Artificial Yarn (Part 1): Rayon from Wood

Like many self-admitted fiber crafters, I endeavor to avoid yarn and garments made from non-natural fibers. Rayon, which comes from wood (pine, spruce or hemlock), or cotton pulp, is sometimes called “the laboratory’s first gift to the loom.” Rayon is considered a natural yarn and, in fact, is regularly blended with real (natural) fibers. Hmmm … as a laboratory is involved, I am skeptical that it should be considered a “natural” yarn.

Rayon’s origin was in the latter half of the 19th century when a disease afflicting silkworms was hurting France’s silk industry. Louis Pasteur and Count Hilaire de Chardonnet went to work, but it was de Chardonnet who wanted to make an artificial silk. In 1885 he received a patent on his process making “artificial” or “imitation” silk. It would be renamed “rayon” 40 years later by the Federal Trade Commission.

I believe that if a lab and chemists are needed to turn the “natural” content into yarn and the process leaves chemical waste products, it is (at best) an artificial fiber. Read how rayon is made at “From Wood to Wearable.” Here are two pictures illustrating the process (source).

(It is surprising to see how frequently words such as “caustic,” “acid,” and “bleach” are used in describing the process!)

The viscose method of creating rayon emits zinc and hydrogen sulfide.

Zinc: While small amounts of zinc are found naturally, zinc is also a byproduct of mining, smelting and steel producing. It has adverse effects on both nature and humans.

Hydrogen sulfide: The byproducts of an array of industrial products (e.g., petroleum and natural gas extraction and refining, pulp and paper manufacturing, etc.), it a poisonous gas (smells like rotten eggs) that has serious adverse affects on humans.

Endeavoring to keep my “footprint” as small as possible, I am even more determined to not use artificial yarns. I certainly would never judge others who use artificial yarns, of course; though I cycle and use public transportation as much as possible, I still have a car – and that’s some footprint!` 🙂


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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17 Responses to Artificial Yarn (Part 1): Rayon from Wood

  1. Pingback: Aristocrats of Fashion – 1940′s Clothing & Fashions | The Engine Room

  2. Pingback: The Best Fibers to Sweat In « Project Remnant Redo

  3. I avoid vicuña since, from what I have been told, the stress of shearing is life-threatening.


  4. Wow – thanks for sharing the info about impact on environmental AFTER rayon is made into garments! Whatever people can do, no matter how small ( in my opinion), can have has a positive effect.


  5. thehandmadeyou says:

    Personally, I like a lot of different types of yarns. However, unlike most knitters, crocheters, and the like, I avoid all animal-derived yarns. I guess it’s always just a matter of choice 🙂


  6. I really really really love that you posted this, and I completely agree. While its true that other products have environmental impacts like paper and cars, there are small things that I can have an impact on such as natural fibers. I strictly only use natural fibers (when I buy new yarn… I’m still working on getting rid of my acrylic stash before I made this decision). But in changing the nature of the wood it is no longer natural and cannot be decomposed in the same fashion. Same as plastic is no longer petroleum. Rayon is important because every time you wash a garment made from it, microscopic fibers wash into the ocean and the animals ingest it and affects them and it makes its way back up the food chain. While my decision is small, it still makes an impact at the end of the day and that’s what matters most. :]


  7. That is a great idea! I was living in Oregon when there was a move to label whether milks were bovine growth hormone free. What a fight that precipitated! Those who wanted the labeling lost.


  8. caityrosey says:

    I wonder if there is a possiblity to create a rating/grading system for fibers so that we can be more aware of sourcing.


  9. That’s true. People like us are worried about the impact a few skeins of yarn or yards of fabric might make – people who are bulldozing the rainforest to put in oil palm plantations probably don’t worry enough!


  10. I have met fiber folks who are seriously ethical about their fiber choices and wouldn’t use silk b/c it’s wound off a cocoon. I respect that, but I don’t think it is always possible to meet one’s ideals. There’s a point where one is forced to draw a line re what’s possible and doable in one’s life. Doing the best we can has to be an option. 🙂


  11. Many good points! I have nothing but respect for fiber artists who prepare and spin their own yarn!


  12. Even the unquestionably “natural” fibers like cotton and sheep’s wool are generally processed with big, unnatural machines and decidedly unnatural dyes, cleaning agents, preservatives, etc. I suppose you just have to pick your battles. Personally, I love bamboo (rayon) yarns!


  13. I’m not sure which fiber would be the most environmentally friendly. Cotton is the most pesticided and irrigated crop on earth, and mercerized cotton is also made by using caustic soda. Maybe silk is the answer!


  14. Yes. Different yarn store stock different yarns. It depends on an array of factors, including inventory size, area demographics, local fiber art communities, owner interests, etc. This is why, I think, when fiber crafters travel we love to visit yarn stores! 🙂


  15. Hmmm, good point. 🙂


  16. Knit4Profit says:

    I purchase yarn from a local store. The only natural yarn I know in the local store is cotton and wool. Are there others sold at local stores?


  17. I guess it depends whether you think paper is natural! 😉


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