Viscose: A Versatile Fabric With Sustainable Potential

By: Mack Hayden  | 
Close-up of lightweight yellow scarf
The cellulose fibers in viscose can do an extraordinary job of mimicking luxurious fabrics such as silk. Iryna Veklich / Getty Images

Viscose, a semisynthetic fiber, is the most common type of rayon fabric. It's become a staple in the textile industry due to its versatility and affordability. Derived from cellulose and wood pulp, viscose can mimic the luxurious feel of silk while offering the practicality of cotton.

The first commercial viscose rayon marked a significant advancement in textile manufacturing, though the use of toxic chemicals in the development process remains a concern. Ensuring responsible handling of these substances is crucial to mitigating environmental and health impacts.


Let's dive into what this rayon fiber is, its various uses, how it’s made and the best ways to care for it.

What Is Viscose Rayon?

Viscose is a type of rayon, which is a fiber made from regenerated cellulose. Unlike fully synthetic fabrics such as polyester, viscose is semisynthetic, combining natural and synthetic processes.

The term "viscose" refers to the viscous organic liquid formed during the process of making this fiber, which is subsequently spun into threads. Viscose rayon includes regular rayon, high wet modulus rayon and cuprammonium rayon. Each type has distinct properties and applications.


What Is Viscose Fabric Used For?

Viscose fabric is celebrated for its silklike qualities. It drapes beautifully and feels soft to the touch. Its breathability and absorbency make it a popular choice for summer clothing, sportswear and linings — hard to feel overheated if you're wearing viscose!

This fabric combines the luxurious look of silk with the practicality of more common materials like cotton and polyester. Beyond apparel, viscose is also used in home textiles like curtains, upholstery and bed linens due to its versatility and aesthetic appeal.


Often referred to as "artificial silk," viscose provides a cost-effective alternative to natural silk. This nickname arises from its smooth texture and sheen, which closely resemble real silk. However, unlike pure silk, viscose is more affordable and easier to produce, making it accessible to a wider market.

How Does Wood Pulp Fit Into the Equation?

The production of viscose starts with wood pulp, derived from trees such as eucalyptus, beech and pine. This pulp undergoes several chemical treatments to extract cellulose, the natural polymer that forms the backbone of viscose fibers.

The use of renewable wood sources positions viscose as a more sustainable option compared to purely synthetic fibers, although the production process involves several chemical steps that need to be managed responsibly.


How Viscose Is Made

The production of viscose and rayon involves intricate rayon production methods that transform natural fibers into versatile materials. Completing the viscose process involves dissolving cellulose from wood pulp into a viscous solution, which is then extruded through fine holes to form filaments. These filaments are solidified by chemical reactions, creating the fibers that are spun into yarn.

This production method, while efficient, requires careful management of chemicals like carbon disulfide and sulfuric acid to minimize environmental impact.


Check out this step by step guide about how you can make viscose from scratch.

  1. Preparation of cellulose: Treat wood pulp with caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) to produce alkali cellulose.
  2. Aging: Age the alkali cellulose to reduce its molecular weight.
  3. Xanthation: Treat the aged alkali cellulose with carbon disulfide to form cellulose xanthate.
  4. Dissolution: Dissolve cellulose xanthate in a diluted sodium hydroxide solution, creating a viscous solution. (Get it? Viscous, viscose?)
  5. Extrusion: Extrude the solution through spinnerets into an acid bath, where it will solidify into filaments.
  6. Spinning: Spin the filaments into fibers, then weave or knit them into fabrics.


How to Launder Viscose

Viscose requires careful laundering to maintain its quality and extend its lifespan. Follow these tips to keep your viscose garments looking their best.

  • Hand-wash: Always hand-wash viscose in cold water to prevent shrinking and damage. Fill a basin with cold water and add a small amount of mild detergent.
  • Use mild detergent: Use a mild detergent designed for delicate fabrics. Harsh chemicals can weaken the fibers, so opt for a gentle formula that will clean without causing harm.
  • Avoid wringing: Gently swish the garment in the water and avoid wringing or twisting it. Wringing can distort the shape of viscose items and damage the fibers.
  • Dry flat: After washing, carefully lay the garments flat on a clean, dry towel. Roll the towel to remove excess water, then lay the garment flat to dry. Keep it away from direct sunlight, which can cause fading and stretching.
  • Ironing: If ironing is necessary, set the iron to a low heat setting. Iron the garment while it is still slightly damp to remove wrinkles effectively. Place a clean cloth between the iron and the viscose fabric to avoid direct contact and potential damage.


Other Types of Rayon and Viscose

While viscose may be the most popular type of rayon fabric, there are plenty of others to note as well. For example, both modal rayon and tencel lyocell are advanced forms of rayon that offer enhanced performance.

Modal rayon is known for its high tenacity and resistance to shrinkage, making it ideal for undergarments and activewear.


Tencel lyocell, produced using a more eco-friendly solvent spinning process, boasts excellent moisture management and biodegradability.

In addition, high wet modulus rayon, is known for its exceptional strength when wet, making it ideal for durable viscose fabrics. The process to develop this type of fabric also begins with dissolving cellulose from wood pulp to create viscose material, which is then extruded into fine rayon filaments. These filaments are spun into rayon fibers, which can be woven into a variety of fabrics.


Viscose and Sustainability

Viscose can absolutely be a sustainable fabric. Experts in the textile industry emphasize the importance of responsible viscose production to mitigate environmental impact. Fashion sustainability advocates have highlighted the potential of bamboo viscose when produced with environmentally friendly methods.

Still, critics rightly assert that despite its renewable origins, the chemical-intensive process of making viscose poses significant ecological challenges.


In other words, viscose isn't perfect — but it's a step in the right right direction. Some types of viscose are better than others too. Bamboo viscose is especially known for its eco-friendly appeal. This type of viscose retains the softness and breathability of traditional viscose but with an added emphasis on sustainability, due to how bamboo's speedy growth and innate renewability.

Obviously, it's crucial to verify that the manufacturing process adheres to environmental standards to ensure true sustainability.

Given its unique blend of natural and synthetic qualities, remains a versatile and popular fabric choice and a far more sustainable alternative to polyester or cotton. Whether you're drawn to its silk-like feel, its sustainability potential, or its wide range of applications, there's no doubt it can help your body — and the planet — breathe a little easier.