Is rayon better than cotton? What is the difference between cotton and rayon?
Have you ever been fabric shopping and muttered these questions to yourself? If yes, this article is for you — and all sewists who want to expand their fabric knowledge. Understanding these popular fashion fabrics will help you make smarter buying decisions.
By the end of this post, you will:
- Get a crash course in the language of textiles.
- Understand the qualities of both cotton and rayon fibers.
- Discover how these fibers are transformed into fabric.
- Master the lingo of cotton and rayon.
- Know the most environmentally and socially responsible types of cotton and rayon.
- Find out ways to re/upcycle your scrap rayon and cotton fabrics.
Meet me in the fabric department!
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The Language of Textiles
Let’s do a brief vocab lesson before hashing out the differences between cotton and rayon. This info (and the table about rayon and cotton fibers) is synthesized from “The Fashion Designer’s Textile Directory,” a great book for sewists.
Fiber is the building block of textiles. Cotton, rayon, wool, and polyester are examples of fibers. There are staple fibers (short strands) and filament fibers (continuous strands).
Yarn is a continuous strand of processed fibers. Yarn is the “string” or “thread” that makes up fabric.
Fabric is the 2-D garment medium beloved by sewists. There are three ways to produce fabric:
- Massing: When FIBERS are squished together (e.g., felted wool).
- Weaving: When yarn is interlaced at right angles.
- Knitting: When yarns are looped together.
As I researched this post, I noticed questions online like:
- “what kind of fabric is…”
- “the best fabric for…”
Many times, these queries are not so much about the FABRIC (fiber) as they are about the WEAVE or KNIT of the fabric. For example, you can have cotton twill and rayon twill (twill is a type of weave) or cotton jersey and rayon jersey (jersey is a type of knit). Fabric that’s made from different fibers but in the same weave or knit likely will work for different garments.
This article (primarily) is about cotton and rayon FIBERS. I’m not going to talk much about which fabrics are good for which projects. Our focus is pre-FABRIC materials.
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Qualities of Cotton and Rayon Fibers
|Cotton Fiber||Rayon Fiber|
|Pros||-Strong when wet.|
-Good abrasion resistance.
-Conducts heat well.
-No static buildup
-Very soft, cool hand.
-Good abrasion resistance.
-No static buildup.
-Lyocell (Tencel) rayon is machine washable.
-Fair colorfastness, especially in dark tones.
|Cons||-Less absorbent than rayon.|
-Heavy when wet.
-Slow to dry.
-Susceptible to mildew, pests.
-Not colorfast in dark tones.
|-Weakens when wet (except for Modal rayon).|
-Viscose rayon, the most common rayon, is not washable (but I do it anyway — read on for my technique).
-Cannot be recycled into fiber.
-Susceptible to mildew.
All About Cotton Fabric
What is Cotton Fabric Made Of?
Cotton fabric is a natural fiber that comes from the cotton plant, a shrub that grows in subtropical and tropical climates. Cotton fiber that’s made into fabric grows in floofy, white balls called bolls. The bolls look like cotton balls growing out of weedy stalks.
How is Cotton Made into Fabric?
To make cotton into fabric, the raw, staple fiber cotton bolls are processed several times to remove non-fiber elements (e.g., dust, leaves). Then the cleaned, untangled, and aligned cotton fibers are processed into yarn. Next, the cotton yarn is woven or knitted into fabric. (BTW, cottonseed is removed during the fabric manufacturing process. It can be manufactured into cottonseed oil, which is used in salad dressing, margarine, makeup, soap, and candles.)
What are the Different Types of Cotton Fabric?
There are many different types of cotton fabric. (If you’ve ever shopped for fabric, you know this to be true!) Let’s go over some cotton vocabulary.
Short-Staple, Long-Staple, and Extra-Long-Staple Cotton
A staple fiber is a non-continuous short fiber that’s twisted with other staple fibers to (eventually) become cotton yarn. The longer the staple fiber, the softer and more luxurious the cotton. Short-staple cotton has fibers up to 1.125 inches long; extra-long-staple cotton has fibers longer than 1.25 inches. Long-staple cotton is in between.
Egyptian cotton is grown in the Nile River Valley in Egypt. Egyptian cotton is either long-staple or extra-long staple cotton. Egyptian cotton and pima cotton are the same species of cotton plant, Gossypium barbadense.
Pima cotton is an extra-long-staple cotton that’s considered one of the most durable forms of cotton, as it’s resistant to fading, tearing, and wrinkling.
Supima is a marketing trade name for American-grown pima cotton. For a pima cotton to earn the Supima trade name, it has to travel through a licensed supply chain.
Upland (or Mexican) cotton has short-staple and long-staple varieties; long staple is grown for commercial use. Upland is the most common cotton in the world.
Acala cotton is a type of upland cotton grown in the San Joaquin Valley of California, U.S.A. Acala usually is more expensive than other upland cottons.
Sea Island Cotton
Sea island cotton is the same species as pima, Supima, and Egyptian cottons.
What is the Best Quality Cotton Fabric?
Pima cotton has the loudest fans on the internet (according to my research). But, considering pima cotton is the same species as Egyptian cotton… well, is it REALLY the best? If you want strong, smooth, and silk-like cotton, look for cotton with ELS (extra-long-staple fiber).
Why is Cotton Bad?
Cotton is a water-intensive crop that’s farmed with high levels of pesticides (if it’s not organic). According to sustainability organization Fashion for Good, “cotton makes up nearly 30 percent of global textile production, yet accounts for 24 percent of global insecticide use.” The World Wildlife Fund reports that cotton cultivation degrades soil quality, which leads to expansion to new cotton fields and destruction of habitat. Heavy use of pesticides on cotton crops also risks the health of farm workers and nearby populations, according to WWF.
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All About Rayon Fabric
What Kind of Material is Rayon?
Rayon is made from natural sources, but its transformation into a fiber is chemical. That’s why you’ll hear rayon described as a semi-synthetic fabric. Rayon is made from plant matter (cellulose fiber). At a high level, rayon is made by dissolving plant matter and, through a manufacturing process, converting the cellulose into filaments (a fiber of continuous length). If desired, the filament fibers can be cut down to staple fibers.
The plant matter, called wood pulp during manufacture, can come from:
- Trees: pine, spruce, hemlock, beech, oak, eucalyptus, birch
- Cotton linters (residual fibers attached to cotton seeds)
What is the History of Rayon?
Rayon is the first manufactured fiber. It was called “artificial silk,” “art silk,” and viscose (a trade name for a manufacturer) when it was developed in France in the 1890s. In 1924, the fiber’s name was changed to rayon, but only in the United States. Rayon’s popularity surged in the 1920s as an affordable substitute for silk.
What are the Different Types of Rayon Fabric?
Like cotton, there are many rayon vocabulary words; here they are in alphabetical order:
Bemberg is a trade name. It’s a smooth, slippery fabric that’s often used as a lining for garments. Interesting fact: The official (trade name) Bemberg rayon yarn is manufactured at ONE factory in Japan. The factory has earned multiple certifications for sustainability.
Cupro is Bemberg rayon. Cupro also is called cuprammonium rayon or ammonia silk. Cupro is manufactured using the cuprammonium method, which is banned in the U.S. for its negative environmental impacts. Cupro is made from cotton linter, and because it’s made from a natural fiber, it’s biodegradable and compostable.
Lyocell is a process for manufacturing rayon fiber that doesn’t use toxic carbon disulfide. The word “lyocell” is used generically to refer to rayon fabric that’s made using the lyocell process. The fabric is made from beech, eucalyptus, birch, or oak pulp.
Modal rayon fiber is stronger when it’s wet and doesn’t lose its shape. Fabric made of Modal, which is a trade name, can be tumble dried without ill effects. Because of Modal’s softness, it’s often used in pajamas, underwear, robes, towels, and bedsheets. This fabric is made with beech tree pulp.
Tencel is a trade name of lyocell.
Viscose and rayon are the synonyms. (Viscose also is a method for manufacturing rayon.)
Is Rayon a Good Quality Fabric?
Speaking as a sewist who likes to sew and wear rayon, you easily can find low-quality AND high-quality rayon. I like rayon that’s a little heavier and opaque. (For example, these trousers are a Tencel twill.) I find it slides around less while sewing and pinning and it looks nicer as a garment longer vs. a lighter-weight rayon.
I think rayon sometimes has a reputation of being a low-quality fabric because it easily shrinks and stretches if you wash and dry it. Rayon fiber loses strength when it’s wet, which is why it’s often is marked as dry clean only. Now, I don’t really get down with dry cleaning, so I’ve figured out a way to wash rayon that (mostly) keeps it from freaking out. I wash it on a cool, delicate cycle and always lets it air dry (usually flat so gravity doesn’t work against it). I do take a risk by laundering rayon this way, but I want to avoid a dry-cleaned wardrobe as much as possible!
Why is Rayon Bad?
According to “The Fashion Designer’s Textile Directory,” the manufacture of rayon is energy intensive and puts chemical emissions and waste into the environment. One particularly toxic chemical is carbon disulfide, which may compromise the health of fabric-factory workers. And let’s not forget that the cuprammonium method of rayon manufacturing is banned in the U.S. So, even though rayon is a textile produced from raw (and often quickly regenerated) plant materials, it’s not exactly eco-friendly.
How to Choose Environmentally and Socially Responsible Cotton and Rayon Fabric
To begin, I’m not going to tell you how to spend your hard-earned dollars (or “dull-lahrs,” as RuPaul says) when it comes to buying cotton and rayon fabric. Sewists have their own budgets and money plans, and that’s their business alone.
However, IMO, when it comes to making environmentally and socially responsible fabric decisions, there are two things that EVERYONE can do:
- Try to minimize your wasted fabric by getting creative with pattern-piece-cutting layouts. I tell ya — cutting flat (vs. on the fold) is LIFE CHANGING.
- Take care of the garments you make and keep them in your closet for a long time. Waste not, want not.
The bottom line is: Try to use less fabric as often as you can.
OK, NOW let’s chat about sustainable choices for cotton and rayon!
The Most-Responsible Cotton
As established, conventionally grown cotton crops use a lot of chemicals. Organic cotton, to compare, grows without fertilizers and pesticides and is manufactured with non-toxic cornstarch, peroxide, natural dyes, and water-based pigments.
When shopping for organic cotton fabric, look for offerings that are certified by:
- BCI (Better Cotton Initiative): The largest cotton sustainability project in the world.
- GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard): International organization focused on organic farming and socially responsible textile manufacturing.
- OEKO-TEX: Made in Green certification guarantees that the fabric has been tested for harmful substances and was manufactured using sustainable processes in a socially responsible work environment (not organic, but pretty darn good).
The Most-Responsible Rayon
Rayon is tougher, because it’s through a chemical process that it goes from an organic (as in organism) substance to a fiber (and then to a fabric). You can look for OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certification for rayon fabrics, which means the product has been tested for substances harmful to human health. Also watch for Ecovero viscose, made by Austrian firm Lenzing, which makes Tencel lyocell. Ecovero fibers are certified with the EU Ecolabel for meeting high environmental standards.
Asahi Kasei, the Japanese factory that makes trade name Bemberg rayon, earned certifications for OEKO-TEX Standard 100 and Global Recycled Standard for product traceability. The firm also participates in the U.N.’s Business Call to Action, which helps businesses achieve sustainable development goals.
We already know that the viscose and cuprammonium methods of rayon manufacture employ harmful chemicals (which is in part why most factories making rayon are in countries with lax occupational health standards — at least compared to the United States). That leaves lyocell.
According to a report from The Guardian, lyocell:
- Is made from eucalyptus without irrigation and low/no pesticides.
- Production is almost a closed loop, with more than 99 percent of the cellulose-dissolving chemical recycled.
- Uses half as much water during production as cotton.
- Can be washed less frequently because it’s breathable.
Should you be interested, as I researched this article, I discovered this list of fashion sustainability organizations, certifications, terms, and fabrics. This could be a jumping-off point for YOUR research on sustainable fabric. And, for the record, when I write about sustainability, I’m broadly referring to products, processes, and policies that are kind(er) to the planet and the humans who work in the textile industry (everyone from field to factory).
How to Recycle Cotton and Rayon Fabrics
In my community (Milwaukee, Wisconsin. U.S.A.), my best bets for fabric recycling have been taking bags of scraps to H&M and my local St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. My family also is big on turning fabric scraps into cleaning rags.
According to this graphic from the Council for Textile Recycling, my fabric scraps likely are made into wiping rags, home insulation, carpet padding, and raw material for cars.
Cotton and other natural fibers that aren’t blended with synthetics can be composted. For best results, rip cotton fabric into strands or cut it into little squares. Add it to a hot compost heap with worms for accelerated results.
Rayon, to compare, is a manufactured fiber, so compost isn’t on the table. (The exception is cotton-based Bemberg, which is compostable and biodegradable.) To recycle rayon, you could:
- Go the aforementioned donation route.
- Use rayon scraps to stuff pillows and soft toys.
- Start a scrappy quilt of leftover rayon bits. (I think that would be kinda cool — a quilt made of manufactured fibers.)
- Post your scraps on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist; someone might want them for crafting.
- Contact a school, scouting organization, or 4-H to see if they’d like to teach kids to sew with scrap fabric.
You don’t have to go much further than Pinterest or a Google search for “what to do with fabric scraps” to find an re/upcycling project!
Cotton and rayon both have advantages and drawbacks. I recommend performing your own research on these fibers and fabrics to determine which is the best for your needs. For example, cotton may be compostable, but if you want a long drapey dress, (some flavor of) rayon probably will work better.
Over to you: What do you like to sew with more: cotton or rayon? What do you like to wear MORE: cotton or rayon? Do you recycle or upcycle your textiles? How important are environmental and social responsibility when you’re buying fabric? Please sound off in the comments! Thanks for reading.
P.S. Here’s a caveat emptor warning for you. In my research, I noticed that many online listings will throw in fabric words that:
- Describe/suggest the qualities of the fabric on offer -OR-
- Might be keywords someone is using to search for fabric (but they might not understand what the keywords REALLY mean)
For example, I searched “tencel fabric” on Etsy, and I came up with a listing for “100% Tencel Lyocell Cupro Georgette.” Tencel and lyocell are the same, but cupro is a different rayon made by a different (and probably less sustainable) manufacturing process. And georgette is a type of weave. Looking deeper into the listing, the primary fiber is lyocell, and the secondary fiber is Tencel.
My guess is that the listing and would-be buyer were trying to describe a rayon that’s lightweight, floaty, drapey, and crepey. And it kinda got there. What do you think?
The lesson here is to carefully review product listings, especially fiber, if you’re looking for something specific.