What is Viscose Fabric?

What is Viscose Fabric?

Apr 01, 2024Tom Golubovich

Understanding the differences between t-shirt fabric types is more important than ever in the ever-expanding custom apparel business. One fabric that stands out for its versatility and unique properties is viscose (also known as rayon). The fashionable, semi-synthetic fabric has been gaining popularity for its soft, silk-like feel and fantastic drape.

This article presents an overview of viscose fabric, including its composition, properties, common uses, and print considerations. Read on to learn exactly what viscose is, how it's made, and why it might just be the perfect material for your next custom t-shirt project. Let's jump in.

Table of contents

 

Collage of models wearing different viscose items.

 

What Is viscose material?

Viscose, which is more commonly known as rayon, is a semi-synthetic fabric that's been around since the late 19th century. Initially developed as an affordable alternative to silk, it offers a similar drape and smooth feel–but at a more accessible price point.

Drape refers to how the fabric falls and flows on the body, and it's one of the standout characteristics of viscose. This feature makes the material ideal for making garments with a fluid, graceful appearance. The fabric's soft, smooth texture makes it a top choice for those who love its comfortable, gentle feel against the skin.

On top of the drape and hand feel, viscose is known for breathability. The fibers are absorbent, allowing the fabric to regulate body temperature and wick away moisture. This makes viscose garments suitable for a variety of conditions, providing comfort in both warm and cool weather.

Close-up of examples of viscose fabric on the body highlighting the silky "drape"

 

What is viscose fabric made from?

The fabric is derived from natural cellulose, which is the main component of plant cell walls. Primarily, the source of cellulose for viscose production is wood pulp obtained from fast-growing, regenerative trees like beech, pine, or eucalyptus. Other plant-based sources like bamboo or cotton linters are sometimes used.

What it's made from is a lot more simple than how it's made. Transforming raw cellulose into viscose fibers involves a multi-step chemical approach known as the viscose process or rayon process. Here's a simplified breakdown of the key stages:

  1. Steeping: The wood pulp or other cellulose source is treated with sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) to form alkali cellulose.
  2. Pressing and shredding: The alkali cellulose is then pressed to remove excess liquid and shredded into crumbs.
  3. Aging: The crumbs are left to age for a few days, allowing the cellulose to degrade and become more suitable for the next stage.
  4. Xanthation: The aged crumbs are treated with carbon disulfide to form sodium cellulose xanthate, a soluble compound.
  5. Dissolving: The sodium cellulose xanthate is dissolved in a dilute solution of sodium hydroxide, resulting in a viscous, honey-like liquid called viscose.
  6. Spinning: The viscose solution is forced through small holes in a spinneret into an acid bath, typically containing sulfuric acid. This process regenerates the cellulose and forms long, continuous fibers.
  7. Finishing: The fibers are washed, bleached, and dried before being spun into yarn or woven into fabric.

 

So, is viscose natural or synthetic? It's both. The natural cellulose is chemically manipulated throughout this process to create fibers with unique properties, such as enhanced absorbency, drape, and luster. The resulting viscose fabric retains some of the breathability and comfort of natural materials while benefiting from the uniformity and versatility of synthetic fibers.

03:[image: Infographic showing natural cellulose derived from wood pulp (from trees like beech, pine, or eucalyptus). I’ll see if I can find one for reference]

 

What is viscose fabric used for?

Viscose is a versatile material with applications in various clothing and textile products. It's especially appealing to those with sensitive skin or allergies to synthetic materials, as it delivers a more natural and gentle alternative.

In fashion, viscose is favored for its ability to create fluid, elegant dresses, blouses, and skirts. The fabric's excellent drape allows garments to flow and move with the wearer, creating a graceful and flattering silhouette. These properties make it especially appealing for women's tees and tank tops.

The fabric's breathability and moisture-absorbing properties help regulate body temperature and reduce irritation, making it a comfortable choice for all-day wear. Viscose's softness and smooth texture make it a comfortable choice for clothing worn close to the skin, such as t-shirts, lingerie, and sleepwear.

In recent years, viscose has also gained popularity in the unisex clothing market, appealing to a broader audience with its versatility and style. A notable example is the Bella+Canvas Unisex Viscose Fashion Tee, which showcases the material's adaptability in modern, casual wear. This t-shirt combines the softness and drape of viscose with a relaxed, contemporary fit.

Beyond clothing, viscose finds uses in all kinds of other textile applications. Its absorbency makes it appealing for towels, bathrobes, and other household items. For home décor, viscose is often blended with other fibers to create soft, durable upholstery fabrics, curtains, and bedding.

As markets increasingly look toward eco-friendly and sustainable materials, viscose derived from responsibly sourced cellulose and produced using environmentally friendly methods has become increasingly popular. Brands and consumers alike recognize viscose's potential as a more sustainable alternative to fully synthetic fabrics.

 

Close-up of different color viscose fabrics.

 

Is viscose eco-friendly?

It depends on what you're comparing it to. Viscose is made from renewable plants like wood pulp or bamboo, which is a plus compared to synthetic fibers like polyester, which comes from non-renewable oil. This means that viscose has the potential to be more eco-friendly, especially if the plants are grown and harvested in a sustainable way.

But here's the issue: turning those plants into viscose fabric involves some heavy-duty chemical processing. When harsh chemicals like sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide are used, they can be a problem if they're not handled properly. Plus, the wastewater from this process can contain pollutants that might harm the environment if they're not treated the right way.

Another thing to keep in mind is that making viscose requires a lot of water and energy. The manufacturing process can use up a ton of H2O, and the chemical treatments often need high temperatures, which means using a lot of energy.

Some manufacturers are working on making viscose production more sustainable. They're using "closed-loop" systems that recycle and reuse water and chemicals, reducing waste and reducing the environmental impact. There’s also efforts to get cellulose from responsibly managed forests or alternative plant sources like bamboo or agricultural waste, which can help take some pressure off natural resources.

The bottom line is that viscose has the potential to be a more eco-friendly option than fully synthetic fibers. But it really depends on how the viscose is made and where the raw materials come from. As more people become aware of the environmental impact of their choices, there's growing pressure on the industry to adopt greener practices and come up with innovative solutions to minimize the ecological footprint of viscose production.

Photograph of textile factory making viscose fabrics.

 

Viscose vs. polyester

Both viscose and polyester are popular, but they have some key differences worth noting. Viscose is a semi-synthetic fabric made from natural cellulose, while polyester is a fully synthetic material derived from petroleum.

One major difference between the two is how they handle moisture. Polyester is well-known for its moisture-wicking properties, meaning it can quickly pull sweat away from your skin and dry fast. This makes it a top choice for activewear and performance clothing. Viscose, on the other hand, tends to absorb moisture, which can make it feel more breathable and comfortable in some situations but less suitable for intense physical activities.

Another thing to consider is durability and care. Polyester is generally more resilient, resistant to wrinkles, and easy to care for, making it a low-maintenance option. Viscose, while soft and comfortable, is a bit more delicate and can shrink or lose shape if not cared for properly.

Despite these differences, both viscose and polyester have their places in the world of custom apparel. Polyester's strength and moisture-wicking abilities make it a great choice for sportswear and outerwear, while viscose's softness and drape make it a popular pick for more casual, everyday garments like t-shirts and dresses.

Viscose vs modal

Viscose and modal are cousins in their fabric family. They share similarities, as both are derived from natural cellulose, but the two materials have some notable differences.

One key difference is that modal undergoes an additional processing step, which results in superior strength, durability, and resistance to shrinkage compared to traditional viscose. This extra processing also makes modal fibers finer and more flexible, resulting in a softer, smoother fabric that drapes well and is less prone to pilling.

Another advantage of modal is its enhanced moisture-wicking properties. Although both viscose and modal are breathable and absorbent, modal tends to draw moisture away from the skin more effectively, making it a popular choice for activewear or garments intended for warm weather.

From an environmental standpoint, modal production often requires less water and energy compared to viscose, as the chemical processing is more efficient and uses fewer harsh chemicals. But again, both fabrics' sustainability ultimately depends on the specific manufacturing practices and the sourcing of raw materials.

Is viscose fabric stretchy?

Viscose fabric is not naturally stretchy–it lacks the inherent elasticity in materials like spandex or elastane–but it's often blended with these stretchy fibers to improve flexibility and fitting properties. When used on its own, viscose drapes elegantly and conforms to the body's shape without much stretching. This characteristic makes it crucial for designers and custom apparel professionals to consider the desired fit and style when choosing viscose. It's easy to find a nice viscose-polyester blend featuring the best of both worlds.

Does viscose fabric shrink?

Yes, viscose fabric is prone to shrinking–especially when exposed to high temperatures during washing or drying. The shrinkage occurs because the natural cellulose fibers are sensitive to heat and moisture. Follow the recommended care instructions to minimize shrinkage and maintain the shape and size. Industry professionals should consider this when retailing viscose garments and make sure to provide clear care guidelines to their customers.

Viscose shirts on a clothesline drying and/or photo of person at the dry cleaners

 

How to care for viscose

When it comes to caring for viscose, the key is to be gentle. It's a delicate fabric, so it needs a little extra TLC to maintain its quality and keep it looking great for longer. The best way to safely care for viscose clothes is to dry clean them. This helps minimize the fabric's exposure to water and heat, which can cause shrinkage or distortion.

If you prefer to wash your viscose at home, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, always use cold water and a mild detergent. Hot water and harsh detergents can be tough on viscose, leading to shrinkage and damage. Second, skip the dryer and opt for air drying instead. Hang your viscose garments up to dry, and they'll maintain their shape and texture.

If you're in the apparel industry, passing these care tips along to your customers is essential. By helping them understand how to properly care for their viscose garments, you're ensuring that they get the most out of their purchases and building trust and loyalty.

Viscose fabric pros & cons

Pros

Cons

✅ Soft and silky texture
 Excellent drape and fluidity
 Breathable and comfortable
 Highly absorbent
 Versatile for various garments
 Accepts dyes well for vibrant colors
 Biodegradable and made from renewable resources
 Lightweight and cool to wear
 Blends well with other fibers

    ❌  Prone to shrinking when washed
    ❌  Wrinkles fairly easily
    ❌  Less durable compared to some other fabrics
    ❌  Susceptible to mildew if left damp
    ❌  Environmental concerns due to chemical-intensive production
    ❌  Pilling can occur with repeated friction
    ❌  Weaker when wet and can lose shape
    ❌  Require dry cleaning for best results
    ❌  Can be more expensive compared to cotton or polyester

       

       

      Printing on viscose

      When it comes to printing on viscose, your choices are more limited than with other fabrics. While screen printing can work, it's not the best option. If you go this route, you'll want to use water-based inks and keep the heat settings on the belt dryer low. Flash drying is not recommended, so layering multiple colors becomes a real problem.

      So, what's the best way? Direct-to-film (DTF) transfers are a great choice for this delicate fabric. They work on any fabric and are particularly well-suited for viscose because they're lightweight and help maintain the integrity of both the print and the garment. Just be sure to carefully adjust the heat settings to avoid damaging the fabric.

      As for other methods like Direct-to-garment (DTG) and sublimation printing, it's best to steer clear. DTG printing doesn't adhere well to viscose's smooth surface, resulting in a less vibrant and durable print. Sublimation, which uses heat to transfer dye onto the fabric, is a no-go for viscose; the pigments in the inks don't set onto natural fibers like viscose. 

      Pro tip: When it comes to designing for viscose garments, avoid excess print size and surface coverage. While going big and bold with your designs might be tempting, large solid prints can weigh down the fabric and create a "sweat patch" effect that nobody wants. Nothing is worse than a garment that feels heavy and uncomfortable–especially when trying to rock that effortless, breezy look that viscose is known for.

      In this case, less is more. Lean towards smaller, less dense designs incorporating plenty of negative space. Don't be afraid to knock out any unnecessary solid areas, either. Keeping your prints on the lighter side will help maintain viscose's signature drape and feel, ensuring that your printed garments remain comfortable, breathable, and stylish.

      Various viscose items with printed designs

       

      Unlocking the potential of viscose for your custom apparel

      When it comes to creating custom apparel that stands out, knowing the unique properties and characteristics of fabrics like viscose is key. From its luxurious drape and soft, breathable texture to its versatility in design and printing, viscose offers fresh possibilities for businesses and individuals looking to create high-quality, comfortable clothing that makes a statement.

      At Ninja Blanks, we offer an extensive catalog of top-quality fabrics, including viscose garments, to support your custom apparel endeavors. Our commitment to quality and variety ensures you have access to suitable materials for your projects, whether you're a small business owner or a passionate creator.

      We understand that finding the perfect fabric can sometimes be a challenge, which is why our team is always ready to help you source the materials you need to make your custom apparel ideas come to life. With Ninja Transfers, you have a partner dedicated to your success.



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