The Problem with Rayon

The fabric known as rayon or viscose originated as an alternative to silk.  Back in the 1860s, Count Hilaire de Chardonnet developed a way to produce artificial silk fiber from cellulose.  Almost one hundred years later, in 1955, a newer, better rayon called “high-wet-modulus” (HWM) proved to be stronger and suitable for sheets and towels.  HWM rayon had the advantage of being machine washable and easy to care for, as opposed to the viscose type that had to be dry-cleaned.

The invention of rayon gave a big boost to the fashion industry.  Fabrics that looked and felt like expensive silk could be marketed to a less monied demographic.  Designers and clothing companies forged ahead, ignoring the problems of manufacturing rayon.

Rayon is made from cellulose derived from trees: hemlock, pine, and spruce, along with cotton linters, the residue fibers remaining around cotton seeds after ginning.  The cellulose must be extracted and purified—and there resides the problem with rayon.

Steps involved (from
• Sheets of purified cellulose are steeped in sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), which produces sheets of alkali cellulose. These sheets are dried, shredded into crumbs, and then aged in metal containers for 2 to 3 days. The temperature and humidity in the metal containers are carefully controlled.

• After aging, the crumbs are combined and churned with liquid carbon disulfide, which turns the mix into orange-colored crumbs. The crumbs are then bathed in caustic soda. This results in a viscose solution that looks and feels like honey. The solution is filtered for impurities and stored in vats to age for 4-5 days.

• The viscose solution is next turned into strings of fibers by forcing the liquid through a spinneret into an acid bath. The acid coagulates and solidifies the filaments resulting in regenerated cellulose filaments. Next, the filaments are ready to be spun into yarn.

• Once the fibers are sufficiently cured, they are ready for post-treatment chemicals and the various weaving processes needed to produce the fabric.

Look at the amount of chemicals used in production!  Carbon disulfide is powerful enough to burn through skin to the bone. 

Paul David Blanc, author of Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon, discloses the true hazards, both environmental and human, in the making of rayon.

From the book description on Amazon:

Viscose, an innovative and lucrative product first introduced in the early twentieth century, quickly became a multinational corporate enterprise. Blanc investigates industry practices from the beginning through two highly profitable world wars, the midcentury export of hazardous manufacturing to developing countries, and the current “greenwashing” of viscose as an eco-friendly product. Deeply researched and boldly presented, this book brings to light an industrial hazard whose egregious history ranks with those of asbestos, lead, and mercury.

I am just one of many consumers who has bought “greenwashed” viscose clothing, patting myself on the back for purchasing a fabric touted to come from renewable resources.  We have been duped into believing that viscose, rayon, modal, and cupro are conscience-free fabrics, when in reality, their production threatens both the environment and the factory workers.

Green America, a nonprofit organization based in the United States that promotes environmentally aware, ethical consumerism reports:

Sustainability: it’s not a word usually associated with the fashion industry, yet one that consumers are increasingly seeing more when we go shopping. But is sustainability just the next “trend” in fashion – or something that companies are actually moving towards?


  • Approximately 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile manufacturing. 
  • Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally. 
  • The fashion industry alone emits 10% of global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping. 
  • 43 million tons of chemicals are used in textile production every year. 
  • While none of the major brands are true leaders in the field, Green America identified the following companies as having better environmental and labor practices – Target, VF, Nike — and several companies that were clearly laggards – Carter’s, J.Crew, Forever 21.


I don’t know how to respond to this information. What do I do now, knowing the provenance of rayon and its relatives?   Write outraged letters to H & M? 

            Kassia St. Clair, author of The Golden Thread:How Fabric Changed History, writes:

            Research is being done into the creation of fibers that are genuinely environmentally friendly to produce and are biodegradable…Perhaps the biggest change, however, needs to come from those of us doing the buying.  (p. 221)

            Here you can watch an old (amusing) film about the making of rayon.  Note the lack of PPE for the workers.  Some wear goggles, but everyone is breathing the fumes from the chemicals.

For more in-depth information on the history of rayon and contemporary production, this video is a good resource, especially for a conscientious consumer. 

The Karakesh Chronicles

Available from


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