Unveiling the Mystery of Viscose Fabric (In 10 Minutes or Less)

By Vinita Baravkar

Viscose (a form of rayon) is a fabric often used as a substitute for silk and cotton.

But despite its increasing popularity, viscose is still shrouded in a veil of mystery.

Maybe you’re looking to find out more about viscose, or how it compares with other popular materials like cotton and polyester.

In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about viscose, from what it is to its sustainability, and whether it’s the right fit for you and your family.

What is Viscose?

Viscose is a semi-synthetic fabric that is made from processed wood pulp. The wood pulp is extracted from trees such as beech, pine, eucalyptus and bamboo.

It’s extensively used in the activewear industry to make athleisure due to its absorbent qualities. It's also known as artificial silk due to its uncanny softness and luxurious texture.

In fact, the fabric was first invented as a low-cost alternative to silk.

So let's travel back in time to see how viscose first came about.

A Brief History of Viscose

Back in the 18th century, fabric makers and textile traders were searching for a cheaper alternative to silk. Because of its rarity, silk had started to become an expensive fabric. The middle class could no longer afford to buy silk.

It was around that time that inventor Hilaire de Chardonnet came up with the first artificial silk, also known as Chardonnet silk.

But there was one caveat.

This fabric was highly flammable.

In his book Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century, author Stephen Fenichell narrates that in 1891, “a fashionable young lady’s ball gown, accidentally touched by her escort’s cigar, disappeared in a puff of smoke on the ballroom floor."

Following this mishap, the fabric was taken off the market.

A year later in 1892, Charles Cross and Edward Bevan invented another fabric.

In a lab experiment, the two scientists treated cellulose with caustic soda and carbon bisulphite, resulting in a thick gooey honey-like liquid. This liquid had a high viscosity and was named - Viscose.

Though they tried, they didn't have much luck in making a fibre out of this liquid.

But this was about to change.

One day, seven years later in 1899, Charles Topham entered the picture.

Mr Topham bought the rights to make viscose into a fibre. At first, he faced a similar struggle as the inventors did.

But he had a Eureka moment one day when he saw a spinning bicycle wheel. Inspired by it, Mr Topham developed "Topham Box". This machine spun at 3000 RPM, throwing out perfect viscose fibres. There was no turning back.

In just under a few months, the textile entrepreneur was churning out 12,000 pounds of viscose fabric a day. Keeping up with the demand, he soon started licensing the fabric to manufacturers around the world.

Viscose as we know it today took over the world.

How is Viscose Made?

Viscose fabric is made through an extensive procedure in textile factories.

As a result, the manufacturing process is quite resource and labour-intensive. It has several steps from obtaining the raw wood pulp (cellulose) to turning it into an actual fabric.

Here are the steps below to illustrate the production process of viscose fabric:

Step 1: Extracting the Cellulose

As mentioned before, viscose fabric is made from the cellulose found inside wood pulp. So the first step is to extract the cellulose.

This can come from various sources like wood fibre of beech, pine, eucalyptus, bamboo trees, and at times, even from seaweed. For the best quality viscose rayon fabric, the cellulose should ideally be 90% pure.

Step 2: Converting the Cellulose to Alkali

Next, the cellulose is dissolved in a solution of caustic soda. Some chemistry brews. The cellulose gets converted to an alkali. During this process, any impurities present are dealt with and the cellulose is prepped for the next step.

Step 3: Pressing

The reasonably pure alkali cellulose is now pressed between two rollers, where any excess liquid is squeezed out. The pressed cellulose sheets are dried and shredded into a crumbly texture, known as the "white crumb".

Step 4: Ageing and Xanthation

The white crumb is exposed to pure oxygen which causes it to age. It's then exposed to carbon disulphide, a toxic chemical (more on that later), which turns it yellow. The resulting mixture is predictably called "yellow crumb".

Step 5: Ripening

Next, the yellow crumb is dissolved in a mixture and left alone to "ripen" for a few hours. The result is a viscous yellow syrup with a honey-like texture, which is how the fabric gets its name.

Step 6: Filtering

Once it's all ripe and ready, the yellow syrup is filtered. Gas bubbles are removed and it’s then pumped through a spinneret. You can think of a spinneret like a shower head with many tiny holes in it.

Step 7: Acid Bath

Finally, the syrup is treated in a bath of diluted sulphuric acid, sodium sulphate and zinc sulphate. The syrup congeals into fine filaments and fibres of pure cellulose.

Step 8: Turning into Fabric

The rayon filaments are finally spun, drawn, washed and woven into a fabric that can be cut to any size and shape, depending upon the intended use.

Read more: What is Nylon (And What To Consider Before Buying it)

Is Viscose a Natural Fibre?

Short answer: no.

Though viscose fibre is sourced from natural materials (wood fibres, seaweed etc), it’s heavily processed.

Chemicals such as carbon disulphide, sodium hydroxide and others are used extensively in the manufacturing process. Not to mention the synthetic dyes used to colour the fabric once it reaches the finishing stage.

These toxic chemicals are often released as waste into the air and waterways, causing pollution and endangering both human and marine life.

Speaking of toxic chemicals…

Is Viscose Bad for the Environment?

Being a plant-based material, the fabric is not inherently toxic or polluting.

But the real problem lies in its production process.

Truth is, the viscose production process is neither sustainable nor good for the environment. Here's why.

In order to meet the demands of a growing fast fashion industry, most of the viscose fabric today is manufactured globally using a resource and chemically-intensive process. This process has harmful effects on the workers, local communities, and of course, the environment.

The problem can be broken down into two parts.

First, sourcing the wood pulp.

Viscose production contributes to the rapid depletion of the world’s most ancient forests to clear land for pulpwood plantations.

It’s estimated that every year over 150 million trees are chopped down to support this industry.

A study found that around 30% of viscose rayon used by the fashion industry is made from wood pulp that can be traced back to trees from endangered and ancient forests.

Not only does this result in habitat destruction and threatens endangered species — it's also a human rights violation. Many suppliers engage in notorious activities like land grabbing from local communities and indigenous groups to grow pulpwood plantations for viscose.

Next comes the toxic production process, which poses some pretty serious risks to the environment and workers.

Carbon disulphide, one of the chemicals used in viscose production, is a toxic chemical. Many studies have linked it to higher levels of coronary heart disease, stroke, birth defects, skin conditions, Parkinson's and even cancer.

Both the textile factory workers and those who live near the factories are exposed to this lethal chemical.

In fact, the chemical has previously been linked to causing hysteria in factory workers.

Many moons ago, viscose used to be manufactured in the US and Europe.

However, since the 1990s, it has moved overseas to developing countries like India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and China.

These countries lack stringent rules and regulations surrounding environmental and worker health.

And that’s just inside the factory.

When the textile factory dumps these chemicals into the waterways, the local communities can be poisoned.

In a 2017 investigation by the Changing Markets Foundation, fast fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, and Marks & Spencer were linked to highly polluting viscose factories in China, India, and Indonesia.

In another report, Indonesian rayon factory workers were found washing off the chemicals from the textiles right in the river.

In China, there’s plenty of evidence of viscose production poisoning workers and local water bodies. In one such report, the toxic wastewater turned an entire lake black.

In India, a plant was dumped into a Ganges tributary, poisoning local families and causing the mental faculties of children to degenerate before they reached their teens.

All these incidents present rather a gory behind-the-scenes picture of how toxic the production process of viscose truly is.

Viscose vs Cotton

Though both fabrics are sourced from plant-based sources, cotton is a natural organic fabric while viscose is semi-synthetic in nature.

Viscose fabric is often mistaken for natural fabrics such as silk and cotton as it mimics their soft feel and texture.

However, cotton is considered to be a superior fabric over viscose. There are many reasons for that.

To begin with, viscose is not as durable as cotton. The thin fine fibres often break down when put under wet or challenging conditions.

This isn't the case with cotton, which has a high fabric strength and endurance.

Then comes the environmental factor.

Viscose production has more steps and is highly resource intensive. The process wastes a lot of energy, water and uses toxic chemicals like carbon disulphide.

You can check out the major differences between viscose and organic cotton in the summary table below.

Properties Viscose Organic Cotton
Fabric Is a semi-synthetic fabric made from wood pulp that undergoes a chemical-intensive process. Is a 100% natural fabric that's made by growing and harvesting cotton using no chemicals or pesticides.
Price Cheaper More expensive due to superior fabric quality
Durability Harder to wash and maintain  Can be easily machine-washed 
Sustainability Not an eco-friendly fabric Is an eco-friendly and sustainable fabric
Colour Maintenance Holds colours and dyes longer with toxic chemical fasteners Colour is not artificially locked in with toxic chemical fasteners
Performance When Wet Is weaker than cotton when wet and has lower water retention Is stronger than viscose and has better water retention ability 

Viscose vs Polyester

A lot of people confuse viscose and polyester. Both of them are made using chemicals, and both are used in making activewear.

However, there are some significant differences between the two.

The table below highlights the major differences between viscose rayon and polyester.

Properties Viscose Polyester
Fabric Is a semi-synthetic fabric made from wood pulp that undergoes a chemical-intensive process. Is a fully synthetic fabric
Durability Shrinks and wrinkles easily. More prone to pilling. Does not have the strength and endurance of polyester. Doesn't shrink and wrinkle as easily as viscose• Has more strength• Less prone to pilling
Sustainability Is biodegradable and better for the environment than polyester Not biodegradable as it's made of petroleum

The Pros and Cons of Viscose Fabric

Before you make a purchase, you need to be aware of the pros and cons of the material to make a choice you’ll be happy with later.

Here are a few benefits and disadvantages of viscose fabric to help you make an informed decision.

Benefits of Viscose

  • Lightweight: Viscose is a lightweight and airy fabric. It doesn't stick to your skin.
  • Breathable: Quite similar to cotton, the fabric is breathable.
  • Absorbent: Viscose absorbs water and sweat with ease. This absorbent nature of the fabric makes it a great choice for the fast fashion industry, hygienic disposable industry as well as the activewear industry to make workout clothes and athleisure.
  • Affordable: Mimicking the luxurious look and texture of silk, viscose is much more affordable compared to silk.
  • Holds colour really well: The fabric can be dyed in various shades and retains the colour well, even after many years of use and washing.
  • Blends easily with other fabrics: Viscose is quite versatile and easily blends with most fibres. For example, the fabric blends with polyester to form polyviscose. It also blends with cotton to form cotton viscose.

Disadvantages of Viscose

  • Shrinks easily: When washed in hot water, viscose is prone to shrink. It also wrinkles quite easily.
  • Weak when wet: When wet, the viscose fibres become weak. This is why the fabric almost always has to be dry-cleaned. Viscose is also prone to mildew.
  • Bagging: The fabric is prone to bagging after multiple uses. Unfortunately, it doesn't return to its original shape and form once stretched. Due to this reason and its lack of strength, viscose is not used in home furnishings.
  • Fading: When exposed to light and heat, viscose fabric starts to fade and deteriorate.
  • Harmful to the environment and human health: The fabric is made of natural material wood pulp. But its manufacturing process involves heavy use of chemicals and releases toxic fumes which pollute and harm our air and waterways.

Is there any Sustainable, Greener Alternative to Viscose?

By now we clearly know that the limitations of viscose outweigh its benefits.

However, luckily there are many sustainable, natural alternatives currently available for you to purchase on the market — such as organic cotton, hemp and organic linen.

And many brands are going above and beyond to ensure a transparent supply chain with ethical, earth-friendly fabric production.

Take Bhumi's organic cotton fabrics, for example.

Bhumi's organic cotton is sourced from small farmers who use sustainable and ethical practices, supporting fair labour and protecting the planet.

All of the cotton is organically grown and produced as nature intended — without the use of any toxic chemicals.

Bhumi only uses GOTS-certified cotton made in Fairtrade factories in rural India. Across the whole supply chain, there are no genetically modified (GM) seeds, no harmful chemicals, insecticides and pesticides, no toxic dyes, bleaches or finishes, and no child labour. On top of that, Bhumi ensures fair wages and safe working conditions.

What's more, the organic cotton farmers use sustainable and regenerative farming principles that replenish soil fertility and promote soil health, biodiversity and natural pest control. Natural fertilisers such as animal manure and compost are used that recycle the nitrogen within the soil.

Explore Bhumi's range of organic cotton clothing, bedsheets and sleepwear.

The Bottom Line

Now that you know the properties of viscose and how it is made, you can make an informed choice for your next purchase.

Though the fabric has its benefits, the downsides are hard to overlook with its production paying a heavy price on the environment and textile workers.

In recent years, there has been a movement within the industry lobbying for sustainable viscose production, stringent rules and certifications.

Organisations like CanopyStyle are working to make supply chains more transparent by urging brands to find better, renewable sources for their fabrics.

But there’s still a long way to go before we see some real change.

As of now, it’s better to stick to greener alternatives like organic cotton and hemp which have a minimal footprint on our planet and are overall a more ethical choice for your family, garment workers, and the environment.

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