Rayon does not fit solely into the synthetic fiber category or the natural fiber slot but is instead considered a semi-synthetic fiber. It is made from regenerated cellulose fiber. Cellulose comes from the cell walls in green plants and can also be obtained from cotton and dissolving wood pulp. It is used to produce paper as well as derivative products such as rayon and cellophane. Developed in 1924, rayon is considered artificial silk. There are both advantages and disadvantages to using rayon as an upholstery fabric.
Rayon is versatile and has the same comfort properties that true natural fibers possess. Rayon is smooth, soft, cool and absorbent, although it does not insulate body heat; when used for clothing, it is good for humid and hot climates. However, rayon is not considered that durable, nor does regular rayon retain its appearance for a long period of time, particularly when the material gets wet. Rayon's elastic recovery is the lowest of any fiber, meaning it does not quickly return to its original shape and appearance.
When regular rayon is used in home furnishings, it is called viscose. Rayon is created by treating and dissolving cellulose in a soda solution. It is then passed through tiny holes into a chemical bath, which creates the fibers. Rayon is used for applications including upholstery, tablecloths, bedspreads, blankets, draperies, sheets and blankets. Regular rayon may stretch or shrink when wet and can become unstable, so the fabric should be dry-cleaned. A modified version of viscose, called high wet modulus (HWM), has the same properties as regular rayon but also has high wet strength. This fabric can be machine-washed and tumble-dried.
Regular rayon, or viscose, is not as strong as flax or natural cotton, and this weakness can be exacerbated if the material is overly exposed to sunlight or if it gets wet. Factors such as acid, mildew and ironing can damage rayon. However, chemically treating rayon and blending it with another fiber can minimize these inherent weaknesses.
Viscose is the most used and most successful version of rayon used in home furnishings because it is comfortable and economical as well as very absorbent. However, it is likely to wrinkle. Advances in the manufacture of rayon have turned it into a practical material for upholstery, notes Berkline.com.
Keep in mind that rayon is extremely flammable, so it must be treated with a flame retardant. Rayon catches on fire quickly and the fire spreads fast. The fiber content of any material determines how likely it is to burn and how quickly. Rayon tends to be more flammable than other plant fibers, such as linen, cotton and hemp. Animal fibers, such as alpaca, wool, silk and mohair, smolder rather than burn. Wool is considered the best fire-resistant fabric.
Cindi Pearce is a graduate of Ohio University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in journalism. She completed both the undergraduate and graduate courses offered by the Institute of Children’s Literature. Pearce has been writing professionally for over 30 years.