We’ve put together a short guide comparing Rayon vs Viscose vs Modal vs Polyester vs Lyocell vs Bamboo.
We look at what each is, 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?
The main differences in these materials and fibres are:
- The source the raw material comes from
- The chemicals or solvents used to produce them (such as the chemicals used to dissolve the pulp)
There may also be some differences in the way they are treated or finished, or the way a filament is structured, to add certain traits to the fibre or the final product.
Individual companies may also produce their own patented or custom versions of these materials or fibres.
A general summary of what each of these is:
- Rayon is natural cellulose that has been processed (dissolving pulp) in man made chemicals. The cellulose source can be wood, or a bamboo cellulose for example. Because of the combination of a natural cellulose source and man made chemicals, rayon is referred to as a semi synthetic or regenerated fibre. Different types of rayon can include but isn’t limited to viscose, modal, lyocell and bamboo
- Viscose is technically a type of rayon. But, it is rayon that specifically uses wood cellulose (as opposed to a bamboo source cellulose for example). Wood cellulose comes from trees such as eucalyptus, beech and pine. Viscose uses the viscose process (cellulose xanthate) to dissolve a wood pulp
- Lyocell is technically a type of rayon. It is made with wood cellulose. Where lyocell differs is in the way it is made – lyocell production might use a different solvent. There’s also TENCEL branded Lyocell which uses closed looped production (to capture and re-use water, chemicals, bleaches etc.), and sources cellulose from sustainably farmed trees, such as renewable raw material beech wood (for the wood pulp).
- Modal is technically a type of rayon. It is made with wood cellulose – specifically beech tree wood. The difference is that the fibres might be treated slightly differently after spinning to make the filaments stronger. TENCEL brand also makes their own type of Lyocell Modal. Modal usually comes from beechwood trees, and are processed into beech tree pulp.
- Generally there are two types of bamboo fibres. The first is mechanically crushed bamboo which is generally less common, more expensive and doesn’t involve synthetic chemicals for processing. 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 usually less environmentally friendly if the chemicals and water are not captured). This is a regenerated fibre. 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).
- Unlike all the other fibres and materials on this list, polyester is a completely synthetic material (not a natural or regenerated fibre) made from petrochemicals. However, it can be used as a partner material to natural and regenerated fibres
Apart from polyester, the other fibres on this list are regenerated fibres. These are:
Regenerated Fibres (also referred to as a semi synthetic fibre)
- A type of fibre which comes from a (raw) natural cellulose source like wood or bamboo, and uses synthetic chemicals in processing. Usually, the process involves turning the cellulose into pulp, adding chemicals to dissolve the pulp, and using a spinning process to form a fibre or filament that can be turned into a yarn. Other examples might also include cupro (comes from cotton linter), and triacetate (usually made from combining a cellulose like wood pulp with acetate from acetic acid and acetate anhydride)
The three main groups of fibres used in the fashion industry are natural, regenerated and synthetic fibres.
* NOTE: there can be differences in these fibres 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 only
How To Know What Your Clothes Are Made From, & How They Are Made
- 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 – be aware what different words mean
- You may have to do research on the brand selling the textile themselves to find out how they make their clothes. You can go to their website and check for a description of their fibres, materials and products, including their sourcing, manufacturing and finishing processes, and any certifications they might have.
- The best way to know what a fibre looks like in it’s finished fabric form is to look at pictures online, and also to see the finished fabric and feel it for yourself in person. When looking at a fabric online though – make sure you know if the finished fabric is 100% a specific fibre, or whether it’s a blend
- What It Is – rayon is a semi synthetic fibre that comes from a natural cellulose source, but uses a man made manufacturing process. Rayon is a phrase used to describe a range of semi synthetic rayons such as viscose, bamboo, modal, lyocell, cupro, acetate, and so on
- Examples Of What It’s Used For – rayon has been developed to provide an alternative to natural fibres like cotton, silk, linen and wool. It’s very versatile. It’s used in a range textiles such as clothing, but also filling for furniture, bedding, toys, and more
- Properties, What It Looks Like, & What It Feels Like – it depends on what the manufacturer wants the final properties to be. Rayon is often made to imitate the look and feel of natural fibres
- Other Notes – Rayon can be blended partially with other fibres
We’ve also put together this guide on rayon:
- What It Is – viscose is a type of rayon that specifically uses wood cellulose from trees, as opposed to say a bamboo, cotton linter or other type of natural cellulose
- Examples Of What It’s Used For – usually the same uses as what has been listed for rayon above
- Properties, What It Looks Like, & What It Feels Like – usually the same as has been listed for rayon above
- Other Notes – Viscose can be blended partially with other fibres
We’ve also put together this guide on viscose:
- What It Is – lyocell is a type of rayon that specifically uses wood cellulose from trees. Wikpedia.org describes that lyocell: “The Lyocell process uses a direct solvent rather than indirect dissolution such as the xanthation-regeneration route in the viscose process”. There’s a handful of lyocell producers worldwide, but TENCEL (owned by The Lenzing Group) is the most well known and prominent. So, when describing lyocell – general lyocell can be described, or TENCEL Lyocell can be described (and TENCEL have their own sourcing and production processes which are unique to their fibres and products).
- Examples Of What It’s Used For – From wikipedia.org: “Staple fibres are used in clothes such as denim, chino, underwear, casual wear, and towels. Filament 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 also is used in conveyor belts, specialty papers, and medical dressings.
- Properties, What It Looks Like, & What It Feels Like – Lyocell might be soft, absorbent, very strong when wet or dry, and resistant to wrinkles. It is also known to drape well (like a silk) in some instances.
- Other Notes – Lyocell can be blended with other fibres, and is usually more expensive than cotton
TENCEL has their own branded versions of Lyocell and Modal fibers.
TENCEL has this to say about their standard Lyocell fibers: “[they are] extracted from sustainability grown wood using a unique closed loop system which recovers and reuses the solvents used, minimizing the environmental impact of production. Unique physical properties lead to their high tenacity profile, efficient moisture management and gentleness to skin”. Also ” … [lyocell] fibers are versatile and can be combined with a wide range of textile fibers such as cotton, polyester, acrylic, wool, and silk to enhance the aesthetics and functionality of fabrics”.
TENCEL also do a new variant called the Lyocell Filament: “[this is a] new variant of the Lyocell production process enables Lenzing to produce extremely fine filament yarn, branded as TENCEL™ Luxe, which produce silky-smooth luxury fabrics with color vibrancy and a flowing liquid-like drape.”
You can read specifically about the sustainability of the Lyocell fibers in the ‘sustainability’ section of TENCEL’s site.
Some other information on lyocell from various sources …
- Sewport.com has some interesting data and information sheets on Lyocell, Modal and other fabrics that are worth checking out
- 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).
We’ve also put together these guides on lyocell:
Modal is another type of rayon that used mainly a wood cellulose as the source material.
According to wikipedia.org:
- “[modal] is processed under different conditions to produce a fiber that is stronger and more stable when it is wet than standard rayon, yet has a soft feel, similar to cotton. It can be tumble dried without damage due to its increased molecular alignment. The fabric has been known to pill less than cotton due to fiber properties and lower surface friction”
So, one of the key features of Modal fibres is that they are treated slightly differently after spinning to make the filaments stronger.
TENCEL also has their own branded and trademarked versions of Lyocell and Modal fibers.
TENCEL has this to say about their Modal fibers:
- “TENCEL™ Modal fibers are known for being exquisitely soft and pleasant to the skin. Exhibiting high flexibility, TENCEL™ Modal fibers enhance textiles with a naturally soft quality. Offering endless design possibilities, TENCEL™ Modal fibers can be blended with other fibers and processed using conventional machinery, significantly improving the softness and comfort of fabrics.
- TENCEL™ Modal fibers are extracted from naturally grown beech wood by an environmentally responsible integrated pulp-to-fiber process, which is self-sufficient in energy and recovers co-products from component parts of the wood …
- Composed of natural material, all TENCEL™ standard Modal fibers are biodegradable and compostable under industrial, home, soil and marine conditions, thus they can fully revert back to nature.
- Exhibiting high flexibility, TENCEL™ Modal wood-based fibers offer textiles a long-lasting quality of exquisite softness. Due to the fiber’s sleek cross section, TENCEL™ Modal fibers enhance the soft touch of fabrics even after repeated washing. Measurements and hand evaluations of softness show that TENCEL™ Modal fibers feel twice as soft as cotton. The softness of TENCEL™ Modal fibers lasts longer and is able to withstand repeated wash and dry cycles compared to cotton.
Softness, durability and strength, and eco friendliness seem to be key features of TENCEL’s modal fibre.
You can read specifically about the sustainability of the Modal fibers in the ‘sustainability’ section of TENCEL’s site.
We’ve also put together these guides:
Bamboo as the name suggests comes from the bamboo plant.
There’s two types of bamboo when it comes to textiles:
- Bamboo Rayon Viscose (Chemically Processed Bamboo) – bamboo fibres are usually short, which makes it difficult to transform it into yarn by a natural process. Instead, chemicals like lye, carbon disulfide, and strong acids are used to dissolve the bamboo pulp, so it can be spun/extruded to form fibres. In some countries, there are penalties and it’s against consumer/business regulations to label or market a bamboo rayon viscose product as being just ‘bamboo’ or ‘natural bamboo’. Chemically processed bamboo is usually the most widely used bamboo fibre
- Mechanically Processed Bamboo (also called ‘Bamboo Linen’) – According to wikipedia.org: ” … the woody part of the bamboo is crushed mechanically before a natural enzyme retting and washing process is used to break down the walls and extract the fibre”. This method of processing is less widely used, and can be more time consuming and expensive
Other information on bamboo fibres …
- 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”.
We’ve also put together these guides about bamboo:
Cotton and polyester are two of the most commonly used fibres in the textile industry.
Polyester is different to all the above fibres, as it’s classified as a fully synthetic fibre.
Polyester is not made from natural material, but from petrochemicals, and involves the use of various chemicals in processing.
Some of the potential 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 like polyester specifically is common practice. A combination of polyester and viscose, for example, is extensively used because of its durability, comfortable wear, easy-care and better wrinkle resistance.
- Polyester synthetic fibre is durable and resistant to shrinkage and stretch.
- The fabric is washed easily, and dries quickly.
- Additionally it is wrinkle and mildew resistant – properties that most common natural fibres do not have.
- On the down side, however, along the petrochemical origin, polyester fabrics have a “plastic” handle. This means they are water repellent which makes them your last choice for summer clothing. Technology development can overcome some of polyester’s disadvantages and in future of the fashion industry there will be better options of synthetic fibres.
We’ve also put together this guide on polyester:
Modal vs Viscose, and Modal vs Lyocell
Masterclass.com outlines these differences between some of the above fibers:
Modal vs Viscose:
- Modal is what’s called a “high wet modulus rayon,” which means it’s a type of rayon that’s stronger when wet and doesn’t lose its shape, which is not true for viscose.
- The production process for modal is almost exactly the same as that for viscose, but the fibers used in modal undergo more processing which makes the final product stronger, lighter, and more breathable.
- Modal is more environmentally friendly than viscose because lower concentrations of sodium hydroxide are used to make it.
Modal vs Lyocell:
- Modal is also very similar to lyocell, which is a completely organic form of rayon. The two are big competitors as luxury fabric.
- Lyocell is even more eco-friendly than modal because lyocell is made using an organic solution that replaces the sodium hydroxide used in modal.
- Lyocell can be made from different types of trees, including beech trees and eucalyptus.
More Information On The Look, Feel, Traits & Uses Of The Above Fibres
Other Eco Friendly Regenerated 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.