Yarnology: What Is Viscose Yarn?

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If you’ve ever looked at a yarn label wondered what viscose or rayon was, then you’re in the right place!

The first time I saw viscose as a fiber on a yarn label, I had no idea what it was. I see either viscose or rayon on yarn packages more and more lately, either as the main fiber or a fiber combination. After a bit of research I found out that rayon is fiber from regenerated cellulose. So, I couldn’t stop there I had to find out what these fiber were.

Let’s get into it.

What is Viscose

Viscose, a type of rayon, is a cellulose based fiber made from wood pulp or bamboo. It was first manufactured in 1883 as a cheaper substitute for silk. Its a wonderful substitution for silk because of its softness, and beautiful drape. Some other characteristics of viscose are: Its lightweight, breathable, dye fast, and pairs well with other materials like cotton, spandex, and polyester.

Viscose is a semi synthetic fiber, because, even though it’s made from natural materials, its production requires a high concentration of chemicals. More about that later.

How its made

Viscose starts out as logs from soft wood trees such as: beech, pine, and, eucalyptus. Sometimes they use bamboo instead of wood. The logs, or bamboo, go through a process until they become wood pulp sheets. The large sheets made from the wood pulp look similar handmade paper.

The wood pulp sheets get ground up into much smaller pieces, and dissolved in chemicals. Some of the chemicals that are used are: sodium sulfide, sodium hydroxide, and sodium carbonate. This process forms a thick, honey like liquid called cellulose xanthate, which they push through an extrusion head.

The liquid goes for a nice little acid bath, where the cellulose regenerates and forms as filaments. Now is when they can change the size or shape of the cross sections of the fiber.

There are a few more steps for viscose fiber to go through. Depending on the length of the fiber, they can now be made into things like wet wipes or be spun into yarn! The yarn made is usually machine woven or knit into viscose rayon fabric. However, it can also be kept as yarn for us crafty folks!

*Viscose was created as a cheaper alternative to silk.

**Bernat blanket yarn is polyester as are many of the velvet yarns. Felt and some fleeces are also polyester.

Imports and exports

The top exporter of viscose fiber in 2020 was China. The other top 9 in order were, Indonesia as number 2, then Singapore, Thailand, India, Germany, Taiwan, Japan, Shir Lanka, and Spain.

The main importer of viscose fiber in 2020 was Turkey. The other top 9 importers in order were, Pakistan, China, USA, Singapore, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Germany, Indonesia, Spain, Israel, Taiwan, and Russia.

As of 2020 viscose fiber, under the category of Man Made Cellulosics, was in third with 6% in the global preferred fiber market. The number one fiber as of 2020 was Synthetic fiber at 62%, with number 2, being Plant fiber at 30%.

I used the 2020 report since it is the most recent one I can find.

Environmental impact

person holding green leaf plant
Photo by MIXU on Pexels.com

Viscose it not considered an environmentally friendly fiber, due to a few things. Firstly, its made from wood pulp. There are plenty of sustainably growing forests, but not all manufactures use them.

Secondly, the high concentration of chemicals such as, sodium hydroxide, sulfurous acid, magnesium bisulfide and carbon disulfied. These chemical and more often pollute the water and air around the factories that manufacture viscose.

Lastly, the large amount of water required for its production. Where the polluted water goes if it’s not properly cleaned, is also a concern.

Not all bad

In my research for this article, I did find companies that claimed they use cellulose harvested from FSC and PEFC certified sources. Used a closed process loop, which limits the amount of air and water pollutants. And use bioreactors to treat the chemical/debris filled water.

The more difficult part in my opinion is finding out what yarn companies, if any, use the fibers from the companies that do this.

Many places make sure to mention that viscose is biodegradable. It is and will biodegrade very quickly, under the right circumstances. I add that last part because in a land fill a lettuce leaf takes decades to biodegrade, as apposed to a couple weeks at most in a compost bin.

Rayon

As I mentioned before rayon is fiber made from regenerated cellulose. Viscose is the most common type of rayon. But there’s also modal, lyocell, cupro, and rayon from bamboo, some times just called bamboo.

Modal uses beech trees as its wood pulp base, and uses a similar process to viscose. However, modal has a reputation of being more sustainable because there are manufactures that use sustainable trees and practices. But, there are also those that don’t produce sustainability.

Lyocell is a regenerative cellulose fiber that does not use carbon disulfide, a toxic chemical. I will link to resources at the end of this article.

Cupro is a regenerative cellulose create using recycled cotton waste, which sounds good a first. But, it goes through highly toxic chemicals like copper and ammonium, dropped into caustic soda. Almost exclusively manufactured in China, cupro is not ethical or sustainable.

Acetate fiber is a semi-synthetic polymer also known as cellulose acetate. This is used to make textile fabrics for clothing.

I have seen rayon, acetate, lyocell, rayon from bamboo, bamboo, and viscose as materials used for yarn. I’ve not seen the others in yarn yet, but thought I would list them since they are all types of rayon.

Viscose Vs. Polyester

A skein of Rayon yarn (left) and a skein of Polyester yarn (right)

Polyester goes through a similar amount of processing to become a fiber. Yet, viscose is a semi synthetic fiber, while polyester is a completely synthetic fiber. The difference is in the starting material. Where viscose is derived from wood or bamboo, polyester is made from petroleum.

The two materials act very differently, but are often compared. As far as I can tell they don’t have that much in common as a yarn. However, I decided to do a quick comparison anyway.

Viscose

Super absorbent, takes a long time to dry.

Is very breathable and good for warmer weather

Wrinkles easily and shrinks

Usually needs hand washing or dry cleaning

Loses strength in sun light and water

Is easy to dye

Is biodegradable

Has a lovely drape

It’s texture can be a lot like silk* or it will feel like cotton.

Polyester

Wicks moister, and dries quickly

Does not breathe as well and is better for cool weather

Doesn’t wrinkle, shrink, or stretch

Is easy to care for, needs low temp drying

Is very durable

Doesn’t take dye well

Is not biodegradable

Is usually a stiffer fabric

It can be soft but a little plastic feeling. It can also be soft and fluffy**.

WANT Some More CROCHET AND YARN RELATED ARTICLES?

How about: Yarnology: What’s Up With Wool Yarn? if you want more fiber related content. Or does The 13 Health Benefits of Crocheting sound a bit better to you? One of my favorite articles is DIY Wooden Crate Storage For Yarn On A Budget. Here are few more articles I wrote, see if any of these strike your fancy:

Resources

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