Spend any time looking for activewear and it’s a good bet you’ll come across the words ‘Viscose Fabric’. You may also see that intertwined with ‘Rayon’ and/or ‘Bamboo Rayon’. It’s enough to make you scratch your head and wish to the Fabric Gods and/or Powers that Be would explain in plain English a simple answer.

Just what the heck is ‘Viscose Fabric’ and why is there a guy staring at me with binoculars through that window in the building across the way?

I can’t help too much with the latter question (the IRS maybe?), but I can certainly try to explain the basics of viscose fabric and why it’s so common in activewear and cool stuff to wear when you’re breaking a sweat.

I’m so glad this is my blog and I can write however the F**k I want 🤪

What is Viscose Fabric?

Viscose fabric is a semi synthetic fiber made of regenerated cellulose material. It’s simply a fabric made from a viscous solution of cellulite, which is then made into Rayon or cellophane.

Viscose fabric is also a synonym for ‘Rayon’, which is one of the fabrics made by this process.

So if you’re looking for the official definition, it’s like this:

Viscose fabric – A fabric that created from a source like Bamboo, which is then broken down by chemical or mechanical means and is regenerated into a ‘semi-synthetic’ fabric.

Rayon – One of the fabrics made by the viscose fabric manufacturing method.

Bamboo Rayon – Rayon made of Bamboo.

The three terms are often used synonymously. Most bamboo clothingproducts label their products as ‘Bamboo Rayon’ or ‘Bamboo Viscose’, including our own Abenaki Cross Trainer t shirt which is made of Bamboo Rayon.

Viscose fabric has grown in popularity over the past decade for a variety of reasons. Cotton has become more expensive in recent years. Viscose fabrics like rayon also have higher biodegradability than cotton, according to a Korean study done in 2004.

And viscose fabrics can take on characteristics that make them ideal for activewear and performance clothing that we’ll talk about in a minute.

So is Viscose ‘Sustainable’?

A woman with bamboo fiber. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.com

Here’s the thing with viscose fabrics; they must be chemically treated. In the viscose manufacturing process, a worker starts with a material like bamboo. It is then treated with chemicals like caustic soda, ammonia, acetone and sulphuric acid.

When the process is finished, we’ve taken a natural textile, broken it down, treated it with chemicals and then used that regenerated material as a new, ‘viscose’ fabric.

Hence, it’s not made directly from the plant.

Some manufacturers still make the claim that viscose fabrics are sustainable. After all, bamboo is a very hardy plant, needs little space to grow – and it does that very quickly.

It needs few chemicals or pesticides and can also be used as shelter and even food.

Still, viscous fabrics had a bad rap in the early 20th century when the process was in its infancy. The process has evolved over the past few decades and is now often made with something called the Lyocell process. This uses a direct solvent rather than the time-consuming and more chemical-heavy indirect dissolution method used to make viscose fabrics in earlier decades. There is less waste, and it’s far more eco-friendly.

So while viscose fabrics can’t be called completely ‘sustainable’, they are often made from sustainable materials, and now use a less chemical dependant manufacturing process that continues to improve.

Bamboo Rayon Characteristics

The Abenaki Cross-Trainer is a bamboo work out shirt. Photo by Steve Hutchings

Bamboo rayon is a viscose fabric. It’s made using the viscose production method – now increasingly with the Lyocell method – and has many advantages for performance clothes and activewear.

Bamboo rayon benefits include:

  • It Drapes Well
  • It’s Very Comfortable
  • It Wicks Moisture
  • It’s Light
  • It Breathes Well
  • It’s Strong
  • It Can Stretch

These are all great things for activewear. What are the disadvantages of bamboo rayon?

  • It Can Shrink in the Dryer
  • It Can Wrinkle Easily
  • It’s More Expensive That Cotton

With that said, these should be deal breakers. Just take a little care when washing and drying bamboo rayon. Read (and follow) the washing instructions. That should save you a little grief.

Just keep in mind that most bamboo clothing is rayon. Always look for the words ‘Bamboo Rayon’ or ‘Bamboo Viscose’ on bamboo garments – that’s a sign the manufacturer is being honest with you. More notably, it’s required by textile regulations in Canada and the United States.

Moving Forward…

Viscose fabric may be one of the most misunderstood of fabrics. It’s not natural. It’s not synthetic. It’s somewhere in between – it starts natural, is then broken down synthetically and then regenerated as semi-synthetic.

Or, depending on how you look at it, as semi-natural.

Many viscose fabric manufacturers are being proactive in how they make this intriguing fabric. While it’s not chemical-free, the viscose fibre manufacturing process, including bamboo rayon, continues to improve, with less waste, made more efficiently, and with better safety regulations for the people that make them.

Also keep in mind that every fabric has pros and cons. No fabric is perfect. Cotton growth requires a lot of water, for example, and accounts for 3% of all global water use, according to the UN – water that could have been used for families and social development. It also accounts for 7% of all agricultural chemicals used in the United States.

Synthetic fabrics can take hundreds of years to decompose and contribute to plastic in the ocean.

Leather and wool come from animals.

Viscose fabrics are no exception. They have a history – and it hasn’t always been pretty.

Still, viscose fabrics have come a long way since they were first manufactured. The process is now much more eco-friendly than in earlier years. They also come from more sustainable sources, like bamboo, which can be grown with a small ecological footprint, are very hardy, and come with exceptional textile properties, like softness and durability.

And, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of wearing bamboo rayon, a garment that’s nothing short of ecstasy in the gym or on a hot day.