscose has the lowest wet strength out of all the different types of rayon, which means it will shrink or lose its shape after machine-washing, and will require dry-cleaning (solvents used in regular dry cleaning can have catastrophic consequences on the environment) or hand-washing (always a more environmentally friendly option as long as you make smart water and detergent choices). 

Modal is made from regenerative plants and fewer chemicals are used in production when compared to other types of rayon. But due to the rise in popularity of modal, there’s been an increase in unregulated production, which has added to deforestation issues experienced worldwide. It can be incredibly difficult to trace back materials to their original source, so transparent supply chains are crucial in sustainable modal production.

There's light at the end of the tunnel

One of the challenges in buying sustainable fashion lies in finding clothing made with safe and sustainable practices. This journey includes identifying the fabrics these clothes were made of and considering the impacts from both creation and its decomposition.

Since its inception, rayon was and continues to be an important fibre to the textile and fashion industry. While rayon isn’t a natural fabric, it does have the ability to biodegrade.   It’s clear that rayon is not created equal. Manufacturing this material without precautions or protective guidelines can be highly toxic. 

It is important to consider the quality and manufacturing practices of rayon before purchasing an item made from this fibre. The fibre content tag will show if the garment or fabric has any certifications about its manufacture. Just like cotton and linen, certifications for rayon assure wholesalers and retailers of environmentally sound practices, meeting the standards of Oeko-Tex, 0-ZDHC, or GOTS.