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History of Rayon

Employing the biomass of the bamboo plant for textile production is a relatively new practice, starting around 2001 in China. The actual fibers of the bamboo plant have been used for millennia to make a type of fabric similar to linen or hemp. The new “bamboo” textiles often seen in major department stores are really just rayon made with bamboo as a source of cellulose. The biomass production of bamboo has been the stuff of legends for millennia. Bamboo narrowly beats hemp as the fastest growing plant known. Due to bamboo’s rapid growth, bamboo is a cheap, plentiful, and renewable source of cellulose. Cellulose is the needed raw material for the making of rayon fabrics.

Rayon is a fabric made from fibers produced from bio-plastics. Bio- plastics is a field of chemistry where polymers are made by using cellulose from plants as a base ingredient, as opposed to petro chemicals. Cellulose it the complex sugar the tough cell walls of plants are mode of. Cellulose is what makes woods hard and bamboo stalks so strong. Just about any plant based bio-mass will suffice as the base cellulose raw material for bio- plastics. For over a century, wood chips have been the base ingredient for the making of bio-plastics. Brazilian chemists have developed a very good working knowledge of turning sugar cane into bio-plastics.

Rayon is not a new invention. The first bio-plastic discovery was made by a French chemist named Georges Audemars in 1855. Audemars discovered that cellulose could be dissolved in organic solvents then made into plastics. The first rayon imitation silk made by the copper ammonia method was sold in the 1880’s in Europe. Rayon was first patented in France in 1885 by Count Hilaire de Chardonnet. During the 1860’s, the French silk industry was suffering from diseases killing the silk caterpillars. Rayon was originally intended to be a substitute for silk. There are two basic types of rayon production, the first is the copper and ammonia method invented in the 1880’s, the other is the viscose method first used in the 1920’s. The chemical processes are a bit different between the copper ammonia and the viscose methods, but the end result is a bio-plastic based thread used for textiles. Today, there is a long list of nations that have permanently banned the copper and ammonia method of producing rayon due to environmental concerns.

Rayon is an extruded fiber textile and follows the same basic manufacturing process as polyester, acrylic, and milk fiber. The manufacturing of rayon involves first mechanically breaking down the plant matter. The plant matter is broken down with water and pulverization, a lot like making paper. The cellulose pulp is then dissolved in a mixture of water and sodium hydroxide and aged 2-3 days. The corrosive alkaline sodium hydroxide mixed with water makes a solution called viscose. The viscose solution is then mixed with carbon disulfide and aged for 4-5 days. The solution of carbon disulfide and viscose is called sodium cellulose xanthate. The sodium cellulose xanthate solution is an orange powder. After the sitting time is over, the sodium cellulose xanthate is mixed with sodium hydroxide again to form a liquid. The sodium cellulose xanthate and sodium hydroxide solution is then extruded into a bath of acid to remove the sodium hydroxide. The cellulose fibers are then washed several times in different chemical baths to further remove acids and sodium hydroxide. Between Chemical baths the rayon fibers are straitened and stretched. Finally, the fibers are dried and spooled.

Cellophane, the bio-plastic often used for food packaging is just a different form of the same bio-plastic used to make rayon fibers. Rayon is not considered to truly be a natural fabric, nor an entirely synthetic fabric. I myself would consider rayon to be a synthetic fabric due to the amount of chemical processing needed, and the many steps involved in the process of going from plant cellulose to a finished rayon product.

Ecological and Social Impact of Rayon

Q: Is rayon a viable alternative to cotton?
A: No. The rayon fabric itself has too many drawbacks compared to other fabrics. The environmental impact of rayon is also not favorable at this time.

There is some good news for rayon on the environmental front at this time. The environmental aspects of rayon and other bio-plastics production are still not real good, but the newer bio-plastics production plants are constantly getting better at keeping toxic materials out of the water sheds where the production takes place. Increasingly, more water and chemicals are being recycled in the bio-plastics production processes and more biological enzymes are being substituted for harsher chemicals. Bio-plastics manufacturers are getting better about fresh water usage. In the future it is possible to have a completely closed loop of chemical use in a rayon producing facility that releases no pollutants into the water shed. Rayon production facilities are also getting better about using less fresh water.

Bio-plastics are also increasingly being made with wood chips obtained from specialized wood pulp plantations that are less ecologically harmful than clear cut logging. The practices of logging and forestry in general are becoming more ecologically sustainable and environmentally responsible. It is hard to justify preaching against the use of all wood products. The use of bamboo as a base ingredient for making rayon is a step in the right direction for the environment. Rayon can be sourced from other fast growing and environmentally friendly plants like switch grass, and hemp. Rayon can also be made from agricultural and urban plant matter waste. However, the new bamboo rayon on the market today seems to lose a lot of its environmental friendliness when one examines not just the production of the bamboo itself, but also the process of turning the bamboo cellulose into rayon the fabric.

Q: I have heard that this bamboo rayon has inherent anti-bacterial qualities like the bamboo plant itself, is this true?
A: No, the bamboo made into rayon is so heavily processed and chemically treated that there are no more inherent anti-bacterial qualities left over from the bamboo plant.

Q: Do you plan on incorporating pearl fiber fabric in your designs?
A: Maybe. What is sold as “pearl fiber” fabric or ”pearl” fabric is just rayon with very small chunks of pearl put in the viscose solution before extrusion. The pieces of pearl embedded in the rayon threads are made by pulverizing pearls into nanometer sized chunks.

Q: What are the advantages of incorporating rayon fabrics into your clothing designs?
A: For starters, rayon fabrics are generally not very expensive and have a nice sheen, kind of like silks. Rayon is also very soft and “breathable” just like cotton. Rayon fiber fabrics also have a soft and supple feel, like cotton. Rayon fabrics absorb almost one third of their weigh in water before feeling wet, this makes rayon nice for keeping cool in hot weather. Rayon is also very good for people with sensitive skin or allergies to other fabrics. Rayon is often used in exercise clothing and undergarments because it is not very allergenic and stays cool very well. The process of making rayon fibers may involve a lot of toxic chemicals; however, rayon itself is not toxic. Rayon is biodegradable.

Q: Ok, so what are the down sides to incorporating rayon into a clothing design?
A: Rayon has several potential problems. First it shrinks rather badly in a dryer. Rayon also is prone to breaking when wet. Rayon loses up to 60% of its strength when completely wet. Rayon is not the most durable and long lasting of fabrics. Rayon fiber does not recycle well and tends to wear out rather quickly. Rayon is considered to have the lowest elasticity of any textile fiber in use today. Rayon is not known for holding colors too well, and rayon is also known for discoloring when ironed. The downside to rayon absorbing water, breathing well, and generally staying cool in hot weather, is that it generally does not do a very good job of keep a person warm. Rayon is not a good choice of fabrics for colder weather.