Rayon is a man-made fiber, but it is not a synthetic fiber. It is classified as a man-made cellulosic fiber, along with acetate and triacetate. Cellulosic fibers are produced from natural substances, generally wood pulp and bits of cotton fiber left over after the ginning process. Rayon was first developed in 1886, but was known simply as “artificial silk” until it was named “rayon” in 1924. Acetate and triacetate are later developments. Unlike noncellulosic synthetic fibers (such as nylon, polyester, acrylic, and spandex), rayon and other cellulosic man-made fibers behave somewhat like natural fabrics, and have breathability that synthetics do not, though still less than natural fibers. Rayon, especially in trims that are no longer manufactured in natural fibers, can be reasonably substituted for natural fibers in some historical applications, when selected with care. It is often appropriate in its own right for 20th century vintage reproductions.
For information on noncellulosic man-made fibers, generally known simply as synthetic fibers, see the entry on synthetic fiber.
About Man-Made, Cellulosic Fibers:
“There are two types of man-made fabrics: cellulosic and noncellulosic. The original ‘artificial silk,’ now known as rayon, and two later varieties, acetate and triacetate, are cellulosic fabrics. They are derived from regenerated cellulose from natural sources, chiefly wood pulp and cotton linters, the tiny pieces of cotton fibers left behind after ginning. These materials are subjected to chemical processes that reduce them to a honeylike solution. This solution is forced through a spinneret, a device that looks much like a shower head with tiny holes, and comes out in slender, hairlike filaments. After the filaments solidify, they may be processed into different types of yarn. Differences in the chemical composition of the solutions and in the reduction processes account for the differences between the three cellulosic fabrics.” (Ingham and Covey, The Costume Technician’s Handbook, page 68)
About “Man-Made” Versus “Synthetic” Fibers
“Many people refer to the man-made cellulosic fabrics–rayon, acetate, and triacetate–as man-made, and the man-made noncellulosic fabrics–nylon, polyester, acrylic, etc.–as synthetic. These are useful terms that may help you remember that, although man-made, rayon and acetate behave more like natural fabrics than do the synthetics, such as nylon and polyester.” (Ingham and Covey, The Costume Technician’s Handbook, page 68)
For more information about synthetic (man-made, noncellulosic) fibers, see the entry on synthetic fiber.
About Rayon and Other Man-Made Cellulosic Fibers:
“From 1886, when it was first developed, until 1924, the fabric we called rayon was known as ‘artificial silk,’ a reminder of what textile chemists had been looking for. In 1924, the man-made fabric industry sponsored a context to find a generic name for its product. Kenneth Lord coined the word rayon the first man-made word for the first man-made fabric.
Beginning as it did as an inexpensive substitute for silk, rayon had a long climb up the ladder of respectability. For many years rayon was a limp fabric that sagged, stretched, wrinkled, and didn’t wear well. Fortunately, modern manufacturing techniques have improved rayon quality and performance, and it now plays an increasingly important role in the fashion industry. Rayon is lightweight, soft, drapeable, and comfortable to wear.” (Ingham and Covey, The Costume Technician’s Handbook, pages 68-69)
“Rayon: Comes in a wide range of qualities; can be made to resemble natural fibers; can be lightweight or heavy constructions. May have smooth surfaces or bulky napped textures. Soft hand drapes well.” (Butterick, Vogue Sewing, page 54)
“Acetate: Silk-like appearance, luxurious soft feel, deep luster, excellent draping qualities. Found in fabrics such as satin, jersey, taffeta, lace, faille, brocade, tricot, and crepe, and often in blends with other man-made fibers.” (Butterick, Vogue Sewing, page 51)
On Using Man-Made Fabrics for Vintage & Historical Reproductions:
“Because so many modern clothes are made from synthetics, you’re probably used to their essentially plastic appearance. But synthetics make period clothes appear shoddy and inauthentic. Even if the material is partly natural, or used only on one area of one garment. Synthetics also trap heat and moisture. This is an important consideration with period outfits, which are heavier and more layered than modern ones.
“In other words, reproduction fabrics and trims should be made entirely of linen, cotton, wool (including cashmere and other animal-hair fabrics), silk, or a blend of these. (There are some other cellulosic fibers which are seldom found today.) The only exception is rayon, which is cellulose based. Rayon looks most natural blended with silk or cotton. I’m particularly fond of rayon/silk satins and brocades, and cotton velvet over a rayon base. But all-rayon fabrics (especially velvet) can definitely be too shiny.” (Grimble, After a Fashion, page 72)
“In some circumstances, a dressmaker may choose to substitute a high quality man-made fiber in order to replicate a specific weave, color, or textile pattern. This should not be lightly done; it takes detailed research to know when such substitutions are appropriate, and what the compromise entails authenticity-wise. In general, it is best to avoid synthetics.” (Clark, The Dressmaker’s Guide, 2nd ed., page 54)
“The proliferation of synthetics throughout the textile and garment industries continues to pose problems for costume designers and technicians who are in the business of creating stage costumes for plays set in many historical periods, most of which fall before the invention of the wash-and-wear, crease resistant, nonsag ‘miracle’ fabrics. Unfortunately, garments made from nylon, polyester, and acrylic fabrics do not look exactly like garments made from silk, wool, or cotton, especially in motion and under stage lights.” (Ingham and Covey, The Costume Technician’s Handbook, page 59)
For more information about an individual fiber, fabric, or other material, select it on the right side menu for “Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials.” This will bring up all entries which have that tag, including (in most cases) a Glossary post which will offer a definition of that fiber, fabric, or material, and sometimes also offer useful links to outside sources on working with it. For more general information, visit the core entry for the Glossary: Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials. For a directory of all textile glossary posts, go to the Glossary Table of Contents.
- “Rayon” on Wikipedia (Remember to read critically!)
- “The Prewash” by Sarai at The Coletterie
- “Fabric Series: Linen and Rayon” by Caitlin at The Coletterie
- “An Alternative to Silk,” an article about using rayon as a silk-substitute, by Sunni at The Cupcake Goddess
Print Resources: See the article Glossary: Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials for a list of print resources.
Updated January 10, 2012