Monday, September 21, 2009

The good, the bad and the viscose

The increased prevalence of viscose in the composition of upholstery fabrics coming through our showroom has been one of the most significant fabric trends that I have observed over the past 5 years.

Viscose is a contradictory beast - as a manufactured regenerated cellulose fibre, it is neither truly natural (like cotton, wool or silk) nor truly synthetic (like nylon or polyester) - it falls somewhere in between.  The raw material for viscose is cellulose, derived mainly from wood pulp (trees are 50% cellulose), which is broken down either mechanically or chemically and reformed into fibres.  Viscose takes its name from the viscous liquid, which has a similar colour and fluidity of honey, that is formed midway through the manufacturing process.

The viscose process was discovered by the English chemist Charles Cross and his collaborators in 1891.  Viscose was first commercially produced in 1905 and was often referred to as "artificial silk" but was officially named "rayon" in 1924.  The name is rumoured to be driven by its brightness (ray of sun) and similarities to cotton (on).

Viscose has become popular for a number of reasons, most importantly its luxurious look and feel yet affordable price.  Viscose is versatile and blends easily with other fibres.  It is easily dyed and retains vivid colours particularly well.  It is renowned for its silk like lustre, appealing drape and superior softness to cotton.

Viscose does however have limitations that we all need to be wary of.  Viscose absorbs moisture - body oils and water.  This can discolour and weaken the fabric and result in marking.  Consequently, many fabrics with a high viscose content are classified "dry clean only".  Unfortunately, most commercial cleaning in New Zealand uses hot water extraction machines - the equipment used to dry clean furniture is not yet available here.  Spot cleaning is problematic and can result in water marking.

Viscose's other Archilles heel is that it can have poor crease recovery.  We upholstered a sofa in a viscose chenille recently.  This particular pile flattened or "bruised" extremely easily and would not recover.  I would discourage the use of this type of fabric for upholstery - viscose performs much better in woven fabrics.

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