Design, Photography, & Fashion

Fabric Guide: What Is Viscose? Understanding Viscose Fabric and How Viscose Is Made

Written by MasterClass

May 9, 2019 • 4 min read

Soft and lightweight, viscose fabric is a fixture of many wardrobes and homes and has been in use since the late 1800s. Viscose comes from trees, but it is not as environmentally as other types of rayon, such as modal, because the production process uses high concentrations of chemicals. Viscose is cheap to produce and is a versatile fabric used for clothing items such as blouses, dresses, and jackets, and around the home in carpets and upholstery.

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What Is Viscose?

Viscose is a semi-synthetic type of rayon fabric made from wood pulp that is used as a silk substitute, as it has a similar drape and smooth feel to the luxury material. The term “viscose” refers specifically to the solution of wood pulp that is turned into the fabric. Viscose was first produced in 1883 as a cheaper, artificial silk.

How Is Viscose Made?

Viscose is made from tree wood pulp, like beech, pine, and eucalyptus, but can also be made from bamboo. Viscose is semi-synthetic due to the many chemicals involved in the viscose process, like sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide.

The viscose manufacturing process is summed up in five steps:

  1. The plant is chipped into a wood pulp and dissolved chemicals like sodium hydroxide, forming a brown wood pulp solution.
  2. This brown wood pulp is then washed, cleaned, and bleached.
  3. To create the fibers, the pulp is treated with carbon disulfide and then dissolved in sodium hydroxide to create the solution referred to as “viscose.”
  4. The viscose solution is forced through a spinneret, which is a machine that creates filaments, called regenerated cellulose.
  5. This regenerated cellulose is spun into yarn, which can then be woven or knit into viscose rayon fabric.

What Are the Characteristics of Viscose?

Viscose is a great option if you’re looking for a lightweight material with a nice drape, a lustrous finish, and a soft feel. It is relatively inexpensive and can convey luxury for a much lower price point. It also blends well with other fibers like cotton, polyester, and spandex.

  • Absorbent. Viscose rayon does not trap heat, but it also absorbs water and sweat nicely, making it great for t-shirts and athletic wear.
  • Lightweight. Viscose is extremely airy, which makes it nice for blouses and summer dresses.
  • Breathable. It’s a very light fabric that doesn’t stick to the body, so it’s optimal for warm weather clothing.
  • Soft. While the material looks like silk, it feels like cotton.
  • Maintains Shape. The fabric is not elastic but can be blended with other textiles, such as spandex, to add stretch.
  • Dye fast. Viscose can hold dye without fading, even after long-term use and washes.

Fabric Care Guide: How To Care for Viscose?

Viscose clothing needs to be dry cleaned, and sometimes spot treatments can lead to permanent stains. It can stretch and becomes much weaker when wet.

If you do opt to wash viscose, always hand wash in cold water to avoid any dye bleeds. Use a mild detergent and gently work it into the fabric. Do not wring or squeeze the item so as not to stretch it. Rinse and shake out the water and hang it or lay it flat to dry.

3 Environmental Considerations in Viscose Fabric Production

When considering sustainability, viscose is not an environmentally friendly option, due to water waste in the production process, saturation of chemicals, and destruction of local ecosystems. Here are some things to consider before choosing to purchase viscose:

  1. Deforestation. While the wood to make viscose can be sustainably harvested, it oftentimes does not come from sustainably-grown forests, wiping out large natural forests and negatively impacting local ecosystems.
  2. Toxic chemicals. The production of viscose uses a high concentration of toxic chemicals that pollute the air and water. Sulfur, nitrous oxides, carbon, disulfide, and hydrogen sulfide are found in air emissions around viscose manufacturing sites. Although the chemicals can be reused across the production cycle, it is not a perfect process, and production for other types of rayon, like modal, tencel, and lyocell, are cleaner.
  3. Water waste. Viscose production uses a lot of water, both in watering the trees and in the process of turning those trees into fabric.

Viscose is biodegradable and made from a renewable resource, however, though the environmental impact of producing viscose is still high.

What Is the Difference Between Viscose and Polyester?

While many consider the viscose and polyester to be similar, there are a lot of differences between the two materials.

  • Both polyester and rayon are made from long fibers, but polyester is a synthetic fiber, whereas viscose is semi-synthetic, i.e. using natural fibers but chemicals in the process
  • Polyester is more moisture-wicking while viscose is more absorbent.
  • Polyester dries faster and does not wrinkle as easily as viscose.
  • Polyester is stronger and does not shrink.
  • Viscose is more likely to pill, whereas polyester resists abrasion.
  • Polyester is made from oil while viscose is made from plants.

What Is the Difference Between Viscose and Modal?

  • Modal is what’s called a “high wet modulus rayon,” which means it’s a type of rayon that’s stronger when wet and doesn’t lose its shape, which is not true for viscose.
  • The production process for modal is almost exactly the same as that for viscose, but the fibers used in modal undergo more processing which makes the final product stronger, lighter, and more breathable.
  • Modal is more environmentally friendly than viscose because lower concentrations of sodium hydroxide are used to make it.