There’s a certain group of fibres (mostly from the regenerated fibres group) which some people may get confused about in terms of what they are and how they relate to each other.
We’ve put together a short guide comparing Rayon vs Viscose vs Modal vs Polyester vs Lyocell vs Bamboo.
We look at the main differences between them and how they relate to each other.
Summary – Rayon vs Viscose vs Modal vs Polyester vs Lyocell vs Bamboo: What’s The Difference?
A summary of each might be:
- Regenerated Fibres – a type of fibre which usually comes from a natural source/material e.g. wood pulp, but has a man made manufacturing process e.g. using man made chemicals
- Rayon – the general name for regenerated cellulose fibres (natural fibres broken down with the use of chemicals – so rayon is generally classified as a semi synthetic fibre)
- Viscose – a type of regenerated cellulose fibre (rayon) made from plants or wood pulp, using the viscose process (cellulose xanthate)
- Modal – a type of regenerated cellulose fibre similar to viscose in the way it’s manufactured, except the fibres are treated slightly differently after spinning to make the filaments stronger. TENCEL brand also makes their own type of Lyocell Modal
- Polyester – a synthetic material (not a natural or regenerated fibre) made from petrochemicals, and not from a natural source. Can be used as a partner material to natural and regenerated fibres
- Lyocell – the same plant-based fibre as viscose and modal, but it is made using a slightly different process. Lyocell production uses a different solvent. There’s also TENCEL brand Lyocell which uses closed looped production (to capture and re-use water, chemicals, bleaches etc.) and sustainably farmed trees, such as renewable raw material beech wood, for the wood pulp. Read more about Lyocell and TENCEL
- Bamboo – generally there are two types of bamboo fibres. The first is mechanically crushed bamboo which is less common, more expensive and doesn’t involve chemicals. This is a natural fibre. The second is more common and is what is referred to ‘bamboo rayon’, and involves chemically extracting the bamboo fibre from the bamboo stem (this method is less environmentally friendly if the chemicals and water are not captured). This is a regenerated fibre. Read more about Bamboo in this guide. Note that bamboo rayon can sometimes be processed in a closed loop process which is more eco friendly and captures chemical additives (but you have to check that the company or bamboo fibre supply chain specifically does this).
* NOTE: the differences in these fibres can differ depending on the sourcing of the fibre, the manufacturing process and chemicals used, the structure of the fibre and the eventual qualities and features of the finished product e.g. softness, look, moisture retention etc. So, the above are generalised descriptions with this in mind.
How To Know What Your Clothes Are Made From?
Look at the label when you purchase them. They should tell you whether they are 100% one type of fibre, or a blend e.g. 60% one material/40% another.
Different countries have different definitions of each type of fibre and how clothing brands can label their clothes – so be aware of this in the country you live in.
You may have to do research on the brand themselves to find out how they make their clothes.
You can go to their website and check for a description of their materials and products, including what takes place in their supply chain and production process.
Regenerated fibres are man made/artificial, but not synthetic. You might call them semi-synthetic fibres.
The name comes from the manufacturing process used when the raw material used to create the fibre is reformed or regenerated.
The raw material [used] is [usually] cellulose, such as wood pulp or cotton waste and linters from cotton fabric manufacture.
So, with regenerated fibres, the raw materials comes from a natural source usually, but the manufacturing process involves artificially modifying the fibre.
The variables in the type of regenerated fibre are usually:
- the manufacturing process (which chemicals are used, how, and at what stage of production)
- and, the structure of the filament
The three main groups of fibres used in the fashion industry are natural, regenerated and synthetic fibres.
The generic name for regenerated cellulose fibres is rayon. This is really a ‘catch all’ phrase for different types of rayon e.g. viscose rayon, modal rayon etc.
The type of rayon is determined by the special or individual chemical process used for making the fibre.
The meaning of rayon can also sometimes differ between countries.
One of the mass produced regenerated fibres is viscose.
The cellulose from a purified wood pulp is chemically transformed into a viscose solution from which the yarn is produced and then the fabric manufactured.
Modal and Cupro
Modal has as a very similar manufacturing process to viscose with similar chemicals used.
Modal fibres though are treated slightly differently after spinning to make the filaments stronger.
For example, the fibres are also stretched to increase molecular alignment. This means that modal fibres have the potential to be lighter and finer and can be tumble dried without damage.
Other than that viscose and modal are similar products.
Both modal and cupro involve transforming a raw material into a solution and then producing the fibre into regenerated cellulose fibres.
TENCEL makes both a lyocell, and a modal fibre, and you can read about both in this guide. They note Modal is good for combining with cotton, and has a sleek cross section, adds long-lasting softness to fabrics, enhancing the touch even after repeated washing. Their Modal fibre is manufactured from the renewable source of raw material beech wood, sourced from sustainable forests in Austria and neighboring countries.
Read a guide about what lyocell and TENCEL are here. Lyocell yarn might be made of filament fibres (as opposed to staple fibres), which are generally longer and smoother than staple fibres, are used in items that have a silkier appearance such as women’s clothing and men’s dress shirts. Lyocell can be blended with a variety of other fibres such as silk, cotton, rayon, polyester, linen, nylon, and wool.
Naturally, two properties of lyocell are that it doesn’t always accept dyes well, and it has an inherent tendency to fibrillate or “pill”. To get around this – wet/chemical processing has to take place to control the surface of the fibre.
Lyocell is still the same plant-based fibre as viscose and modal, but it is made using a slightly different process.
Lyocell production uses a different solvent to extract the cellulose from the wood: sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) is replaced by a non-toxic organic compound with the catchy name N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMMO for short).
This organic solvent is easier to filter and re-use in a closed loop, which is better for the environment [TENCEL does this with a solvent-spinning process recycles process water and reuses the solvent at a recovery rate of more than 99%.]
The Austrian firm Lenzing make their lyocell, branded as Tencel®, from fast-growing Eucalyptus trees from sustainably managed forests.
The manufacturing process of regenerated fibres involves the use of high-toxic and hazardous chemicals, such as caustic soda and sulphuric acid – one of many reasons that lead to decline in viscose use in garment production.
Hence other sustainable regenerated fibres with less environmental impact and non-toxic manufacture process were developed during the 20th century.
Developed in the 1980s, lyocell is an eco-friendly regenerated fibre made from wood pulp, usually eucalyptus. Further developed as tencel, some of environmentally benefits of this fibre are its renewable raw material and its full biodegradability (eucalyptus reaches maturity in seven years).
Rayon from bamboo comes from the bamboo fibres when they are broken down using chemicals.
Bamboo fibre is directly extracted from the bamboo culm or stem.
In order to produce fashion fabric though, bamboo is processed in a viscose spinning way, in which bamboo is the source of raw cellulose. From sustainable point of view this way of processing the bamboo still use chemical additives. Hence the similar environmental impact as from processing conventional viscose.
There is, however, an eco-friendly way, similar to lyocell spinning with no chemical additives, however there is still a lot more room for development in this area.
As a result, there are two kind of viscose bamboo: regular (from viscose spinning) and bio-bamboo (from lyocell spinning). Both methods make amazing soft and fine textiles yet the second only is the “greenest” and obtains much higher strength compared to the other.
Despite all, bamboo is an easy to grow, rapidly regenerating raw material and developing technologies in fibre processing can make it the new substitution of viscose rayon with so much to offer at an affordable prices.
Textiles labelled as being made from bamboo are usually not made by mechanical crushing and retting. They are generally synthetic rayon made from cellulose extracted from bamboo [with chemicals].
In the US, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has ruled that unless a yarn is made directly with bamboo fibre — often called “mechanically processed bamboo” — it must be called “rayon” or “rayon made from bamboo”.
Other Eco Friendly & Renewable Fibres
During the last few decades, under the demand of more environmentally friendly processes from renewable sources, other regenerated fibres have been developed.
They are made from a protein – either from a vegetable, such as soya beans, or from an animal, such as milk. The respective protein structure is modified by bioengineering techniques. Then the resulted solution is spun into a fibre.
Soya fibres have natural antibacterial properties. To be real eco-friendly though, soya fibre needs to be grown in organic water-wise way, with no genetical modification. Unfortunately, this results in very expensive production (even more than the organically produced cotton), which makes it less desirable from the fashion industry point of view.
Different to all the above fibres.
Polyester is not made from natural material, but from petrochemicals and is classified as a synthetic fibre.
Out of the regenerated fibres, viscose is the weakest. The other disadvantages of regenerated fibres are: distorting and wrinkling easily, poor sunlight resistance, and poor durability.
Thus, the blending viscose and other regenerated fibres with synthetics particularly is common practice. Combination of polyester and viscose, for example, is extensively used because of its durability, comfortable wear, easy-care and better wrinkle resistance.
More info on polyester and synthetic fibres can be found at – https://www.ecofashionsewing.com/fibres-textiles/fabric-fashion-industry-synthetic-fibres/
More Information On The Above Fibres & How They Relate To Each Other
Can be found at: