Viscose is one of my favourite fibres. As a self confessed fabric nerd, I can spot this manufactured fibre a mile off as its beautiful handle and drape is quite distinctive. As a teenager in the early 1990s, I owned many long skirts and flowing dresses with a beautiful softness and a fluid-like drape to them that were as hard wearing as they were comfortable. OK, so they either needed ironing, careful storage or a ‘frankly, who cares?’ attitude towards creasing, but that swooshy softness was worth it. Especially when worn with a pair of stompy boots.
Originally developed in the late nineteenth century and known as artificial silk or ‘art silk‘, viscose was used in the production of women’s underwear extensively in the early twentieth century and became known as rayon in 1925. Shoppers would have been extremely aware of these new fibres because the chemical companies advertised to end consumers as well as to the fabric and clothing manufacturers. They educated consumers that rayon was not an inferior replica of silk, but a desirable fabric in its own right – after all, it was cheaper than silk and so much more modern. British firm Courtaulds and the American giant DuPont had huge advertising budgets and, as Susannah Handley remarks in Nylon: The Manmade Fashion Revolution, ‘the fashion designer had little visible role in the story of semi-synthetics. It was a three-part drama between the research chemist, the fibre/textile manufacturer and the consumer’.
Viscose rayon is made from regenerated cellulose (usually wood pulp) and other types of twenty-first century rayon fabric include Lyocell/Tencel, Cupro, Modal and bamboo. As you might have noticed, ‘viscose manufactured from bamboo is promoted as having environmental advantages over wood-pulp viscose’ which is partly because bamboo crops can be grown on land deemed unsuitable for the trees that are used in production of other forms of viscose fibre. In addition, although ‘the viscose processing results in the same chemical waste products as wood-pulp viscose, notably carbon disulfide […] bamboo cellulose is suitable for a closed-loop viscose process that captures all solvents used’ (Wikipedia, referencing Scientific American). Whether that makes it any more environmentally friendly than recycled polyester or other sustainable fibres is debatable.
In its many fashion uses, wood-pulp viscose is also often blended with other fibres to give the desirable handle and drape but with a bit more crease resistance than you might get from viscose alone. It’s not just used for light drapey jersey tops from high street stores like H&M and Oasis either, viscose can be found in some luxury ready-to-wear collections too. The beautiful Marni asymmetric maxi skirt pictured above is 59% viscose, while the stunning red Alexander McQueen ready-to-wear dress on the left is 57% viscose. Who’d have thought that a simple 1920s bra had something in common with a 2015 McQueen frock?
2018 UPDATE: I’ve been reading a lot recently about sustainability in the fashion industry, including the relative merits of different fibres. An interesting article on The Debrief about a Changing Markets Foundation report discusses the ‘chemically intensive and highly polluting methods’ use to manufacture viscose, and is definitely worth a look if you would like some further reading.