By Sam Powers

Welcome to The Clothing Press, where I provide a narrative for the clothes on your back. Each week, I focus on a different garment or textile and look into its history, how its made and where to find it. 

Ideal for the warm weather and beach vacations soon to come, rayon is the first man-made fibre and is a textile made of regenerated cellulose fiber. With similar properties to cotton but able to resemble silk, rayon has an incredibly soft feel that keeps you looking and feeling cool — quite literally. 

History

An early version of the textile called “Chardonnet silk” was created in 1889 by French chemist and industrialist Hilaire de Chardonnet, often referred to as the father of the rayon industry. “Chardonnet silk” uses nitrocellulose to create the silk substitute, but the slow, dangerous and expensive process kept the cloth from catching on.

It took another two years and three new British chemists to create today’s most common form of rayon, viscose rayon. Instead of deriving the cloth from nitrocellulose, viscose rayon uses a syrupy yellow solution formed by dissolving cellulose xanthate in dilute sodium hydroxide.

Though discovered in 1891, the viscose rayon only went into industrial production in 1905 when the British silk firm Samuel Courtauld and Company saw the cloth’s potential. Courtauld and Co. later established an American subsidiary, the American Viscose Company, starting production in 1910.

The silk substitute first gained popularity during the 1920s as a class equalizer. Garments once only available to those able buy silk were made available to all. Rayon’s popularity continued to grow the next 20 years, and in America it was six times more plentiful than silk by the 1930s.

However, with the discovery of more synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester, rayon could not dominate the synthetic fabric market.

Process

Viscose rayon starts with purified cellulose, which is treated with caustic soda (sodium hydroxide), creating an alkali cellulose. This is allowed to age before adding carbon disulfide to form cellulose xanthate. Sodium hydroxide is used to dissolve the cellulose xanthate into a yellow viscous solution (this is where the name comes from).

Next, fibers are made by extruding the solution trough spinnerets and setting the emerging jets into a salt and acid bath, creating cellulose filaments. These filaments can then be manipulated to mimic different naturally occurring fibers.

Aesthetic

Rayon makes for the perfect Hawaiian shirt. It is a light, breathable fabric with an incredibly soft feel. If you are on the hunt for a new Hawaiian shirt for the upcoming warm weather, you should look for rayon. I even prefer rayon to silk because of its light weight.

At any thrift store, there will be a large collection of Hawaiian shirts, but unfortunately, most are XXXL or made of a polyester cotton blend. Please don’t settle on a polyester or cotton Hawaiian shirt, the fabric doesn’t do the shirt or “aloha attitude” justice.

Find one made of rayon, and once you feel its softer-than-silk weave, you’ll be forever swayed.