Associated Press
Models pose in designs from Mary Quant's collection on a street in London, England, on Oct.
16, 1969. Grania, left, wears the "Shimmy Shimmy," a white rayon dress over matching
pants with a shawl.

Great Inventions: Rayon

June 29, 2010
by Anne Szustek
19th-century manufacturers sought an artificial material with similar qualities as silk. The first fabric deemed suitable for the task was rayon, which in fact was originally known as “artificial silk.” In its more than 110 years in existence, rayon has gone on to make a statement on fashion runways, highways and operating tables.

The Birth of Rayon

In the mid-to-late 1800s, inventors sought to create artificial substitutes for natural materials that were in short supply and thus, expensive. Cellulose, a polymer found in plants, was frequently employed in such experimentation. In 1863, American inventor John Wesley Hyatt unveiled a pliable, or “plastic,” cellulose and camphor concoction that he called “celluloid.”

Celluloid turned out to have myriad uses, popping up in everything from corset stays to dentures. One serious problem with the material was that it was extremely flammable; a property shared by other early cellulose-based filaments and “Chardonnay silk,” a fabric based on cellulose introduced in 1884. The product was not a long-term commercial success.

About a decade later, a team of three British inventors, Charles Cross, Edward Bevan, and Clayton Beadle, obtained a patent for viscose, or “artificial silk,” a manmade, cellulose-based fabric with the feel of its natural namesake; however, unlike its artificial predecessor, it was not flammable. Cross and Charles Stearn, the head of the Zurich Incandescent Lamp Company, established London’s Viscose Spinning Syndicate in 1898 to research and streamline the new fabric’s production. Stearn’s assistant, glassblower Fred Topham, invented a special pump for doling out a honey-like solution of wood pulp and alkalis to machines into holes that discharge filament. The filaments were then twisted into yarn via the Topham Box, a spinning container named for its creator.

New Threads: Rayon’s Production and Development

The fabric went into mass production in 1905 after French company Courtald bought the rights. Artificial silk became a top seller over the next 30 years, becoming better known in 1924 under the trade name “rayon.” The manufacturing process remains largely as originally developed by the Viscose Spinning Syndicate, with the addition of more zinc to the cellulose solution and more hot-stretching in the 1930s. This paved the way for rayon materials tough enough for use in tire cords and in surgery.

Production of rayon saw the most growth from 1925 to 1955, writes FiberSource. Rayon has played an integral role in fashion development. Its comfort and low price helped democratize fashion for the masses in the mid-20th century. First off, rayon is breathable: the material can absorb as much as 13 percent of its weight in moisture, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. This makes rayon well suited to underwear and outerwear alike. Plus, it can take dyes easily—a characteristic fortuitous for fashion innovation.

Rayon Steps Out, Rolls Forward

The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art includes high-fashion rayon pieces from as early as the 1930s, displaying designers’ fascination with the fabric’s propensity for taking on color. An Elsa Schiaparelli women’s evening jacket from 1938 stands out in deep magenta. Later examples of deep-hued rayon in the collection include a 1975 emerald green Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress and a pink rayon satin skirt from Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo’s autumn/winter 2001-2 collection.

Rayon began to slip away in supremacy during the middle of the 20th century, however. By the 1960s, a decade in fashion that embraced synthetic materials, nylon and Lycra had come on to the scene. The two materials’ selling points, elasticity and lack of wrinkling, respectively, are rayon’s two main cons. With the arrival of British designer Mary Quant’s miniskirt came the popularity of opaque tights—and subsequently, that of nylon as well. Contemporary clothing manufacturers use rayon most often in blends with natural and other artificial fabrics.

The nylon-rayon battle spread outside the fashion world to that of tire-cord manufacturers. A 1961 Time magazine article profiles advertisements of the time that show the stiff competition between nylon and rayon producers. Magazine ads touted the safety of nylon tires to would-be speedy drivers, while rayon producers put out billboard campaigns claiming that if a motorist “did buy nylon tires, his car would start shaking him up like a concrete mixer.” Today, rayon tire cord is still in use, but has been somewhat outpaced by nylon and polyester tire cords.

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