Discover Online Classes in Textiles

Fabric printing, embroidery, sewing basics, and more.

Also known as artificial silk, rayon fabric is a semi-synthetic fabric that’s made from natural materials and chemicals. But what is rayon fabric like to work with and wash? Read on to learn more about rayon’s qualities, what it can be used for, how to take care of it, and more.

What Is Rayon Fabric?

painting on fabric
What type of fabric is rayon? It can be used as an alternative to silk and other natural fibers.

What kind of fabric is rayon? Like viscose, tencel, modal, and some other fabrics, rayon is a semi-synthetic fabric, or a regenerated fabric. It’s semi-synthetic because although it’s made from natural fibers, the raw materials undergo an intensive manufacturing process, using many chemicals, to make the end product: rayon fibers. 

When rayon was first invented in France in the 1880s, it was intended to imitate silk. At the time, silk was very expensive, and a global shortage had pushed prices up even higher. Now, rayon can be made to imitate many other fabrics, like cotton, linen, and wool. It can also be combined with other fibers—think cotton rayon, polyester rayon, and linen rayon blend fabrics—and used to make specific types of fabric that were traditionally made with natural fibers, such as rayon crepe fabric.  

The names rayon and viscose are sometimes used interchangeably, but there is a slight difference. Viscose is actually a type of rayon, but not all rayon is viscose.

Make Your Own Clothes

Garment Construction: Introduction to Draping

Fabric Qualities of Rayon

colorful fabrics
Source: Unsplash
What kind of fabric is rayon? It’s often colorful and patterned.

Shine and Luster

When used to make artificial silk, rayon is very smooth, shiny, and lustrous, just like its natural counterpart. Rayon challis fabric is especially smooth and comfortable for clothing.

Softness

Whether it’s imitating natural silk, wool, or another natural fabric, rayon has the tendency to be very soft. This is one reason why it’s a popular material for clothing and home furnishings. 

Not Very Breathable

Although rayon is often used to make summer clothes and can be quite light and breezy, because the fibers aren’t natural, they repel sweat rather than absorb it. On a hot day, rayon clothing causes sweat to gather and pool, rather than be absorbed and evaporated. 

Stiff When Wet

If you’ve ever washed an item of clothing made of rayon, you’ll probably know that the fabric gets very stiff and heavy when it’s wet. Don’t worry: As long as you’ve followed the care instructions (see below), it will bounce back to its original texture and shape. 

How Is Rayon Made?

rayon production
What is rayon made of? Follow this diagram to find out.

What is rayon fabric made of? Rayon is made by taking wood or other plant pulp (such as bamboo, soy, cotton, or eucalyptus) and treating it with a variety of chemicals. The chemical process creates fibers, which are then industrially made into sheets of bleached or colored and patterned fabric. 

Is Rayon Sustainable?

The production of rayon requires the use of many natural resources and chemicals, meaning it’s not a very environmentally friendly or sustainable fabric. The chemicals used in its production are very polluting to water and air, and because it requires a lot of wood or other plant pulp, the fabric has been associated with deforestation. What’s more, because rayon is cheap, it’s often used to make on-trend clothes that are discarded too quickly. 

However, some types of rayon are more sustainably produced than others. Look for fabric (or the brands that use the fabric) made from sustainably planted and harvested forests. It’s also important to know that environmental protection regulations in some places result in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly rayon fabric because of rules around the reuse of the chemicals used in the manufacturing process. These regulations aren’t in force everywhere.  

Some vegans often opt for rayon and other synthetic or semi-synthetic fabrics over fabrics that exploit animals (such as wool or silk). However, do be aware that vegan-friendly doesn’t always or automatically mean environmentally friendly or sustainable.

What Is Rayon Used For?

flower fabric
Print your own fabrics on rayon.

Rayon is used in a variety of fashion and craft-related activities. In clothing, rayon is a popular fabric because it’s versatile and inexpensive and comes in a wide range of vibrant colors and prints. Rayon is commonly used to make clothes that need to drape nicely and hang loose, such as skirts, dresses, and blouses.

In relation to crafts, rayon can be used in all sorts of ways: “silk” painting can in fact be done on rayon; rayon that imitates cotton, linen, or silk is also good for fabric-printing projects.

How Do You Wash and Dry Rayon?

lady in dress
Source: Unsplash
What is this fabric like? It often drapes well.

To wash and dry rayon clothing, hand wash and air dry it. It is most delicate when wet and is often used to make thin, floaty clothing that needs a bit of care. Rayon clothing tends to crumple with washing so it will probably need ironing; set your iron to low, or the silk setting, and iron on the reverse when it’s still damp. 

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Your Clothes

Sewing and Upcycling: Make Your Clothing Unique Using Applique