A Collaborative Project: Identifying Viscose Rayon

Published on: Author: sarahfoskett Leave a comment

by Charlotte Cameron, graduated MPhil Textile Conservation 2018, now undertaking an Internship in Textile Conservation at The Bowes Museum

Prior to studying on the MPhil Textile Conservation course at the University of Glasgow I had the opportunity to work with the John Bright Historic Collection Revealedas a costume mounter. The collection consists of several thousand items of original garments and accessories dated from the early 18th century. The collection has been acquired by John Bright, award-winning costume designer and head of costume house Cosprop. Over 300 items were selected by John Bright and Elizabeth Owen, the collection’s curator. These were then mounted and photographed making them now available for study on the collection’s website.

During semester 2 of the programme I was fortunate enough to be able to be involved with the collection again, this time undertaking material analysis of a bodice (figure 1) which was thought to possibly be an early example from their stock of the use of a semi-synthetic, also referred to as man-made fibre. The bodice, understood to date from the 1910s, with a label (figure 2) inside the collar reading “High Class Tailor Made Garments/Stagg & Mantle/Leicester Square W.C.”

Figure 1. Bodice front © University of Glasgow and with kind permission of Cosprop Ltd
Figure 2. Stagg & Mantle label
© University of Glasgow and with kind permission of Cosprop Ltd

Establishing the materials present is an essential first step in any object documentation for a textile conservator and helps in determining an appropriate treatment proposal if the object requires conservation. Knowing the date of the object can assist in narrowing down the fibre possibilities. The earliest semi-synthetic fibres, viscose rayon and acetate rayon, were plant-based, derived from cellulose and made as cheaper alternatives to silk. Viscose rayon was first produced in England in 1905 by Courtauld and Co Ltd, who bought the rights to the viscose process to develop a large-scale manufacturing of the fibre.[1] Visual analysis alone can often give a good indication of the materials present; however, semi-synthetic materials can be especially difficult to identify as they were made to closely resemble silk. At the CTC we are fortunate to have equipment which can be used to assist identification. From visual analysis of the bodice it appeared that two different fibres had been used in its construction. The warp was silk-like in appearance but could have been semi-synthetic, and the weft appeared to be wool. Figure 3, an image of the fabric taken under a Dino-Lite USB microscope at x 200, illustrates the weave structure.

Figure 3. USB microscope image taken at x 200 of the weave structure
© University of Glasgow and with kind permission of Cosprop Ltd

Figure 3. USB microscope image taken at x 200 of the weave structure

In order to provide more conclusive results, small samples approximately 2mm in length were taken from an inside seam allowance to examine the warp and weft fibres using microscopy. The samples were prepared on glass slides and examined using a Carl Zeiss Axiolab microscope at the CTC. The weft fibres were more easily identified than the warp fibres, as from a protein or animal source, most likely wool, due to the appearance of scales along the fibre (figure 5). Figure 4 shows an image of the warp fibre, with longitudinal striation or lines along its length, consistent with the appearance of other fibres such as linen and semi-synthetic fibres cellulose viscose and cellulose acetate. 

To provide the most reliable results we are fortunate at the CTC to have an analytical lab with a piece of equipment which allows us to use Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). The FTIR spectrometer was used to confirm the presence of a semi-synthetic fibre in the warp fibre sample, with the advantage that the sample is not destroyed through the analysis. A small sample (2mm) was prepared and placed on the FTIR sensor and then the equipment used to collect infrared spectra showing the chemicals present. The resulting data provides IR spectra which can then be compared to the CTC’s library of authenticated reference spectra of textile fibres. In the case of the warp fibre tested it was clear to see upon viewing the IR spectra that the fibre was cellulosic and not proteinaceous as it would appear if it had been silk. Through comparison with the spectra from a viscose rayon sample in the reference collection, clear parallels can be drawn with that of the data collected from the sample, as shown in figure 6.  

Figure 6. IR Spectra comparison with Viscose Rayon

This analysis indicates that it is highly likely the fibre is viscose rayon. In conclusion, it has been good to be able to provide Cosprop with a definitive answer to their query and to learn more about how to conduct FTIR analysis. It is probable that this object within Cosprop’s collection is a fairly early example of the use of two different fibres in a woven textile, one being a semi-synthetic, viscose rayon and the other wool.

To see more of the John Bright Historic Collection Revealed visit their social media accounts at:


Instagram and twitter: @costumeheritage

Facebook: www.facebook.com/CostumeHeritage

[1]Calvin Woodings (ed.), Regenerated Cellulosic Fibres, (Cambridge: Woodhead Publishing in association with The Textile Institute, 2001), 8.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *