What is Viscose?
Viscose is a cellulosic fabric made from wood pulp. Viscose is also called Rayon and was first produced in 1883 as a cheaper alternative to silk.
It is the third mostly used textile in the world. About 6 million tonnes of cellulosic fibre is produced each year only for the textile industry and it has been forecasted to grow by around 8% per year to 2025.
Although it is derived from natural fibres, chemicals are used in the process to produce it as a textile. This makes viscose a semi-synthetic textile and it doesn’t mean that it is better for the environment, or for you. Actually, the material has become a hot-topic for environmental issues.
Where does Viscose come from?
The origins of viscose are European, more specifically, a french scientist and industrialist invented the first commercial viscose fibre. The first trial ended with a solution that was not safe because the fabric was highly flammable. After being taken off the market, the process was redeveloped later by the German company Bemberg. In 1892, in Great Britain three scientists patented the production process and finally by 1905 viscose was on the market.
The countries that produce viscose are wide spread around the world and they differ for the role they play in the supply chain. The top five countries providing dissolved pulp are China, South Africa, USA, Brazil and Canada while the top 5 countries producing the fibre are China (more than 60%), USA, India, Austria and Indonesia.
How is Viscose made?
The wood pulp (cellulose) used for the production of viscose is mainly derived from trees such as beech, pine, eucalyptus as well as plants such as bamboo, soy and sugar cane. These trees are well known for being fast-growing and regenerative.
Natural sources are limited to the beginning of the process for the textile production, followed by a very polluting manufacturing procedure, which is the reason why the fabric is classified as semi-synthetic.
The process to make viscose is summarized in the following 4 steps:
The cellulose obtained from the wood is dissolved in chemicals to produce a substance like a brown wood pulp solution. The chemical involved in this procedure is carbon disulfide which turns the alcaline wood pulp into a cellulose xanthate.
The solution is spun into fibres that can be made into threads. At this stage, chemicals are used again to create the solution referred to as “viscose”.
The machine used to create filaments is called a spinneret. The viscous solution is turned into a regenerated cellulose.
The regenerated cellulose can then be woven or knitted into viscose fabric.
What are the properties of the Viscose?
Some of the textile’s qualities are listed above.
Viscose absorbs water and sweat nicely, making it great for t-shirts and athletic wear.
It doesn’t trap heat and it is extremely airy, which makes it nice for summer dresses.
As it is a breathable fabric, it doesn't stick to the body and the softness of the material makes it feel like cotton.
Viscose also holds fabric dye for very long without fading.
The textile also has some disadvantages. As with silk, viscose needs to be dry cleaned because it becomes much weaker when wet. Being a good absorbent, it easily creates stains and spot treating can lead to permanent damage.
When blending viscose with other textiles, it is possible to bring some properties which the textile by itself does not have. For example, to make it elastic, spandex is blended with viscose to add a bit of stretch. Cotton and polyester are other textiles usually used for blending with viscose to create luxurious velvet and taffeta.
What is Viscose used for and who are the main users?
It is a versatile fabric used mainly for clothes such as blouses, dresses and jackets. Viscose is not only for clothes but is also used in the manufacturing of upholstery, bedding, carpets, cellophane and even sausage casing!
As already mentioned, viscose is the cheaper alternative of silk. That is why 100% viscose fabric clothes are mostly used by fast fashion giants, as they can provide clothes with lightweight, lustrous finish and soft feel without a hefty price tag.
There is always a trade off between the price convenience and the short lifetime of clothes, which means the time for which they look good and new is unfortunately short. Also, because they lose their shape quickly, inevitably they won’t be wearable for too long.
Man Made Cellulose Fibers and Viscose varieties
According to the Textile Exchange Report, the classified fibre category is called Man Made Cellulose Fibers (MMCFs) to which belong all the fabrics produced by wood. Between this category we find viscose, acetate, lyocell, modal, and cupro.
Viscose is the most important MMCF with a market share of around 79 percent in its textile category.
Acetate has around 14 percent market share of all MMCFs, it is mainly used for non-textile applications.
Lyocell is well known as Tencel®. At the moment it constitutes only 4 percent of all MMCFs but it is expected to grow faster than other MMCFs. It is preferred because of its better impact on the environment than viscose.
Cupro has a market share of less than one percent in the overall MMCF market. This fibre is dipped and dissolved in an ammoniacal solution of copper oxide called cuprammonium, from which it takes its name.
Modal has around 2.7 percent market share of the MMCF market. Modal is extra strong when wet and does not easily change its shape. Because of its softness, it is often found in underwear and sleepwear. The fabric follows the same production process as viscose but Modal is more environmentally friendly than viscose because lower concentrations of sodium hydroxide are used in its production.
The main issues associated with the production of viscose are water waste, overuse of chemicals and destruction of local ecosystems.
Deforestation is part of this and is the main issue regarding MMCFs because the wood provided as a source for the fabric often comes from large natural forests, instead of being sustainably harvested. This causes a big negative impact on local ecosystems.
Moreover, toxic chemicals used for its production pollutes air and water surrounding manufacturing sites and slowly spreads around the entire planet. Sulphur, nitrous oxides, carbon disulphide and hydrogen sulphide are found in air emissions around viscose manufacturing sites. The production for other types of Cellulose fibers, like modal, tencel, and lyocell are cleaner in this sense.
The watering of the trees and the process of turning those trees into fabric involve water waste issues. In the production processes reported by the Water Footprint Network , the water footprint of viscose staple fibre is estimated at approximately 3,000 cubic metres per tonne of yarn. About 6 million tonnes of viscose are produced each year only for the textile industry.
Commitments for a better textile
Many big steps have been taken by looking for better alternatives to the most polluting textiles. The innovation of textiles represents the way to create more sustainable processes to produce fabrics. This includes creating materials that can be reused and be involved in a circular process or simply natural fabrics whose presence doesn't damage our planet.
There are a number of initiatives working towards preferred MMCFs.
The Textile Exchange Manmade Cellulosics Global Round Table is an international meeting held during the annual Textile Exchange Conference. In July 2019, an European Manmade Cellulosics Roundtable was held during the Berlin Fashion Week.
What they are trying to do is to share awareness about the issues of producing Viscose and incentivize the production of a more sustainable viscose.
Canopy, for example, helps many fashion brands to decrease the use of the ancient and endangered forests for their fabrics. Among the committed brands are Levi Strauss & Co., Marks & Spencer, EILEEN FISHER, Stella McCartney and H&M.
Partnership for Sustainable Textiles aims to increase the use of more sustainable MMCFs and released the Joint Letter Viscose in April 2019, encouraging all fashion brands to improve transparency in the supply chain and collaborate with expert organizations and initiatives, particularly with regard to responsible sourcing of cellulosic raw materials and hazardous chemicals.
How can Viscose be recycled?
Despite the fact that the environmental impact of producing viscose is very high, viscose is biodegradable. Similar to cotton, the process works only when the clothes are made 100% of the natural fabric. Although viscose comes from natural sources, the chemicals used for its production are also released at the time of its decomposition. That means that the compost will be contaminated.
The fashion industry footprint stems from the overproduction of items that are many more than what the worldwide population needs. It is beyond imagination that big fashion brands would start to compost their leftovers clothes from inventories.
Our guides about what to do with your unwanted clothes will help you to recycle and provides you 10 different tips. One of them is to donate to Kleiderly to give your clothes a new life. Kleiderly is committing to reduce the carbon footprint of the fashion industry and encourages people to behave responsibly in fashion, increasing their awareness.
Stay tuned on our blog to learn more about the next fabric!