I’ve got a bit of a bee in my bonnet this week. I’ve made a few garments out of viscose (also known as rayon) and they have turned out to be some of my absolute favourites. Viscose is drapey and soft, frequently weighty and opaque and can come in different weaves and prints. It is a nice fabric to sew and wear. This dress and this dress are two of my faves and the new top I am wearing in these pictures is divine. But it would appear some in the sewing community think that we can’t sew with viscose and claim to care about the environment. Let me back up and give you a bit of context.
On Instagram stories this week, I saw someone asking for ‘Unpopular Opinions’ lots of these were really amusing and I thoroughly enjoyed reading them and I appreciated that all views were shared. However, some of them were very classist/ableist/fatphobic and weren’t just unpopular opinions but seemed to be deliberately mean-spirited. There’s a difference between an unpopular opinion (such as “I dislike boxy tops”) and being deliberately hostile to certain groups of people. One of the comments left me feeling CALLED OUT, and after sitting with my discomfort for a while I decided to write a reply. The ‘unpopular opinion’ was this:
Sewists who say they’re in to sustainability and being ethical but use rayon are liars-anonymous on Instagram
Ouch! This one struck a chord. I am aware there are more sustainable fabrics out there but I am also working within a very tight budget, working with fabric from a stash I started collecting over ten years ago (before I even thought about making sustainable choices), and I believe viscose is a better option than some others. So let’s talk about it!
Why is viscose/rayon unsustainable?
Also known as rayon, viscose is made from cellulose or wood pulp, often from soft woods like beech, pine and eucalyptus and the sustainability of these wood sources varies greatly. Viscose production is also chemical-heavy. Central to the process is carbon disulphide, a highly volatile and flammable liquid. Other toxic chemicals used in the production of viscose include sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), and sulphuric acid. These chemicals are known to pollute the environment close to the factories and have significant negative impacts on both workers and locals. Source.
If you want to know more about how viscose is made I highly recommend this blog post written by Kate of Time To Sew.
Obviously these facts are indefensible and so I can see why some people in the sewing community feel so passionate about not using viscose. However, this kind of black and white thinking (that those who use viscose aren’t even trying to be sustainable) is harmful and I’d like to think a little bit about why.
So am I bad for sewing with it?
Viscose has been round for many years so lots of us are much more likely to have lengths of viscose/rayon fabric in our stashes. If that is the case it would be irresponsible to deliberately not sew with it for fear of being berated for being ‘unethical’ on social media. The gatekeeping in environmental circles is REAL and no one actually has final say on who is right or wrong. In my opinion, if you already have some viscose/rayon in your possession then sew it, wear it, enjoy it! For accountability, I myself have made six viscose garments so far and can think of two more pieces of viscose currently residing in my stash. At some point I will sew those.
I also want to point out that several fabric companies who do produce viscose claim to have clear supply chains and are confident that they are produced in a responsible manner. For example, Atelier Brunette claim: “Atelier Brunette has a new range of viscose fabric made with EcoVero™ certified fibres, which meet two essential criteria: the use of sustainable wood resources labeled FSC® (Forest Stewardship Council) and/or PEFCTM (Pan European Forest Certification) and the implementation of sustainable production processes certified by independent organisations (Higg Index, EU Eco Label). Source. Therefore it is possible for you to research where your viscose fabric is coming from and decide whether or not to buy it from that particular source.
Alternatively, you could choose to buy deadstock viscose, a fabric that has been manufactured for the fashion industry and has small amounts of fabric leftover from manufacturing/sampling available for sale. Arguably, these fabrics are a waste product that would otherwise be sent to landfill or burned. As they have already had an impact on the enviroment during production for their original purpose surely we are better off using up the fabric than letting it go to waste? (this is a minefield though as there is a lot of greenwashing around deadstock fabrics, often deliberately produced overstock that was always going to end up for sale).
So, what should I buy?
Far be it for me to tell you what to buy, you know your circumstances, I don’t! I reach for viscose when I want to make something with drape (but don’t want to use something super lightweight like cotton lawn or cotton voile). I cannot afford silk which is obviously drapey and luxe and a lot more expensive (though has an animal cruelty aspect to the fabric production = yet another ethical dilemma). A great alternative to visocse is Tencel as it has similar properties; it is also made of cellulose but is made with less chemicals in a closed loop process resulting in less water used and less pollution. Tencel behaves in a very similar way to viscose and has a lovely drape but it is often a lot more expensive and is equally out of my budget the majority of the time. If you do have the resources though I highly recommend looking into Tencel as a viscose alternative.
So, I cannot afford silk, or Tencel, my other option for silky/drapey fabric is to turn to synthetics such as polyester. There are tons of affordable options out there for fabrics with great drape and silky feel if you are happy to buy synthetic. However, unlike viscose, silk or Tencel, synthetics such as polyester or nylon are made of plastic and will release microplastics into the water every time you wash them. Don’t get me wrong, I wear polyester – all my activewear is synthetic so you’ll get no judgement from me if this is your preference! But personally, I will choose viscose over polyester every time.
I’d also like to point out that even cotton, linen or wool can be produced with dangerous practises and environmental impact (denim springs to mind here).
So, there you have it, some fabrics are arguably better, you could argue that some fabrics are worse. But ultimately, it is not for anyone to decide if you are trying to be sustainable or not. I truly believe that if you have made one switch, turned down one carrier bag, made one choice in an effort to make the planet a better place then you can claim to be ‘trying to be sustainable’. We are all trying and none of us are perfect, that doesn’t make us liars, that makes us human.
Edited to add: The top in these photos is a Tilly and the Buttons Stevie Top made from 1m of this Art Gallery Rayon which was gifted to me from Minerva.com in exchange for a review last year. You can read the full review here.