What’s Rayon? What’s Wrong With It?

I teach a class about fibres, all kinds of fibres – what’s good about each of them for us as fibre folk – and what isn’t. Here’s something I just learned about rayon. The production of rayon and viscose fibre for the fashion industry is responsible for the destruction of 120 million trees annually, an increase of 70% over 5 years ago. So much for thinking that a renewable resource, fibre from cellulose, was a good thing.

The issue of deforestation is particularly acute in Indonesia and in the redwood forests of Canada and the United States, where old-growth forests are logged for wood pulp used for fabric.

The Chinese, for thousands of years, searched for a plant-based fibre with the all qualities of silk, like the glorious colours in this photo of silk fabric by clarita. It was only with the Industrial Revolution that the capability arose to create fibre out of cellulose. It was liquified, then extruded through machines known as spinnerets. The fibres were hardened in a chemical bath, spun, and woven into fabric. Many of the characteristics of silk – softness, sheen, and excellent ability to take dye – were achieved with this new fibre.

The term rayon was coined for this fibre in the 1920’s and we’ve been wearing it on our backs ever since. That seems likely to change with a recent  announcement by VF Corporation, the owner of more than 30 apparel brands including Wrangler jeans, Vans footwear, Nautica, Timberland, and Lee jeans. The company stated it will no longer buy pulp from “sources that contribute to the loss of ancient and endangered forests or rights taken from Indigenous people and local communities. We’re … trying to help lead and really help create demand for more sustainably, responsibly sourced materials.”

An important partner in the initiative was Canopy, an environmental non-profit group that worked with VF Corporation on its sourcing guidelines. Nicole Rycroft, executive director of Canopy said, “When a player as big as VF steps forward on these kinds of issues, suppliers take notice and so do governments. This is a major breakthrough for environmental conservation around the world.”​

photo: emlyn and kconnors

So what does this have to do with us? I believe that small things done long enough can add up to big results. While rayon and viscose are minor players in the world of knitters and crocheters, it makes sense to me to avoid those choices, both in the yarn and clothes I buy. It’s a small step. Taking that step to save just one tree is worth it.

The old growth red wood forest images are by photographers by emlyn and kconnors.




7 Replies to “What’s Rayon? What’s Wrong With It?”

  1. I am glad you have highlighted this Gayle. Also I heard the actual manufacture of rayon is a very toxic process causing brain damage to the workers.
    Keep up the good work, Julia

  2. It is disturbing to think we go on, unaware, using products and resources that cause repayable harm to environments and workers. I think about coal miners, too, needing to work and willing to suffer whatever the consequences to their lungs.

  3. Thank you so much for this, Gayle. I too thought renewable resource = good. This has been very informative. I am happy to see that some industry leaders are becoming more environmentally and socially conscious. We really need to support those efforts so others will do likewise. ~ Luise

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