The History of Rayon

Within the textile industry, the difference between natural and synthetic fibres is easy enough to understand: one category is directly derived from living organisms, while the other is inorganically created from chemical compounds. Common natural fibres include cotton, silk, jute, and linen. Synthetic fibres include polyester, nylon, acrylic, neoprene, and spandex. However, one category of textiles is not often talked about: semi-synthetics. 

The Invention of Rayon

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Rayon was the very first material to fall under the semi-synthetic category. It originates from wood pulp, but undergoes chemical processes in its production. It was accidentally invented in 1846 when chemists intended to find a new way to use explosives, but instead created this material. Today, it is an umbrella term for a whole family of regenerated cellulose fibres. Viscose rayon, modal, and lyocell are all types of rayon. 

When rayon was introduced to the American market in 1911, manufacturers of the textile industry used many names to describe the material: artificial silk, rayonner, rayon silk, chemical silk, manufactured silk, fiber/fibre silk, scientific silk. Rayon was often compared as the economical alternative to silk since it had a similar luster and softness but was much cheaper to produce.

Characteristics of Rayon

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Rayon can take on a low sheen or very shiny appearance, is smooth to the touch, tends to be very breathable, is moisture-absorbent and takes dyes well. It is more absorbent than cotton but doesn't retain heat, making it an ideal choice for hot and humid climates. Its absorbability also allows for the creation of garments with bright colours and patterns - as seen in vintage aloha shirts, for example. Rayon drapes in a fluid fashion similar to silk, and is never rigid. 

A special blend of rayon and gabardine is soft and slightly spongy. Rayon gabardine garments thus have some bounce and natural stretch when worn.

Caring for Rayon

Never wash rayon with hot or warm water, as the material is prone to shrinkage when wet. Rayon can handle machine-washing with cold water, but it is commonly suggested to dry-clean or hand-wash instead. Line rayon garments to air-dry and avoid the dryer. 

Final Notes

Today, rayon garments have become much harder to find ever since synthetics like polyester have taken over the industry. It's no wonder vintage collectors love rayon so much!

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