Rayon: The most challenging fiber

man is cleaning the upholstery on the sofa

If you’ve ever paid a claim for a piece of upholstery that bled, faded, shrunk, ripped, or had nap distortion that couldn’t be repaired, it likely had rayon fibers in its construction. What is it about rayon that leads to such problems, and why is such a problem fiber even used at all? Let’s look briefly as to how rayon is manufactured.

Rayon’s makeup

Although considered to be “synthetic” by the Federal Trade Commission, rayon behaves like natural, cellulose materials, such as cotton. Rayon is made from wood pulp or cotton linters, and thus tests and reacts like materials made from cellulose or “plant” sources. Much of rayon’s popularity in both the garment and furnishing industries are because it is relatively inexpensive, has a soft hand, and is easily dyed in vivid colors. There is more than one type of rayon, but rarely will furniture be labeled that it contains rayon (or any specific fiber), let alone what type of rayon.

Regular or viscose rayon is very weak when wet and has a tendency to shrink. Other types of rayon, such as high wet modulus (HWM) rayon, are much stronger when wet. (If the lack of “rayon” labeling weren’t enough, in some cases area rugs are labeled as being made from “art silk,” which is simply rayon, not silk at all.)

The trouble with rayon

Here are the specific issues you need to be aware of when cleaning rayon upholstery or area rugs:

Color: Rayon has the tendency to both fade and bleed. In your inspection step, be sure to remove arm covers, examine the zipper area behind cushions and other areas that are not exposed to sun, soil, or abrasion. If these unexposed areas are darker, warn your customer that not only will the soiled, exposed areas not return to the original color, but they may actually experience more fading as a result of cleaning.

Spills: Especially alcohol, perfume, hair treatments, as well as urine, may permanently discolor rayon fabrics. Perspiration may also cause color damage. Avoid using spotting agents that contain alcohol, mineral acids (such as rust remover), and bleaches.

Dyes: Some rayon is solution-dyed, and will not bleed; however, much of what is used in furniture and area rugs is not solution-dyed. Be sure to perform a thorough colorfastness test before proceeding to clean any fabric that might contain rayon.

Sizing: Sizing adds “body” to sheer fabrics, and assists in the cutting and sewing process. Sizing also is usually removed by spotting and cleaning with water-based materials. Watermarks from spills will likely be permanent, and all cleaning must be done by evenly dampening the entire fabric prior to extraction cleaning.

Fabric weakness: Rayon may lose up to 70 percent of its strength when wet. This issue has deeper implications than you might first assume. The first concern with fabric weakness is, of course, that the fabric might rip during extraction cleaning, and that possibility does exist. This damage may be avoided by using a tool with a perforated opening, such as a drapery tool or a tool with a glide attached. A non-metallic screen could also be used as a barrier between the fabric and the tool. These precautions would be of particular concern when cleaning old or sun damaged fabric, as well as heavily soiled fabric that may require more aggressive cleaning.

Texture distortion

A more common, but less recognized, problem is texture distortion. Velvet fabrics made with rayon face yarns need careful grooming immediately after cleaning to prevent permanent distortion. Also note that some “faux suede”/ microfiber styles are now using rayon as well as “easy to clean” nylon and polyester. These materials need to be treated like rayon velvet.

Here’s how to clean rayon fabrics:

1 | Dry clean

As the majority of the above-mentioned problems are caused by cleaning with water-based solutions, the simple answer in some cases is to dry clean rayon fabrics. If the fabric is lightly soiled, and has no visible spots or stains, dry cleaning might be a good option.

Dry cleaning causes almost no texture distortion, and most (though not all) dyes are stable in the type of dry cleaning solvents used for upholstery cleaning. Understand that dry cleaning will not remove water-soluble soils, and that you must use proper personal protection equipment, advise your customer of the health and fire hazards related to dry cleaning, and ventilate the work site if you intend to dry clean fabrics in the home.

2 | Low-moisture cleaning

Cleaning with very limited moisture, such as with dry foam, a fine mist of detergent followed by gentle towel extraction, or a light “mist and vacuum” with a tool that is the least likely to leave marks in pile fabric will be more effective, but potentially more damaging, than dry cleaning. Be certain to test all products used for potential color damage, and groom any pile fabrics, such as velvet or “faux suede” made from rayon immediately after cleaning.

3 | Restorative cleaning

Some fabrics are simply too heavily soiled to respond to cleaning with either dry cleaning solvents or low-moisture cleaning methods. Remember that heavily soiled rayon is likely to also be stained, and to have pre-existing color damage.

Before you attempt to use higher volumes of water, heat, and strong cleaning detergents on rayon, be certain to obtain a release that clearly states that you cannot be responsible for texture damage, color damage and shrinkage, as any or all may occur when rayon fabrics are aggressively cleaned.

The future

Furniture industry insiders believe we will see more rayon in the future. Fabrics made from rayon fibers are relatively inexpensive, and both the wide range of available colors and “hand-made” rayon are popular with today’s consumers. With rayon’s ability to have the soft feel of microfibers, we can expect to see more pile fabrics and delicate textures using rayon.

This gives you yet another reason to encourage your clients to have their furniture cleaned regularly, and for you to stay in close touch with furniture retailers and designers, and to let them know you are the best resource for cleaning these fabrics.

An industry trainer and consultant, Jim Pemberton is president of Pemberton’s Cleaning & Restoration Supplies and West Penn Cleaning Company, McKeesport, PA. He has more than 30 years of experience in the cleaning and restoration industry. You are invited to visit his website at www.ecleanadvisor.com, or e-mail Pemberton at [email protected].

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