Manufactured fabrics have often been an excellent alternative to natural fibers. They not only stand on their own, but can be blended with natural fibers to produce a myriad of textures, weaves and hands. The French chemist Hillaire de Charbonnay invented the first manufactured fiber…a form of rayon…in 1884 from cellulose. However, his product was highly flammable and removed from the market. In 1894 the Brittish chemists, Edward Bevan, Clayton Beadle and Charles Cross patented a safer method of producing this artificial “silk” called viscose rayon.
To produce rayon, cellulose is dissolved in caustic soda and, after several more procedures resulting in a viscose, it is filtered and extruded through a spinneret consisting of many tiny holes. The viscose is then bathed in sulfuric acid forming rayon filaments that are then drawn (stretched), washed and either left as filaments or cut for staple fibers.
Rayon fabric is soft and comfortable and can absorb nearly 50% more moisture than cotton making it ideal for warm weather. It dyes easily but can fade and deteriorate in both natural and artificial light if exposed too long. It is moth-resistant, but susceptible to mildew, flammable, but resists static electricity. Washing renders it limp and shrinkage can be as much as 10% so pre-shrinking by dry cleaning, washing or steaming with a warm iron is mandatory. Purchase extra to ensure enough yardage for each project.
The softness and drape of rayon lends itself to less tailored designs. Choose patterns with minimal structure as elements such as interfacings will keep these areas taught while other parts of the garment may tend to droop. It’s often recommended that the rayon fabric be used as the interfacing so the drape is more consistent throughout the garment.
Using a “without nap” layout on most yardage is acceptable, but be wary of directional prints, stripes, etc. Take care that the yardage doesn’t hang off the cutting table as this will distort and stretch the fabric. Very sharp scissors or shears are a must since rayon can be a little slippery. Dull or nicked scissors or pins will tug and often result in snags. Serging or zig zagging the edges of seam allowances is recommended due to extensive raveling of most rayons. You can also finish the sewn seams with binding, Hong Kong technique or, on thinner weaves, by folding the seam allowances over ¼” and straight-stitching 1/8” from the fold. Use non-wax marking tools or tailor’s tacks.
Stitch with cotton, rayon, polyester or cotton/polyester threads and universal or sharp needles. Depending upon fabric weight, machine needles can be 70/10-90/14. For hand sewing, sizes 5-10 are recommended. The average machine stitch length is 2.5. Adjust the sewing machine tension to eliminate any pull on the fabric. As when cutting, be careful to keep the fabric as flat as possible on the sewing surface so as not to stretch any of the pieces.
Press as you sew with a warm iron. Rayon requires pressing since it wrinkles easily, but high heat can cause damage. Pressing on the wrong side of the fabric can also reduce shine.
Hems tend to stretch or flare but this can be rectified by inserting a piece of interfacing into the seam. Using a stretch twin needle can also help while adding a decorative touch to the hem.
A little history:
Rayon became very popular during WWl when natural materials were conserved for military use. It continued in popularity throughout the post-war era.