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Sewing With Rayon: What We Need to Know

Dear Friends,

In my last Textile Tuesday lesson, I shared the explosive history of artificial silk, commonly referred to today as either rayon or the trade name Modal.  Today, we’re going to look at what we need to know about sewing with rayon so that we can take advantage of its benefits while avoiding its “growth edges” (a phrase I heard during a board of directors for an academic organization when the president of the organization didn’t want to use the term “negative attributes”).

"Rayon Puts Fashion On Its Best Behavior," 1954; Image courtesy of Jordan Smith on Flickr

Aesthetics:

  • The luster (brightness), length, and diameter of rayon fibers can be controlled so that it mimics natural fibers such as cotton, flax, wool, and silk.  This is especially useful when it is used as part of a blended fabric.
  • Cupra rayon (manufactured as Bemberg) is the most silk like rayon.

Durability

  • Rayon is a weak fiber.  It loses about 50% of its strength when it gets wet and doesn’t withstand abrasion  very well (every day rubbing that can result in pilling).
  • It has the lowest elastic recover of any fiber which means that if it gets stretched out (like at the elbows of a blouse or the knees of slacks), it will not go back to its original shape
  • In addition to being stretched out, rayon shrinks with each successful washing unless it is dry cleaned.  So, it really could  be the pants and not the 15 gallons of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream you ate while watching An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.

    Courtlauds Rayon Ad, 1938; Image courtesy of Charlotte Dymock on Flickr.

Comfort

  • We love rayon because it is soft and smooth
  • Because it is absorbent, rayon does not suffer from static cling
  • It has low thermal retention (how well it retains heat) so it an ideal fiber for warmer weather

Care

  • Resist the urge to run it through your washer’s gentle cycle.  Rayon and water just don’t get along very well.
  • Rayon often has sizing and other chemicals added to the fiber during the manufacturing process to allow it to be dyed and drape a certain way.  When these come in contact with water, they can leave spots or streaks.
  • Because manufacturers assume you will be dry cleaning the fabric, the dyes they use may not be colorfast if you toss your fabric in the washing machine (No need to ask me how I learned this lesson…)
  • It seems that silverfish and mildew love rayon so make sure you keep the fish away and avoid storing your fabric and garments in damp or moist areas such as a basement.
  • Fortunately, though, you don’t have to worry about sun damage.  Rayon doesn’t disintegrate from the sunlight like other fibers.

    Rayon fabrics from Sears Catalog, 1925; Image courtesy of Charlotte Dymock on Flickr

Environmental Impact

  • Rayon is made from wood pulp.  The environmental impact is high if the trees are harvested from old growth forests instead of from tree farms.
  • The processing uses large quantities of acid and other chemicals that may contribute to air and water pollution if not disposed of or recycled properly.  Bemberg rayon is no longer manufactured in the United States because producers could not meet air and water quality requirements.
  • Rayon must be dry cleaned which may produce hazards depending upon the process used.

Factoid:  Rayon is what makes diapers and feminine hygiene so absorbent.

I love lining my garments with Bemberg rayon because I love the feel of it against my skin (I’m in Los Angeles and apparently wearing stockings is against the law) and because I don’t have to deal with static cling when I do wear stockings.

…Plus I love the swishy sound it makes…

What about you?  What is your experience sewing with rayon?

Happy sewing!

Dr. Julie-Ann

4 comments to Sewing With Rayon: What We Need to Know

  • Gloria A.

    Dr. Julie, thank you for this info. I’m in the middle of sewing a pair of rayon pants. I wish I had known about the lack of recovery in rayon. They are soft & drapey so maybe it will work out.

  • Liz

    Wow. This is so humongously helpful and informative – thank you. I ignore the dry clean only tag on my silk shirts all the time and thought I could do likewise with the rayon dress I just acquired. Thank you from saving me from ruining it.

    I don’t know if your ever respond to comments, but does this mean it would be better to line my pants with silk, rather than rayon? Would silk be more durable? I just bought a bunch of rayon to line pants and skirts & need the no-static factor of the rayon for the skirts, but what about pants?

    Thank you SO much for this article!

  • Dr. Julie-Ann

    Gloria~I’m sure it will work out fine. :)

    Liz~I try to be good about responding to comments but it also depends upon what is going on that day (I receive a message whenever someone comments).

    I’m in a quandary about not washing rayon lining. On one hand, I’ve got garments that I’ve lined with Bemberg rayon that I’ve been putting through the gentle wash for years and it doesn’t seem like the linings are any worse for wear. On the other, I didn’t know that rayon doesn’t like water when I started washing them.

    That said, I may start using china silk for my linings after I use up my Bemberg rayon stash. They are the basically the same price point and the silk will be more durable.

    I guess my answer is about as helpful as a fan in a feather pillow factory…

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