Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life

Rayon – the blurred line between natural and synthetic


I am quite puzzled why sometimes the English language uses the same word to describe things in quite different contexts. How is it that the word “organic” can get used to describe both food that is produced using a farming method using few chemicals (and certainly no petrochemicals) and a branch of chemistry involving the study of compounds and materials derived from oil. Of course, “organic” refers to carbon, which of course is contained within both living and dead organisms, hence found in coal and oil too.

Recycled cotton dress

I was reading an article on closed loop textile recycling. At the start of the article, to great fanfare, the world’s first garment made entirely from recycled cotton, is presented. Immediately, we are thinking that this is a garment made from cotton, right? Well, reading a little further, all is explained….

It is actually quite a difficult process to recycle cotton fibre. There are many obstacles to overcome. Firstly, the manufacturer has to separate the fibres from dyes and other contaminants. They also have to produce a fibre that is of comparable quality and price to virgin-derived sources.

This is the process they use:

“Old cotton clothes are brought to a factory and shredded then turned onto a porridge-like substance. After non-recyclable pieces like zippers and buttons have been removed, the porridge is broken down to the molecule level and turned into a fibre substance to be used for thread, resulting in rayon fabric.”

Oh, so it’s rayon; that strange fabric that masquerades as natural, but is in fact rather synthetic!

Rayon owes its birth to a disease that threatened the French silk industry in the 1860s. The scientist Count Hilaire de Chardonnet became interested in finding a way to produce silk artificially. In 1885 he patented the first successful process to create a fibre from the cellulose from mulberry leaves. It was given the name “rayon” by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1925 and today it is usually made from wood pulp.

The stages of rayon manufacture are described in detail on this website, but in summary, purified cellulose is steeped in caustic soda. After aging, the “crumbs” are combined and mixed with carbon disulfide and then once more bathed in caustic soda which results in a syrupy substance. Next, there is a filament making process in an acid bath and after this these filaments are then spun.

Taking aside the fact that this rayon is made from recycled clothing, I’m sure this “recycled cotton” gets made in a similar way to standard rayon. Of course, I’m making a big assumption here, since I’m sure re:newcell’s process is a closely-guarded company secret. The closest we can glean from the article is the assurance that Re:newcell’s process is “completely clean” from Henrik Norlin, business development manager at re:newcell. But even so, the process isn’t really what I would call “closed-loop”. Rayon itself is much harder to recycle than cotton and so the recycling doesn’t go full circle. We have here, really just a second use of resources.

With a twist of the English language what was once known as “artificial silk” can become “recycled cotton”. Isn’t it interesting how words can change our perceptions?

Author: steelyseamstress

Sewing a new wardrobe

2 thoughts on “Rayon – the blurred line between natural and synthetic

  1. I know they are classed as man-made, but I like to think that rayon, viscose, tencel etc are at least a bit “natural”, despite the processes that go into making them. I prefer them to polyester etc that would not exist without industrial chemists, the idea of wearing a dress made of mulberry leaves is very appealing!
    Natural is a loaded word isn’t it?

    • Yes, I agree natural is a sliding scale. Perhaps I’m just geeky but I do like to find out about how textiles are made. There’s quite a lot of interest in the route food takes to the table, not so sure why the journey that our clothes take to our wardrobes isn’t so well known.

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