Rayon – The Silky Science Experiment
Standing as the oldest manmade fiber, rayon and its resulting fabrics have been in production for over a century. Synonymous with summer fashion, this semisynthetic cloth is often used to make hawaiian, and other broad-collared warm weather shirts. But what exactly is rayon? And how did efforts to save the silkworm population of France lead to one of the worlds most widely produced fabrics? We’ll answer those questions and more in this rayon rundown.
What is Rayon?
Rayon is a semisynthetic fiber that is chiefly used to create fabrics that resemble silk. A highly versatile fiber, it can be manufactured to imitate the feel and aesthetic of natural fibers other than silk, such as wool, cotton and linen.
Rayon fabrics often have a soft hand and insulate minimal body heat, leaving rayon garments a great option for hot and humid climates. In addition to the aforementioned properties, rayon fabrics are easy to dye and drape well. The only real drawbacks of rayon lie in its lack of durability. Most rayon fibers have a very low tensile strength, especially when wet, and fabrics made from the fiber usually require dry cleaning or very delicate handwashing.
A Brief History of Rayon
A Swiss chemist named Georges Audemars discovered the first crude artificial silk in 1855 by dipping a needle into mulberry bark pulp and gummy rubber to make threads. However groundbreaking, this process was too slow to put into practice on a larger scale.
The mid-nineteenth century also saw the French silk industry threatened by a disease that was killing off the silkworm population. French chemist, Count Hilaire de Chardonnet, was working on a solution to this epidemic with distinguished biologist and fellow countryman, Louis Pasteur (the namesake of “pasteurization”), when he himself discovered that cellulose fibers could be regenerated to create artificial silk-like yarns. Don’t worry, we’ll elaborate on the science-y bit shortly.
Count Hilaire patented his process in 1888, and produced a batch of his ‘Chardonnet Silk’ in 1889, however, his product was found to be highly flammable and removed from the market. Shortly after, English chemist Charles Cross and his company patented the viscose method of producing rayon, which began commercial production in 1905 and remains the principal method of manufacturing rayon today.
How is Rayon Made?
Regular or Viscose rayon is the most widely produced form of the semisynthetic fiber. It is produced through a complex process in which cellulose obtained from wood or plant pulp is subject to a variety of treatments before it can be made into yarn. This process is pretty much an artificial imitation of how a silkworm processes mulberry cellulose into silk fibers.
The cellulose is first dissolved in caustic soda, into a solution which is then pressed into sheets. The cellulose sheets are then shredded into a ‘white crumb’ and placed into a tank to age through exposure to oxygen. Next, the white crumb is mixed with carbon disulfide, and dissolved in another caustic solution to form liquid viscose.
The liquid viscose is then passed into a bath of sulfuric acid through a spinneret. When the solution hits the sulfuric acid, it reacts by forming into filaments which are then processed into rayon yarns. This final and crucial part of the rayon manufacturing process mimics the way in which a silkworm produces silk fibers from its body. The yarns are then stretched, spun, bleached, and woven into cloth.
There are also alternative forms of rayon, such as Lyocell–which follows the a similar process to generic viscose with added processes to add resiliency to the fabric.
Examples of Rayon Products
Stan Ray Bandana Batik Kelapa Shirt
A classic utilization of rayon, this Stan Ray shirt is a timeless aloha-style number that features a loose, boxy fit, and a straight hem. A singular chest pocket completes the simple construction and the contrasting white bandana print brings all the Americana vibes you need for a summers day.
$105 at Superdenim.
Levi’s Vintage Clothing 1940’s Hawaiian Shirt
LVC bring you the full Hawaiian shirt experience with 1940’s reproduction. Cut from 100% viscose rayon, it features a broad camp collar, dual flap-closure chest pockets, and charmingly loud all-over print. It, too, comes in a traditional boxy fit with a straight hem.
$195 at Unionmade.
Needles Sateen Sports Jacket
Japanese reconstruct-brand, Needles, cut this sports jacket from a unique blend of rayon, cotton, and wool. A fairly laid-back offering from the otherwise avant-garde label, this sports jacket is a timeless piece with a zipper closure, point collar, dual slash pockets, and a straight hem.
$420 at Unionmade.