Over the next few weeks we’ll be sharing some of the fantastic research and expertise at the heart of the National Partners Programme with short articles introducing fun facts about key elements of the history we share with our partners – this week we take a look at rayon.
During the 1920s and 1930s, rayon was a wonder product that allowed Samuel Courtauld, chairman of Courtaulds Ltd, to amass the fortune he would later spend on the Courtauld art collection. The story of Rayon production is also a key part of the history of many communities across the UK and throughout of the programme we have been working with volunteers to capture the memories of those who made rayon and other cellulose fibres for Courtaulds Ltd.
1. It’s made of wood!
Although lots of chemicals are used to make rayon it isn’t a synthetic fibre because the core ingredient is natural cellulose which comes from wood pulp. Cellulose is harvested from the wood before being chemically converted and processed into a viscose liquid (which is why rayon is also called viscose), and spun into different solid fibres.
2. It used to be explosive!
In 1832 Henri Braconnot first discovered a process to break down cellulose using nitric acid but this created an unstable explosive chemical. The viscose process used to make rayon was refined by English chemist Charles Edward Cross in 1894 and Courtaulds Ltd bought the patents and licenses to this process for £25,000 in 1904.
3. It is the sister of cellophane!
Clear plastic wrapping and colourful textile rayon might not seem to have much in common but they both start life as viscose produced from wood pulp. So, it is unsurprising that Courtaulds Ltd also had a stake in British Cellophane Ltd which had plants at Bridgwater and Barrow-in-Furness.
4. It contributed to the war effort!
Viscose fibres are very versatile and can be made into a wide range of very useful products. In WW1 Courtaulds ‘artificial silk’ rayon was used in the production of parachutes and their research lab was involved in developing new fabrics that were better than the German ones. By WW2 industrial strength high-tenacity rayon was being used in the production of tyres and strong utility fabric was being used for everything from clothing to wrapping for heavy gun charges.
5. It hails from Coventry!
Courtaulds Ltd opened the first purpose built rayon factory in Coventry in 1905 soon after they had purchased the patents to the viscose process. This was the first of many factories in the UK and abroad, and viscose fibres continued to be the primary product of the company until the mid-20th Century.