If you love vintage fashions, you probably have a fondness for rayon. It’s the quintessential fabric of the 1940s, its soft drape showing off the feminine gathers and shirring, swingy skirts and swagged peplums so beloved in fashions of the period. A 1944 DuPont pamphlet, Rayon Today, describes rayon as “truly one of the wonders of the modern age,” bringing “increased beauty and luxury” into all our lives.
But what actually is rayon, and where did it come from? Rayon is not a single product, but a generic name for a whole family of fibres. Neither is it technically a synthetic, being made from naturally occurring cellulose. However, because of the chemical processes involved in its production rayon is classed as a semi-synthetic or artificial fibre, and is generally considered the precursor to all true synthetic fibres. In this first post in the series, I’ll cover the early development of rayon as a textile fibre. Future instalments deal with the properties and versatility of rayon fibres; identification and care of vintage rayon; and a guide to buying modern rayon for sewing vintage styles.
Origins and early development
As far back as 1754, French physicist and naturalist René de Réaumur theorised that it should be possible to synthesise an artificial silk. After all, he reasoned, “silk is only a liquid gum that has been dried”, and since the technology existed to make varnishes and lacquers, he speculated that by drawing these substances out into threads, “could we not make silk ourselves?”
Early attempts to synthesise silk sought to replicate as closely as possible the natural process by which the silkworm converted its foodstuff - the bark of the mulberry tree - into the filament from which it formed its cocoon. A century after Réaumur’s musings, in 1855, Swiss chemist Georges Audemars invented the first crude artificial silk by dipping a needle into a solution of mulberry bark pulp and gummy rubber to make threads. His method did find success as a conducting filament in electric lightbulbs, but as a textile fibre it was not commercially viable.
Other chemists developed further techniques over the next few decades, but none were efficient enough to make the new fibre a practical alternative to real silk. The turning point came when Count Hilaire de Chardonnet, in 1885, patented the first commercial artificial silk. The new fibre was not without its problems - it lacked elasticity, was “very deficient in strength, especially when wet”, was sensitive to acids, alkalis, washing, hot irons and light and was also highly flammable.
Nevertheless, the new product was greeted with rapturous enthusiasm. The whole concept of a synthetic material captured the public imagination. This “quixotic” idea of creating a delicate, lustrous, floaty silk out of basically wood chip was considered “so novel that the mention of it may be suggestive of an absurdity.” People were fascinated: “The most astonishing thing, the most surprising, the most marvellous, the most miraculous, the most triumphant, the most astounding, the most extraordinary, the most incredible, the most unexpected, the most prodigious, the most unique, the most brilliant and the most worth of imitation and envy of this century,” gushed one observer in 1894.
Some sceptics dismissed the invention as “indifferent” as a rival to silk, declaring that “there is no immediate likelihood of the silkworm’s occupation being gone”, while more zealous critics (coincidentally often connected with the silk trade) denounced the “unnatural” new yarn as not only a “sham”, but no less than an affront to God. However, the reception was generally positive; the product was seen as a great democratizer, with the potential to bring ‘silk’ clothing within reach of everyone.
Early Commercial Success
The first manufacturing plant in the US opened in 1911, and by this time artificial silk was beginning to hit the fashion mainstream. The new silks found initial success principally in trimmings, embroidery yarns, linings and hosiery. A 1911 Good Housekeeping guide to silks notes that artificial silk was gaining popularity for dress trimmings and embroidery silks, but advises that “the material will need much improvement before it can be used as a fabric, as hot water dissolves and destroys it.” Writing in 1912, Charlotte M Gibbs considers artificial silk useful for “braids, neckties, and for fancy articles which need not come in contact with water.”
One enthusiastic observer had predicted in 1894 that “when the [manufacturing] process is once perfected, and its result are wholly satisfactory, there will be a lively struggle for the control of this valuable invention.” Other chemists and inventors duly joined the race to perfect the artificial silk product, and variations on the manufacturing processes were patented in quick succession over the following years. This proliferation of methods contributed new textiles to the rayon family.
All are predicated on the same basic steps of first dissolving cellulose material (derived from either wood pulp or cotton) in a chemical solution, then passing this cellulose emulsion through fine tubes or a spinneret to draw out fine threads of the substance. As it emerges either into either a chemical/water bath or air (depending on the method) the liquid solidifies into filaments. By the early 20th century, four principal manufacturing methods were in use:
Nitrocellulose or Chardonnet silk
The invention of a denitration process for the finished yarn made Chardonnet’s method more marketable (at least, it reduced its tendency to explode). Further refinements were made by Dr Lehner of Switzerland, and as at 1911 thousands of pounds of Chardonnet silk were being manufactured daily. However, “Chardonnet silk” was still more expensive and of a lesser quality than the alternatives which were by then available, and it was eventually supplanted by the other methods. Production using the Chardonnet method had waned by the 1920s and more or less ceased by the 1940s.
Among the early rivals to Chardonnet’s artificial silk was the cuprammonium process, patented in Germany in 1890. In this process, cellulose from purified wood pulp or cotton is dissolved in ammoniacal copper oxide, yielding a smooth, fine filament fibre. Commercial manufacture was undertaken by the firm of J.P. Bemberg in 1897. In 1901 Dr Edmund Thiele developed a stretch-spinning system, producing very fine filaments of 1–1.5 denier which were marketed under the Bemberg trademark.
In 1894, British inventor Charles Cross, together with Edward Bevan and Clayton Beadle, patented a practical method of making artificial silk from thiocarbonate of cellulose. They named their product "viscose" because their processing of the cellulose gave a highly viscous solution, which was then passed through a spinneret to form fine filaments. The cost was a fraction of Chardonnet silk, and moreover viscose had the distinct advantages of being non-explosive and not susceptible to dissolving in wet weather.
The first commercial viscose rayon was produced in the UK by Courtaulds in 1905, and in America in 1911 by the American Viscose Company.
The viscose method was cost-effective, and by 1944 accounted for around 80% of world rayon production.
French chemist Paul Schützenberger had discovered 1865 that cellulose reacts with acetic anhydride to form cellulose acetate. In 1904, Camille Dreyfus and his younger brother Henri performed chemical research and development on cellulose acetate in a shed in their father's garden. Their early experiments initially focused on cellulose acetate film (then widely used in celluloid plastics and film for the motion picture industry), but by 1913 they were producing continuous filament acetate yarn. The outbreak of World War I postponed commercial development of this process, while focus shifted to production of acetate lacquer or ‘dope’, which was used in aircraft production to coat fabric covered wings and fuselage. The British Government invited Dr. Camille Dreyfus to come to England to manufacture acetate dope for the war effort, and the "British Cellulose and Chemical Manufacturing Co" was set up. After the war, attention returned to the production of acetate fibers, and acetate fibre was first manufactured in quantity at the British Celanese plant in 1918.
Acetate fabrics were grouped into the rayon family for the first half of the 20th century, being similarly based on cotton or wood pulp cellulose; however, acetate is now considered a distinct category. The difference is that while rayon manufacturing processes reconstitute the natural cellulose polymer, the acetate process involves a chemical reaction.
Coming Soon: What’s in a Name?