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    Rayon: Is that Silk?  

  Author: Karen Brandon

History: The result of efforts to create a cheaper substitute for the precious and expensive silk fiber was rayon, the first manufactured celluosic fiber. Invented in 1884 in France, it was first manufactured for commercial uses in 1910 by Avtex Fibers Inc. in the United States. At first rayon was sold as artificial silk. However, manufacturers thought that the word “artificial” was not very appealing from a marketing standpoint. A nationwide contest was held to find the appropriate name. The prize was $1,000 for the person with the best suggestion. Out of the 10,000 suggestions received, not one was chosen. Finally, a member of the name committee said “Let’s just see if we can shed a Ray of Light on this problem. Why not the word RAYON.”¹ Rayon is derived from a French word meaning “rays of light”. The committee members agreed on rayon as the official name. In 1924 the official name “rayon” was adopted by the industry. Although rayon never replaced silk as first anticipated manufacturers have tried and perfected various methods of production. It is currently produced in the United States and in such countries as Japan and Russia.

Production: Even though rayon is considered a manufactured fiber, it is made from tree cellulose. The basic process of creating rayon is treating and dissolving cellulose in a soda solution and passing it through tiny holes into a chemical bath which forms the fibers. The type of rayon produced is named by the process which was used to produce it. Viscose is one of the earliest and most commonly used production method today. It makes up the majority of rayon used in clothing textiles. One common tradename for rayon is Modal®.

Viscose Process:

  1. Cellulose - wood pulp is dissolved into cellulose sheets
  2. Steeping - the sheets are saturated with a soda solution
  3. Pressing - the sheets are pressed to remove excess solution
  4. Shredding - the sheets are shredded to increase surface area, termed “white crumb”
  5. Aging - the white crumb is exposed to oxygen for a period of time
  6. Xanthation - aged white crumb is mixed with a chemical solution, now yellow crumb
  7. Dissolving - the yellow crumb is dissolved into a solution forming viscose
  8. Ripening - the viscose stands for a period of time allowing it to ripen
  9. Filtering - the viscose is filtered to remove undissolved particles
  10. Degassing - bubbles of air are pressed out of the viscose
  11. Spinning - viscose is pushed through tiny holes into a chemical bath creating fibers
  12. Drawing - the rayon is stretched to straighten out the fibers
  13. Washing - the fibers are cleaned to remove excess materials from the solutions
  14. Cutting - the rayon fiber is cut to the desired length

Another type of rayon is cuprammonium rayon. It is marketed under the tradename of Bemberg® rayon.

Rayon Fiber Characteristics:

  • Highly Absorbent
  • Soft and comfortable
  • Easy to dye
  • Drapes well

End Uses: Rayon is a part of everyday life. You may be surprised at where you can find it.

  • Apparel - Viscose rayon is a very bright, lustrous fiber and is often found in formal wear. Other uses include: accessories, blouses, dresses, lingerie, linings, millinery, slacks, sportshirts, sportswear, suits, ties, work clothes and embroidery.
  • Regular rayon is highly flammable; however, it can now be made flame-resistant by adding special chemicals to the viscose solution. Consequently, flame-resistant rayon can now be found in institutional textiles.
  • Home Furnishings - Bedspreads, blankets, curtains, antique-satin draperies, sheets, slipcovers, tablecloths and upholstery
  • Industrial Uses - Industrial products, medical surgical products, nonwoven products and automobile tire cord and sidewall plies
  • Other - Feminine hygiene products, disposable diapers, photographic film, bowling balls and cellophane which is used as a wrapping material

Blends: Rayon is commonly blended with other fibers to obtain the best characteristics from each fiber. Some common blends include:

  • rayon/cotton
  • acrylic/rayon
  • rayon/polyester
  • rayon/acetate
  • rayon/wool
  • silk/rayon

Fabric Care Instructions: Advancements in technology have lead to improvements in the maintenance and durability of fabrics made from rayon. Some of the general care instructions are as follows:

  • Rayon fabrics can be bleached. However, some finishes used on rayon can be sensitive to chlorine bleach.
  • Fabrics containing rayon should be dry-cleaned or hand washed. Hand wash - Use cool to luke warm water, add gentle suds and gentle squeeze suds through fabric and rinse. Do not wring or twist the fabric. Shake or smooth out the fabric and place to dry on a rust proof hanger. Knitted fabrics should be laid flat to dry.
  • The fabric can be pressed while damp or dry at a medium setting. It is often best to press on the wrong side of the fabric or use a pressing cloth while pressing on the right side of the fabric.
  • Damage can occur to rayon fabrics from acids, silverfish and mildew. Sunlight is not harmful.


  • ¹Kathryn Hatch. Textile Science, (West Publishing Company) St. Paul, MN 55164, 181-191.
  • Sara J. Kadolph, Anna L. Langford, Textiles/...{et al} (8th ed. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Simon & Schuster/A Viacom Company) Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 07458, pages 82-7.