By Camille Myers Breeze and Tegan Kehoe
The name “rayon” was coined in the 1924 as a generic term for regenerated cellulose fiber. The “Father of Rayon,” Frenchman Count Hillaire de Chardonnet, discovered in the 1880s that nitrocellulose from rags or wood pulp could be turned into fiber, thread, and fabric. Rayon was the first manufactured fiber, but because it is derived from cellulose, is not considered to be a true synthetic but a “semi-synthetic.” “Artificial Silk” made by the Chardonnet process was popular for decorative fabrics in the early 20th century.
At the same time, the Courtaulds Company in England commercialized a method of regenerating cellulose fiber, resulting in a new fiber called “viscose.” (so named because their process used a highly viscous solution.) Courtaulds forming a subsidiary in America called American Viscose Company, who began producing rayon in 1910.
A third method of extracting usable fiber from natural cellulose was developed by Swiss brothers, Doctors Camille and Henri Dreyfus, resulting in the 1905 invention of cellulose acetate. The Dryfus brothers turned their new material into cellulose acetate film and plastics before producing usable continuous filaments of acetate yarn in 1913. By 1918 acetate rayon was being manufactured at the British Celanese plant in Derbyshire, England, which lends its name “Celanese” to some of the resulting rayons.
By the turn of the 21st century, 24% of the rayon produced in the world is from Grasim of India, by far the largest manufacturer. Other countries making rayon today include Germany, Brazil, Austria, China, Laos, Canada, and the US. Some critics of the fiber will point to sustainability concerns as well as dirty manufacturing processes. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has banned the manufacturing of cuprammonium rayon, sometimes found under the trade name Bemberg, but it is still made in Italy. Tencel rayon, also known by its generic name "lyocell," was developed in Courtaulds Research in the 1980's as a “non-polluting” alternative.
Today, many rayons include bamboo instead of wood pulp. Because bamboo is fast-growing it is often seen as ecologically friendly, but most bamboo rayons are made with the "dirtier" viscose process. The Federal Trade Commission has charged several clothing companies as falsely advertising their rayon as bamboo, partly because it is not clear that the cellulose they use is entirely from bamboo, but also because the FTC feels that the process alters the fibers too much to be considered plant-based. Currently, lyocell is often made with wood pulp from Eucalyptus trees.
We hope you have enjoyed our recent efforts to better understand the history and chemistry behind our recent boom in rayon textiles treated at Museum Textile Services. Please contact us if you have something to add to this discussion.