What is Viscose Fabric and is it Eco-Friendly?

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You may have heard the name, but have you ever wondered exactly what is viscose fabric?

This is a question that more and more people are asking, as this versatile fabric is becoming increasingly popular.

Viscose fabric is classed as a semi-synthetic fabric because it's made from natural materials, like wood pulp, that are chemically treated.

It has a lot of unique benefits that make it an excellent choice for clothing, furniture, and other household items.

In this article, I'll discuss viscose fabric, its pros and cons, and how to choose the right type for your needs.

How Viscose Fabric Is Made

how viscose fabric is made

Natural fiber from trees and plants often used in the production of viscose fabric include:

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

Viscose fabric is made through a process called viscose rayon. It's an eight-step process:

  1. The plant/tree is chipped and added to chemicals (usually sodium hydroxide) to make a brown pulp
  2. The dissolved pulp is passed through rollers to remove excess liquid and form sheets
  3. These sheets are then shredded and treated with carbon disulfide (to help form fiber)
  4. The treated shredded sheets are then dissolved in more chemicals (usually sodium hydroxide or sulfuric acid) to create a cellulose solution known as viscose
  5. The solution is then filtered to remove any undissolved bits
  6. The solution is then degassed to remove trapped air bubbles (these can make the finished product weak)
  7. The viscose solution is forced through tiny holes, known as spinnerets, to form long strands of fiber called regenerated cellulose
  8. These cellulose fibers are then spun into yarn, which can be used to make viscose fabric.

viscose fibers through a microscope

Viscose Fabric History

Viscose rayon was first developed in the late 1800s as an alternative to silk, and it quickly became popular due to its low cost and versatility.

However, early versions of the fabric were often unstable and prone to shrinking or stretching.

Nowadays, viscose fabric is made with improved methods that make it more durable and reliable. It's also available in a variety of different weights and textures, which makes it suitable for many different applications.

Benefits Of Viscose

There are many reasons why viscose is becoming so popular. Here are some of the most notable benefits:

  • It's soft and comfortable to wear
  • It's absorbent, so great for making clothing that will keep you cool and dry
  • It's breathable, so ideal for warm weather clothing and bedding
  • It drapes well, so it's often used for making dresses, skirts, and other clothing items that require a flowing silhouette
  • It's affordable, which makes it an excellent choice for budget-conscious shoppers
  • It holds onto dye incredibly well, so it doesn't fade easily
  • It's hypoallergenic

Disadvantages Of Viscose

Of course, no fabric is perfect, and there are some potential drawbacks to viscose that you should be aware of:

  • It's not as strong as some other fabrics (especially when wet), so it may not be ideal for items that will get a lot of wear and tear
  • It can shrink or stretch if it's not properly cared for
  • It may crease or wrinkle more quickly than other fabrics
  • It's not as resistant to heat or chemicals as some other fabrics
  • It's susceptible to mildew

Environmental Impact Of Viscose

Viscose is often touted as a more environmentally-friendly alternative to other fabrics like polyester (made from oil) and traditional cotton (a dirty crop that needs lots of water and pesticides to thrive).

This is because it's made from natural materials, and the production (when done in a sustainable ‘closed-loop' fashion) process doesn't generate too many harmful emissions or waste resources such as water.

However, there are some concerns about the environmental impact of some viscose manufacturing sites.

For example, viscose rayon production often uses harmful chemicals like carbon disulfide and sodium hydroxide.

If not handled properly, these chemicals can pollute the air and water. They can also be dangerous to workers if they're not adequately protected.

Additionally, the demand for wood fiber is driving the growth of some less sustainable crops for viscose production. This can strain ecosystems and lead to deforestation.

How To Choose The Right Viscose For Your Needs

Now that you know more about viscose, you may wonder how to choose the right type for your needs. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Weight: Viscose is available in a range of different weights, from lightweight options that are perfect for summer dresses to heavier options that are better suited for winter coats. Consider the climate and the type of clothing you want to make before choosing a weight.
  • Texture: Viscose can be smooth or textured, depending on the type of yarn that's used to make it. Smooth viscose is often used for dress clothing, while textured viscose is more commonly used for upholstery or other household items.
  • Pattern: Viscose is available in various patterns and colors. Solid colors are the most common, but you can also find options with stripes, plaids, or other designs.
  • Price: Viscose is generally very affordable, but the cost can vary depending on the weight, texture, and pattern. Shop around to find the best deal on the type of fabric you need.

how viscose fabric is used

Viscose Applications

  • Clothing: Viscose is often used for making sustainable fashion such as dresses, skirts, blouses, bags, accessories, and other types of clothing
  • Upholstery: Viscose can be used for upholstering furniture, such as sofas and chairs
  • Curtains: Viscose is a popular choice for making curtains and drapes
  • Towels: Viscose is sometimes used for making bath towels, as it's absorbent and dries quickly
  • Linens: Viscose can be used to make bedding, mattress protectors, and other linens.

A Non-Fabric Application

  • Cellophane: Because of its low permeability to air, water, and germs, viscose makes a good material for food packaging

Viscose Care

Here are a few tips to keep your viscose items looking their best for longer:

  • Hand Wash: When washing delicate viscose items, hand wash in cool water to avoid shrinkage
  • Machine Wash: Viscose is sometimes machine washable with eco-friendly laundry detergent, but you should check the care label of your specific item before laundering
  • Air Dry: Viscose should be hung to dry, as it can shrink if it's placed in the dryer
  • Iron On Low Heat: If you need to iron your viscose, do so on a low setting to avoid damage

Difference Between Viscose And Polyester

Viscose and polyester can often feel similar, but there are a few key differences between them:

  • Polyester is synthetic fibers made from petroleum, while viscose is made from wood pulp
  • Polyester is less absorbent than viscose, meaning it doesn't breathe as well and can make you sweat more
  • Polyester's synthetic fibers are more durable than viscose, meaning they're less likely to tear or pill over time
  • Viscose is more environmentally friendly than polyester, as it's made from renewable resources and doesn't require as much energy to produce
  • Polyester is stronger than Viscose
  • Polyester dries faster than Viscose
  • Viscose is entirely biodegradable (in around six weeks), polyester is not

Difference Between Viscose And Silk

  • Silk is made from the cocoons of silkworms, while viscose is made from wood pulp
  • Viscose is less expensive than silk
  • Silk is considered more eco-friendly, but viscose is a vegan option

Difference Between Viscose And Cotton

  • Cotton is more durable
  • Cotton is easier to wash
  • Cotton is more readily available
  • Cotton is cheaper
  • Viscose is lighter and softer

Other Types Of Rayon Fabric

Viscose, lyocell, and modal are all rayon fibers from wood cellulose. Where they differ is how they're processed.

Modal Rayon Fabric

The process for making modal is almost identical to the viscose process mentioned earlier in this article.

The critical difference is that the fibers used in modal are more heavily processed, making the finished product stronger, lighter, and more breathable.

Arabella covers high wet modulus rayon in more detail in her What is Modal Fabric and is it TRULY Sustainable? article.

Lyocell Rayon Fabric

Lyocell uses similar natural fibers to viscose and modal, but the process is different and more eco-friendly.

This is because a closed-loop manufacturing system is usually used (meaning resources are reused and not wasted), and toxic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide (also known as caustic soda) and sulfuric acid are replaced with a non-toxic organic compound called N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMMO).

Frequently Asked Questions

What Fabric Is Best For Sensitive Skin?

There are a few different options for fabrics that are good for sensitive skin. One option is bamboo fabric, which is naturally hypoallergenic and anti-bacterial. Another option is organic cotton, which is also hypoallergenic.

Natural silk (or artificial silk such as viscose) is another fabric that can be good for people with sensitive skin, as it is gentle and can be less irritating.

Is Viscose Better Than Cotton?

This is a difficult question to answer, as it depends on personal preferences. Viscose is more environmentally friendly than traditional cotton (which requires a lot of water and chemicals to grow) but less environmentally friendly than organic cotton.

However, some people find viscose less breathable and more prone to wrinkling than cotton.

The Final Word

Viscose rayon fabric is a popular choice for various items, and it has many environmental benefits over a synthetic fabric like polyester.

Viscose is made from wood pulp, so you would assume it's eco-friendly on the surface.

However, the eco-credentials soon get lost depending on the manufacturing process and chemicals used.

It's not the worst fabric around, but more sustainable fabrics are available.

Get In Touch

Do you buy rayon fabric? Which is your favorite…viscose, modal, or lyocell? Or do you prefer natural fibers such as hemp and organic cotton? Drop me a line and let me know.

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James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.
James Miller
James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.

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