Cotton vs rayon is the battle of two of the most popular fibers in the textile industry. Although they are both fibers, Rayon and cotton share many differences that set them apart. In this article, I'll compare and contrast the properties, applications, and production of rayon and cotton. I'll also add my personal opinion on both fibers and give a final verdict on which is the more superior fiber.
What is Rayon
Rayon might be classed as a man-made fiber, in reality, it's neither truly natural nor synthetic. It is produced with purified cellulose from wood pulp and other natural sources. There are three forms of rayon - viscose rayon, modal, and lyocell.
Rayon is a versatile fabric that is well known for being able to imitate the properties of other fibers. Its ability to take on the characteristics of other fibers means it can be used to create different kinds of apparel.
What is Cotton
Cotton is a natural fiber under the vegetable fiber subdivision. It is breathable, absorbent, and washable. It is also the world's largest non-food crop. The fibers are enclosed in a boll on the cotton plant. When spun into yarns, cotton is woven into a soft, comfy, and durable fabric that is highly coveted in the textile industry.
Rayon Vs Cotton: Differences and Similarities
To get a better idea of how rayon compares to cotton, we'll be taking a look at their properties and applications to see which fiber comes out tops.
Cotton Vs Rayon: Durability
This is a category where cotton easily comes on top. This, not because cotton is exceptionally strong, but because rayon is a characteristically weak fiber. Rayon becomes even weaker when wet and will fade and lose its appearance if exposed to sunlight over time. Cotton's durability means it's able to handle wear and tear much better than rayon. Cotton's strength increases when wet while Rayon's strength reduces. This shows that cotton is significantly stronger than rayon when dry and more so when wet.
Cotton Vs Rayon: Shrinking Tendency
Cotton typically shrinks once, especially when washed for the first time, and will maintain that size for its entire lifespan. On the other hand, rayon shrinks a lot more than cotton. When you buy apparel made with rayon, be sure to check the tags to see if it's prone to shrinking. Sometimes, that information is not presented on the tag. However, you can tell from the laundry symbols. If it says dry clean or hand wash only, it's because it's likely to shrink when you machine wash. If you're a big fan of cotton, you don't have to worry about this. You can handwash, dry-clean, or machine washes cotton without being too worried about shrinking. Once again, Cotton takes this round!
Cotton Vs Rayon: Stretchability
Is Cotton stretchy? No, not really. But there's more to its stretchability than a simple yes or no answer. Normally, cotton has around 3 to 6% stretchability which is not nearly enough to have it rub shoulders with characteristically stretchy fibers like Spandex.
Does rayon stretch better than cotton? No, it doesn't. Rayon does not stretch, but it is sensitive to humidity and will absorb moisture from the air. When it absorbs moisture, rayon becomes longer but returns to its original length when humidity reduces. This is the closest a rayon fiber will come close to stretching. That said, both fibers can be stretchy when knitted.
All fibers become stretchy when knitted, but other than that, they are not stretchy. Therefore, I'll call this round a tie.
Cotton Vs Rayon: Wrinkling
Cotton shrinks, there's no doubt about that. But why? Cotton is composed of a substance called cellulose. This substance contains hydrogen. When woven, the hydrogen particles in cotton come together to form a bond. This bond is essential for ensuring your cotton apparel keeps its original shape.
However, as most of us would know, hydrogen is an important element in water (H20). Thus, when cotton is exposed to a humid environment or a sweaty body, the hydrogen bonds are interfered with causing the fabric to lose its shape and wrinkle.
Synthetic fibers are generally known to wrinkle easily, so like cotton, rayon is susceptible to wrinkling. Rayon wrinkles when exposed to moisture too. It also wrinkles badly when exposed to heat. So if you're going to iron, you have to turn the fabric inside out and set the iron to low heat.
With both rayon and cotton being susceptible to wrinkling, I'll call this round a tie as well.
Cotton Vs Rayon: Thread
Cotton threads are strong and durable. They will neither break nor stretch easily. Cotton threads also do not shrink during washing. This makes it a great choice for quilting.
On the other hand, the rayon thread comes with some issues. It is weak and becomes a lot weaker when wet. This makes it a bad choice for quilting. It's not just quilting professionals that have a problem with rayon thread, some fabric accessory stores don't sell rayon threads because they tend to fade over time. But it's not all doom and gloom. Rayon threads are still extensively used throughout the fashion world. They are cheap, much cheaper than cotton, and they come with a good sheen.
But with cotton thread being stronger and more durable, I'm going to give this round to cotton.
Cotton Vs Rayon: Which is Cooler?
You're probably thinking cotton, right? Yes, it's breathable, smooth, and soft, but it's not quite the cooler fabric. Here's the thing, A fabric's cooling is directly proportional to how far away from your body it is. Rayon is not as hard as cotton and it drapes better. It sits further away from the body compared to cotton. Thus, rayon fabric gives your body heat a better chance to escape compared to cotton. This is why it's ideal to wear rayon apparel during summer.
Cotton might absorb moisture better, but it doesn't cool you as well as rayon does. Hence, this round goes to rayon.
Cotton Vs Rayon: Which is Better for Sheets?
Rayon sheets made from bamboo are breathable, thermoregulating, hypoallergenic, moisture-wicking, soft, and is bacteria and odor resistant. Impressive, isn't it? Bamboo rayon sheets are made from bamboo fibers and they are one of the most popular sheets on the market.
Cotton sheets, especially Egyptian cotton sheets, are also breathable, soft, and of the highest quality. Unlike bamboo sheets, the quality of cotton sheets depends on the thread count. The higher the thread count, the higher it's quality and vice versa. Both sheets are durable and will last up to 15 years. However, cotton sheets absorb a lot of sweat and oil from the body. This means it's likely to discolor over time.
Bamboo rayon sheets are highly sorted after for their hypoallergenic properties. This quality makes it a good fit for people with sensitive skins. Its moisture-wicking abilities also mean it can prevent bacteria growth on your beddings which will, in turn, dispel odors.
Cotton and rayon are two great fibers for creating quality sheets, but rayon is slightly better. Hence, this round goes to rayon.
Cotton Vs Rayon: Fabric Blends
Cotton can blend well with other fibers lending it comfort, softness, and breathability. With those positive properties to offer, cotton is commonly blended with other fibers in the textile industry.
On the other hand, rayon can also blend with other fibers although not quite as well as cotton. When making a rayon blend, it's important to use around 30% rayon or lower. This allows the fabric blend to bring the positive properties of rayon without retaining much of its negative properties.
That said, you can blend either cotton or rayon with other fibers. Hence, I'll call this round a tie.
Cotton Vs Rayon - In Conclusion: Final Verdict
Cotton and rayon are two formidable fibers that are used to make apparel of different types. They both have their strong suits and weaknesses as has been highlighted above.
We've had 7 rounds of comparison according to their properties with 3 rounds going to cotton, 2 going to rayon, and 2 ending in a tie. This indicates that both fibers can hold their own and have a lot of positive properties to offer.
However, cotton is the more popular fiber and from the comparison above, it's clear that it's better than rayon albeit not significantly. It's not a landslide victory, but cotton is the more superior fiber.