August 07 2021 – Diana Aldescu
Fabric of the week: Viscose
Welcome to the Fabric of the week show! We are super excited you want to be part of our crazy sustainability journey. Let’s dive in!
This week we will introduce to you the wonders and miracles of viscose. Of course, you know us, we will be discussing both pros and cons. Keeping it 100% real. We will be discussing how viscose is produced and whether clothing made from this fabric is what we’d consider eco clothing or sustainable. We’ll talk about the properties of this fabric and the ultimate question, is it worth buying viscose products?
What are rayon fabrics?
Before we get into the origins of viscose, we first gotta understand what rayon fabrics are. When talking about fabrics, everyone knows there are two categories: natural fabrics (cotton, flax, bamboo, etc.) and synthetic (polyester, acrylic, spandex, etc). But of course, it can't be all black and white so some textiles fall in the middle, called rayon. To put it in simpler words, rayon fabrics come from natural fibres, but they go through intense chemical processes, making them manufactured fabrics. As you might have guessed, viscose is part of rayon fabrics.
Origins of viscose
A bit of a history lesson - we gotta rewind more than 100 years ago! It is believed that industrialist Hilaire de Chardonnet invented the first commercial viscose fibre in 1883 as a cheaper alternative to silk! However, it was so flammable, it had to be taken off the market until 1892. This is when British scientists Charles Frederick Cross and Edward John Bevan discovered and improved the viscose fibre production process. By 1905, the first commercial viscose fabric was safe to be on the market.
How is the viscose fabric made?
Now, let’s get more into the science of it. The main point is that viscose comes from regenerative trees such as pine, beech, eucalyptus or plants like soy and sugar cane.
- The tree or plant is chipped down into wood pulp, ready to be dissolved into chemicals like sodium hydroxide.
- Some viscose fabric manufacturers only use the wood pulp that is from sustainably managed plantations, so only pulp with the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) is used. Keep an eye out for these!
- The wood pulp has to be dissolved first and as cellulose doesn’t dissolve in water, it needs to be modified before the process kicks off.
- The modified cellulose can now be dissolved, forming an orangish brownish liquid.
- This liquid is then washed, cleaned and bleached.
- This liquid is then pressed through an extrusion head and into dilute acid to regenerate and form fibres.
- At this point in the process, key modifications such as changing size and shape can be made.
- The final product can then be spun into yarn, which can be knit or woven into viscose fabric.
Benefits of the viscose fabric
Let’s dive in further and find out more great things about viscose.
Lightweight fabric: Viscose is a very lightweight fabric, making it super comfortable and breezy. The fabric doesn’t stick to the body, so it’s perfect for summer clothing!
Absorbent: On that note, viscose is a very absorbent fabric. It doesn’t trap heat but also absorbs water, so don’t worry about terrible sweat stains with this fabric.
Soft: We have already mentioned it a few times, but it is a damn soft fabric! And although it has a silk-like look, it feels a lot like cotton.
Maintains its shape: Viscose is not a very elastic fabric, so it can be worn and washed many times, but the garment will maintain its original shape!
The colour is there to stay: Viscose fabric holds up dye without fading, meaning even after many wears and washes, you’ll be left with the same colour as your product.
And now, some cons
Questionable stretch: When wet, viscose loses a lot of its strength. This causes the fabric to shrink more than other fabrics such as cotton.
Highly flammable fabric: As in the title, due to the production of this fabric, it is highly flammable.
Crease recovery: Viscose has a poor crease recovery, it needs a little bit more attention such as ironing.
Maintenance: This fabric almost always needs to be dry cleaned (but not our viscose products - we've made sure to select viscose you can clear at home!).
Now comes the real questions…
Why is viscose sustainable?
Let’s look at it from a positive point of view. Viscose is a plant-based fibre, so is not toxic or polluting in nature. As we found out earlier, it is made from cellulose, so no doubt it is a perfect alternative to conventional fabrics such as polyester and cotton, the industry’s most popular fabrics. Although chemicals are still used in the production of viscose, this method results in less product waste. Another plus is that viscose is 100% vegan, no animal products here.
Why is viscose not sustainable?
However, there are some doubts when it comes to the viscose fabric. The most obvious one being the usage of toxic chemicals. Although viscose is plant-based, the process requires a harsh concentration of chemicals, resulting in air and water pollution. Some might argue that the chemicals are reused across the production process, thus making this process more sustainable. However, other rayon fabrics such as tencel or modal require cleaner manufacturing, challenging the viscose creation process.
Whenever chemicals are involved, there are always concerns for the workers. One of the chemicals used in this process is carbon disulphide, which has been linked to heart diseases, birth defects, skin conditions and cancer. This can be damaging for the textile workers and the residents living near the viscose factories.
A big impact of producing viscose fibres can lead to deforestation. The wood used in creating this fabric may not always come from sustainably grown forests, sadly wiping out large natural forests and negatively impacting local ecosystems. It is estimated that around 30% of rayon fabrics made from wood pulp have been made from endangered forests.
Another concern is water waste. The production of viscose fabric requires a lot of water throughout all processes, starting from watering the trees to creating the garments themselves.
How are these issues addressed?
But even the bad can be fixed. The issues caused by viscose are addressed by different certifications, giving us hope. FSC and PEFC certified viscose come from sustainably managed plantations, making sure no endangered forests are touched. So make sure you look out for their logo!
The Canopystyle Audit verifies that viscose manufacturers source low-risk forests only and offer guidelines on how to preserve ancient and endangered forests. You’re ever left in doubt, check out these guys.
We see a huge development of viscose with some cool innovations. We noticed some alternatives to wood pulp such as coffee or milk. Under the name of Singtex, manufacturers in Taiwan use leftover coffee grounds as an alternative to wood pulp. Pretty cool, right?
QMilk is another cool innovation to viscose invented in Germany. You probably guessed it from the name itself, but they use milk instead of wood pulp. It takes only 2 litres of water to make one kilogram of this fibre. Both procedures require way fewer chemicals than conventional viscose making, too!
If you’re familiar with blonde gone rogue, you’ve probably heard us talking about up-cycling fabrics a lot. These are materials left at fabrics from large-scale production, usually as incomplete rolls of fabric. As you’ve guessed, we don’t let these babies go to waste, but rather create new, beautiful garments. The same process goes for viscose. We up-cycle viscose fabrics to minimise the volume of leftover materials and waste being sent to landfills
So, should you buy viscose?
Viscose is very popular in the fashion industry, and it is in high demand. It is the third most used textile fibre in the world! This doesn’t come as a surprise due to its great properties. This is a fabric with both silk and cotton-like properties combined but made way cheaper.
Above we mentioned the many impacts viscose has on the environment, but with no hesitation, you should purchase viscose products, rather than other synthetic fabrics such as polyester. On the bright side, we see more innovation surrounding the manufacturing of viscose fibres. A new process called Lyocell is seen more in the production of these fibres. This uses a lot less water, making it a more eco-friendly method.
In conclusion, the answer is yes, viscose is a great fabric and we hope that more sustainable methods will be implemented in the production of this fabric. We highly recommend you do a bit of research before purchasing though. Before purchasing viscose products, some things to look out for are to check if it follows the Lyocell process and whether it has the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) certification. Of course, check if the fabric is up-cycled, too!