Fabric Focus – Viscose

Fabric Focus - Viscose

Viscose (or rayon to my US readers) – source of many a heated debate. Some Sewists hate it. I remember back in the Eighties and early Nineties, any clothes shopping involved careful inspection of labels. If any item was made of viscose, it went back on the rack. Believe me, there were many, many clothes made out of this stuff. I can see why – it barely creases, heaven for stocking a shop. But boy, back then did it shrink. So many clothes became ruined in their first wash, so I learnt to give viscose a wide berth.

Fortunately for us all, standards seem to have improved – a lot. Though I would still strongly advise pre-washing viscose before a make, as I’d advise pre-washing any fabric!

Viscose is made from wood – did you know that? I didn’t! For a mind-bending explanation of the chemical process, you can go here. (There’s a nice little Burda item on viscose here, too.) It was invented to be an ‘artificial silk’. Hmmm, I wouldn’t go that far! But I think the days when ‘viscose’ roughly translated as ‘cheap and nasty’ are behind us. Some readers might disagree.

Viscose is often used in blends. On the bottom left of my photo we have a linen/viscose blend – perfect for anyone who hates creases. On the bottom right, there’s a viscose/jersey blend. I confess I don’t know what the benefits of combining viscose and jersey are. Can anyone help?

What are the viscose pros? It is readily available and often at a very reasonable price. It has really fantastic drape, which makes it perfect for the Mathilde blouse. My red version is made from a printed viscose.

Applying Lipstick

The cons? That drape. It can be challenging for beginners to cut out and sew with. Pins slip out the moment you so much as look at the fabric. If you’re using interfacing, it will need to be really lightweight. An item that needs structure won’t work with viscose, or will need underlining.

When I first taught my Pyjama Party class I had four students. Two worked with cotton; two purchased viscose. The students who brought viscose to the class really struggled because good drape equals excellent slipperiness. Since then, I pretty much insist that beginner students work with cotton.

So, be warned. You’ll have great finished items with viscose, but the sewing experience is going to be slightly more challenging.

Any other tips about viscose?

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67 Responses to Fabric Focus – Viscose

  1. Wendy says:

    In my limited experience viscose jersey gives a gorgeous drape. I’ve used it twice and love the soft hand and drape, I never shy away from viscose in a jersey. Viscose in a woven is another story, let’s just say I haven’t had much success ๐Ÿ™

    • Can you expand on your last point, Wendy, to help readers? Why hasn’t a woven viscose worked for you? Thanks!

      • Wendy says:

        I think the general ‘slipperiness ‘ caused most of the grief, even though I used more pins than usual. The grain seemed difficult to maintain and this could have been the reason my attempts just didn’t drape well. If I were to try again I would probably sew this fabric using the tips I’ve seen around for sewing with silk.

  2. As a fundamentally indolent person, I found the easy-care aspect made viscose garments a winner. I must also add that I never had any problems with shrinkage. I may have been lucky. I haven’t sewn with viscose, however, so I’m not qualified to comment on that (I know, I know, making a blouse from a length of it is in my Sewlutions jar; but, you know, I’ve been busy with knitting warmer things).

    • ellen Reimers says:

      I wish to know how to wash viscose garments so they do not shrink. I am thinking in cold water by hand and drying flat. Or do you have some tips for me? Thank you, Ellen

      • Georgia says:

        I just bought a $300 Kate Sylvester dress down from $500, first cold wash and it has shrunk. But unevenly shrunk so the hem is uneven. I can’t believe it!
        What can be done about this?

  3. NiinaMaria says:

    The shrinking is really bad. It’s ok feature for fabric because you can wash it before making anything but clothes made out of it? Like you said, the situation is much better now than in the nineties but you still need to stretch the heck out of them to keep the shape. But I still fall for viscose. Because it feeeeeeels so nice!

  4. Bess says:

    Another thing to mention; due to viscose made from wood pulp (often the woody parts of the cotton plant) it is classed as a ‘man-made natural fibre’, it’s main benefit is the fact it breathes like a natural fibre.

    Viscose is not “combined with jersey”-jersey is a weave and as such can be made out of many different fibres. Viscose jersey is excellent, it is usually combined with elastane (aka spandex) which helps to stabilise, it comes in a huge variety of prints and is favoured by many designers. Pure viscose jersey can be quite tricky to work with as it is very drapey and can stretch too much-it’s important to stabilise seams that need to stay put.
    Woven viscose is harder to sew than a stable cotton but easier than a compatibly drapey silk, sometimes a pattern needs that drape and viscose is a good choice.

    • Oh wow – thank you so much! A real expert talking.

    • Jen (NY) says:

      I like viscose/rayon jersey, tissue jersey, for drapey semi-sheer tops. (“Bamboo” jersey is similar). However, I agree with Bess — it is tricky. Some of the nicest rayon jersey can be the fabric-from-hell to work with and it is best for unstructured patterns, I think. Wash away stabilizer can be helpful, especially for hems. I would steer beginners away from most viscose/rayon jersey, although it can be so appealing.

      As with almost any fiber, there is good quality & not-so-good quality. I suspect that all of the shrinkage in the 1980/90s was due to mass market low-quality woven rayon. Perhaps the fibers were short, like cheap cotton? Sometimes the pre-1960s “vintage” rayon can be fairly nice, so I don’t believe that the problems are/were due solely to the fiber content.

  5. Molly says:

    You might want to mention for your American readers that it is otherwise known as Rayon (and was here until the latter half of the 19th century). And as Bess says, jersey means a knit fabric as opposed to a woven. Also, Bemberg and Cupro lining are types of viscose which mean they are breathable linings. The drawbacks are it shrinks, it frays and it doesn’t like being wrung out or tumble-dried.

    I just bought a load to make summer wide-leg trousers. I love the weighty drape and its breathability is also a huge benefit to me. I think a lot of people think it is synthetic, just because it is man made. As well as wood pulp, cotton lint is sometimes used to make it.

  6. Kate Sews says:

    Ah that would explain why I had such a hard time with the dress and skirt I made a while back – I was thinking it must have been rayon/vicose! The end result is lovely and drapey but yikes sewing it? Slippery slidey stuff!

  7. Charlotte says:

    Oh my word! I totally didn’t know viscose was rayon and vice versa, I kept reading about all these US makes out of rayon and wondered why I’d never seen any over here! I really like viscose, it’s relatively cheap and has great drape. The main problem I’ve found apart from the slipperiness is the grainline. I thought this may be due to buying lower quality fabric but maybe it’s just a quality of viscose.

  8. Adrienne says:

    I’m a fan of viscose! A large portion of my favourite garments are made of viscose — at least in part. I really like it in blends, where it’s maybe a smaller percentage and the negative sides to the fabric are less prominent. I actually didn’t even know that viscose was notorious for shrinking! I never noticed that.

  9. Merje says:

    Love viscose- it’s so easy to wear and really cheap. Sewing CAN be a bit tricky but basting is your friend there. Takes a while but I reckon you save time on ironing later ๐Ÿ™‚

    Karen, what IS that glorious fabric on the top right? I’ve been looking for something like that for ages.

  10. Ruth says:

    I love viscose because it’s so breathable, so light and smooth on the skin and it takes colour so well – there are some fabulous viscose prints. And it’s relatively cheap, of course!

  11. niekemieke says:

    I am a huge fan of viscose because of the drape for one, but of viscose jersey in particular because I think the colours are more saturated than cotton jersey, it’s softer to tough and it doesn’t start to fade after a few washes. So give me viscose over cotton jersey anytime ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Alessa says:

    I really like viscose, especially in jersey, because of the drape and the slinky, silk like feel. I also recently purchased a cardigan with an incredibly nice and soft feel that listed 50% cotton, 50% modal as fabric content, and had to look up “modal”. It seems to be a modified viscose, with stronger but silkier feeling fibers that are less prone to breaking and pilling. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for fabrics from that fiber!
    PS: I’ve recently conquered the use of rayon lining fabrics by using spray starch on them. Finally it’s possible to get on-grain pattern pieces! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Jen (NY) says:

      I love modal myself, and I buy it whenever I find it! (If the color is good, that is). Viscose, rayon, “bamboo,” and modal are all related fibers. I’ve read, but can’t remember the differences in the processes — some are more eco-friendly than others. Regardless, for whatever reason, modal seems to have a softer, more matte finish, similar to highest quality cotton jersey. Really great for making under-things…

  13. Ginny says:

    I love viscose, in both its woven and jersey forms, though it can be a b****r to work with. Viscose jersey has such a lovely drape and I find it cooler to wear than cotton jerseys. I also find that a fine viscose jersey tends to be much better quality and less see-through than a similar thickness of cotton jersey, so if I want to make a tshirt with any kind of gathers etc that calls for a light weight jersey I’ll go for viscose. I just finished a dress in a lovely shade of light emerald woven viscose, and I love the finished result. I tend to treat it similar to a silk. Minimal handling of the cut pieces, short stitch length, low foot pressure, and support the fabric around the machine rather than letting it hang down.

    One point to note is that because it is man-made from plant cellulose the fibres can be a little delicate, so care must be taken when sewing and washing it. Unpicking mistakes can be hard work without damaging the fabric. Washing it on a short cycle with low spin speed (or hand washing) will help finished garments wear better and last longer. Even though it was one of the most popular fabric in the ’40s, original garments and fabric are either rare or expensive because the fabric so often wore out.

  14. Nothy says:

    I avoided viscose (or rayon) in the 90s too. You’re right: it shrunk and was difficult to iron. I think blending it with more reliable fibres was one way to slow down the shrinking and the wrinkles. It is also very vulnerable when wet – so washing should be efficient and on the gentle cylce. Viscose still shouldn’t be put in the dryer – it will eventually pill if you do. Again, blends can change these vulnerabilities for the better. Still, the colours it holds, its soft, liquid-like feel make it feel so luxurious . But these same qualities make it difficult to sew with…

  15. Sewer From Across The Pond says:

    One reason I’m learning how to sew is because I don’t like Rayon. I wanted wool crepe, but I could never find dresses in my size.

    Bamberg is an extremely slippery fabric and the results don’t justify the effort if you can use silk.

  16. Bunny says:

    I love rayon and Bemberg and Ambiance linings out of it. I find them comfortable and a well priced substitute when I can’t afford or find charmeuse. Sometimes a garment doesn’t merit a silk charmeuse lining but a rayon one can feel really nice and costs less.

    I’ve found that ironing rayon can make the shrink go away. That and prewashing let me not ever have any problems with it that way. I do find those seam allowances tend to shred rather easily in the wash so some sort of finish is very necessary.

    Jerseys are a form of knit construction, not a fiber, and as previously said can be made from any number of fibers. People often get fibers and construction mixed up. It’s all a learning process.

    I find rayon is wonderful blended with other fibers, giving a great wrinkle free drape. Love the stuff.

  17. Hoosiermama says:

    To control viscose/rayon when sewing, use spray starch. You can starch just the seamlines if you wish. When the garment is complete, wash it out.

  18. mkslcsw says:

    Thank you for providing us with such great information in your excellent blog. With respect to rayon/viscose fabrics, using a finer weight thread (2 ply) that is strong, such as Aerofil by Madeira, and a #70 Microtex or Denim/Jeans, with a stitch length of 2.5 would help with the ease of sewing, and I have sometimes even used a slight zizag width. The “wood” fibers are tough for a needle to go through, and a normal 3 ply thread of cotton or polyester can tend to cut fibers on frayable fabrics with wear. To help minimize streching out, rayons are typically dried flat on a towel, or dry cleaned. Since this fabric often requires some kind of interfacing in parts like collars or buttonholes, I think the finer thread and sharper smaller point on a Microtex needle makes sewing through all layers much smoother. Best wishes all,
    Mary

  19. booketta says:

    Viscose is slippy but is also a washing nightmare as it has a tendency to shrink and must be laundered carefully.

  20. Marsha says:

    Some other names for viscose/rayon (or their subcategories) that I see in thrift stores in the US are lyocell and Tencel (brand name). Tencel was very popular for somewhat upscale ready-to-wear some 10 or 15 years ago.
    I love loose, flowy skirts made of viscose. In my opinion, it’s the coolest garment to wear in the summertime.

  21. LinB says:

    I think that I can confuse matters even more by mentioning that “modal” in Australia and N.Z. is what the U.S. calls “rayon” and the U.K. calls “viscose.” (The proprietary fabric Tencel is also derived from wood pulp, and is just as lovely to wear and to work with as is rayon. That is, if you love and adore rayon — I do — you will love and adore Tencel; and vice versa.) Rayon was developed late in the 19th century, but was especially promoted as a silk substitute during WWII, when all the silk was being commandeered for parachutes. Rayon was meant to replace silk in garments, such as blouses, dresses, and ladies’ undergarments. It is not bad as a fabric in itself (highly breathable, which is great for those of us who live in hot climates and/or are suffering personal themostat issues due to menopause) but it is not a particularly good silk substitute. In hot climates, rayon’s relatively short life span is not much shorter than that of cotton or silk. It does take color well, and gentle treatment can make the colors stay bright for a long time.

  22. I love rayon but have so far avoided sewing with it for the reasons you mentioned, even though I have some rayon challis in my stash that I periodically peek at. Until it goes all wiggly when I touch it, then I’m reminded why it’s still there. lol Actually I feel like rayon isn’t super common over here, many vintage-loving sewists pine over it because it was such a common fabric back in the day, but now the options usually seem kind of underwhelming.

    I do wonder if you could use a stabilizer spray on it prior to cutting. I know Sarai from Colette uses it successfully on silks, and I’ve used it on rayon bemberg lining. Hmm, now I’m kind of tempted to try this out!

  23. Clio says:

    I’ve never worked with a woven rayon, but I love the knit stuff! I generally dislike polyester and man made fabrics because of the clammy factor. But rayon breathes like cotton but with better drape and recovery.

  24. Some lovely ideas. I really like what you have done with some of the stuff so I may have to get some fabric from fabrics cheltenham as they have got loads to choose from.

  25. lemur178 says:

    I used some vintage rayon to make a 40s dress and although the fabric had been pre-washed (to get rid of that lovely ‘vintage’ smell), the dress still came out two sizes smaller after its first cool water hand-wash… I loved that dress and have tried ironing it back into shape, but there’s nothing to it sadly. Modern rayon is perhaps different, but I seem to remember reading that rayon, because it is made from cellulose, should be dry-cleaned and doesn’t react well to water – hence the shrinkage…

    • Bess says:

      Acetate doesn’t like water (another cellulose fibre), modern Viscose is much more stable than Acetate. I have seen a lot of vintage fabrics being sold as Viscose when actually they were Acetate. That said, modern viscose is a whole world away to 1940’s viscose (or even 1990’s). Good quality Viscose will possibly shrink 10% on it’s first wash and then not again (unless it is a crepe weave, some of those are dry clean only).

  26. Each fabric has its pluses and minuses and each should be treated in its own unique way. Viscose is a great fabric but requires its own treatment. It should always be pre hand/delicate washed and pressed. It does not shrink so much as compress and needs pressed back into shape.
    I do not believe all fabrics should be pre washed. I would never advocate washing any woollen or wool blend fabrics – only dry cleaning.

  27. Guys, I absolutely love the range of feedback and input in the comments. There are some real expert opinions here and I’ve learnt so much. Thanks!

  28. Other important pros – it breathes! And you can press it-seams will actually press open! Two huge advantages over polyester and acrylic. So when blended with a natural fibre, it doesn’t negate the benefits of the natural fibre but can add durability and bring down the price. I love wool/viscose blends.

  29. BTW, I feel your pain about making sure students bring suitable fabrics to class. If where you are teaching sells fabric, perhaps they can include a kit – X metres of a cotton from their selection included? Because no matter how much you tell people, someone doesn’t listen. I am teaching lampshades right now and almost every class someone brings a fabric that is not 130cm wide – and I mention it EVERY time I communicate with the class beforehand. So, that person has to sew their fabric up, and they are behind for the rest of the time. Grr. Luckily we kit everything else needed or I shudder to think what they would bring!

  30. EmSewCrazy says:

    Just wanted to say I LOVE this feature! Please keep it up. I learn so much from your posts and the comments every time.

  31. Lydia says:

    I recently started sewing with rayon in the last two years, (after a long hiatus), and I really like how cool it is in the summer, and how nicely it drapes. It gives a softness to dresses especially, and (for me at least), I omit the lining sometimes, and finish it off with a self made bias binding. It is not as see through as light weight cotton, and I can always wear a cami or slip, if it is lighter.

    I recently found a viscose with about a two percent stretch, and made a pleated skirt –it holds it’s shape well– just is really puffy! I am now on the hunt for more rayon to make a summer dress. One thing I notice about rayon as well is that unlike cotton, I don’t mind as much if it is fitted looser — for me, this suits the breeziness of the fabric more. It is on the delicate side, and can pill, and become misshaped — but if you gently reshape after washing, and ironing, it will last. Oh, one more thing– I find it does work better for patterns with less seams.

  32. Oh dear. I have been avoiding things made from viscose for years, thinking that it was a “sweaty” fabric, when it appears to be rather breathable according to several of you. I was recently v confused over the whole jersey/rayon/viscose/cotton/stretch labelling on various fabric websites as I wanted to buy something stretchy and stripy to make a chevron skirt. Sadly I have now given up until I can get to a real shop and actually feel the fabric, as I just find it all too baffling online. It seems impossible to gauge the weight of the stuff simply from the wording. But if anyone can recommend a fabric type and /or online retailer to buy some viscose jersey from I would be may grateful!

    • Bess says:

      I understand your pain, it’s very difficult buying online. We’ve got 6 pages of them over at Stone Fabrics that should help you. They should all be about the same weight (suitable for gathered tops, wrap dresses and the like), we send samples out, if you are interested please send us a SAE specifying which ones you would like to see. Thanks! Bess

  33. Love this feature Karen, so many informative responses as well. Can’t wait to see what you cover next.

  34. Gjeometry says:

    I made my 1920s Beach Pajamas out of an ultra thin 100% viscose. It was a nightmare to get to lie still to cut it and sewing also caused some wonky lines and re-do. Sewing wasn’t really too bad, it was mostly the cutting. it just floated away every time I tried to approach it to cut. But, after I had it sewed up, the Beach Pajamas are very wide legged (you can see them here: http://gjeometry.com/2013/06/04/great-gatsby-make-the-cats-pajamas-one-giant-leap-for-womankind/) the fabric just whisks around my body and drapes so beautifully! I would definitely use it again especially for something that requires a lot of flow and drape, nothing tailored.

  35. SewRuthie says:

    I am a big fan of viscose jersey fabric for knit tops, and it is so much nicer than the cotton knits. Just looks a bit dressier and is smart enough for work where a tee shirt would not be. I like linen and viscose mixes for summer trousers and find the wrinkling is not as bad as pure linen. And finally for suiting I like a polyester/viscose/lycra mix though more in RTW than home sewn. I wash all my rayon on a cool wash and NEVER put it in the tumble drier as this is a sure way to shrink it.

  36. conniya says:

    I’m still fairly new at sewing, and I just used a rayon challis fabric for my Laurel Dress. I spent foreverrr cutting out my pattern and basting everything super duper carefully, and I’m so happy with how it turned out! I didn’t notice any shrinking– I washed it in cold water and let it air dry.

  37. I love to wear rayon, so I want to sew with it. The second thing I ever sewed was a woven rayon sleeveless top, and it feels so light, cool, and has a lovely drape. I had trouble with thread tension and changed my needle until I found one that worked well. One tip is to cut it with a layer of tissue paper underneath and the tissue pattern on top with all 3 layers pinned together. Scissors, needle, and pins must be sharp. I finished the seams with a mock french seam and hand wash and dry.

  38. Liza jane says:

    Rayon is one of my favorite fabrics to wear. But you are right, it does shrink in the wash. I wash on cool and hang it up to dry.

  39. Catherine says:

    I had a beautiful 20s (brand new) style black viscose dress with lots of little pin tucks all over the yoke. I loved it to bits and the time came to wash it and now its more like a body con style then a flapper loose fitting dress. i was so angry! Why cant the manufacturer just preshrink the bloody thing? I imagine everyone else who bought the dress had the same problem. But I guess its just part of making cheap clothes made with cheaper fabric.
    I remade the dress, but this time washed the viscose twice just to be sure.
    and isn’t it weird how when you wash it, it goes all hard and rough on your skin? ewww

  40. Stephanie says:

    I love viscose! It’s excellent for lining and making blouses with a more slinky look than cotton. And it’s much more affordable than silk.

    Ah, yes and Viscose Jersey…I think that simply means the jersey is made of viscose. It’s not combined with jersey, since jersey refers to the weave, which in this case is not actually a weave but a knit. So viscose jersey, in my opinion, is a knit viscose. Hope that helps.

  41. I love wearing viscose… I checked all my favourite easy wear work dresses and they are all made of the stuff! But I haven’t tried sewing with it yet… It’s next on my list.

  42. grenouille78 says:

    Currently working on a rayon dress this week! Not my first, but I do have to take a substantial break between rayon projects because the prep work is maddening and mind-numbing. Shifty stuff! But I do love it. I avoid polyester like the plague, but I can usually count on the rayon challis section to carry some nice prints.

  43. Kate says:

    I’m new to fabrics and am I’m trying to track down a delicate print on a lightweight 100% Viscose Jersey. I’m looking for a single colour ditsy print, like a little white swallow or dragonfly. Does anyone have any ideas??? I’m really struggling….hope you can help!

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  45. Marlene says:

    I want patterns to make viscose tops and blouses for summer

  46. franhaselden says:

    “An item that needs structure wonโ€™t work with viscose, or will need underlining.”

    Have you had personal success with this? I have so much viscose in my stash but I prefer a more structured garment (e.g a nice fitted waist is key for my figure). I’ve binned off a few viscose garments I tried because they couldn’t cope.

    I’m thinking a fully-lined princess bodice with a waistband and a drapey skirt would be OK, presuming the lining is a nice quality soft cotton (maybe MyFabric tula which I’ve used before and has a nice solidness to it without being crispy).

    Or alternatively interlining it with cotton and then doing a cotton lining also. Three layers of cotton seems quite a lot though.

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  50. Jeannette Browne says:

    I’ve read that viscose will pill and fracture. I have a beautiful dress that is a viscose blend that I would like to make last as long as possible. I love the fit and drape, and I don’t want it to start looking cheap the more I care for it. Do you have any tips for cleaning the fabric without damaging it?

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  52. Ginny says:

    Had no idea viscose was made from wood! So glad the quality has improved; I may try using it. Thanks!

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