FIBER OPTIONS Rayon: It's the synthetic that feels good and looks great but wears poorly


Theresa Jakubik, an aspiring actress in Manhattan, recently went to brunch with some people she wanted to impress. "I put on these adorable little culotte shorts," she said. But by the end of the day, she didn't look adorable. The rayon culottes were so wrinkled, she said, "I looked like I had rolled out of a 90-hour flight."

It wrinkles, it's no bargain, it has to be dry-cleaned, it spots easily and trees die for its birth.

This is the fabric of the 1990s?

Rayon, once considered a second-class fabric to be used in lieu of silk, is showing up in every kind of clothing for both women and men. Designers talk ecstatically of its drapability, of the way it follows the line of the body. They are putting it in everything from $39 blouses sold by Express to $2,000 suits by Giorgio Armani.

"We all love rayon," said Robert Abajian, senior vice president for sportswear design at Liz Claiborne.

Apparel manufacturers rediscovered rayon about five years ago and have been using it as styles have become more fluid and slinky. Its use in apparel increased by 34 percent from 1987 to 1990, rising to 150 million pounds from 112 million, according to the Fiber Economic Bureau, a company that tracks the industry.

While synthetic fabrics like polyester come from petroleum, rayon comes from trees. The wood is treated with chemicals to extract cellulose, which is spun into thread. Rayon, the first fabric produced synthetically, was made commercially starting in in France. It was widely used until the 1950s, when synthetics like Orlon and polyester captured the interest of manufacturers.

They fell from grace in the 1970s, when natural fibers became the rage. But synthetic fibers have been making a comeback with the resurgence of rayon and the interest in the new microfibers, which are soft, ultra-thin versions of polyester.

Rayon can be found in inexpensive clothes, but it is no longer a cheap fabric. Imported rayon is subject to large duties, so clothes made from it often cost more than linen or cotton. Italian rayon is especially expensive. Production in the United States has dropped, while imports have soared, rising to 28 percent of ** the market in 1990, from 4 percent in 1987, the Fiber Economic Bureau said.

Designers and manufacturers say that consumers like rayon for its comfort and style. And they do. But ask those who read labels for an opinion about rayon and the story gets complicated.

Michael Moore, a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, recently wore a rayon shirt to a crowded party in a warm room. "I crossed my arms at my waist," he said, "and when I took them away, it had wrinkles." He went home and changed.

Rayon's desire to wrinkle is hardly a secret. Textbooks on textiles note that it wrinkles "when worn or crushed." The fabric lacks what experts call "memory": it doesn't spring back to its original shape.

Some rayon clothes are washable, but many must be dry-cleaned, which annoys people who believe that fake things ought to be washable. "It's the worst of all possible worlds," said Nancy Sills, a Manhattan lawyer. "It's synthetic, and you have to take it to the cleaners."

Rayon is the most difficult fabric to care for, said Jacqueline Stephens, a textiles analyst for the International Fabric Care Institute, an association of dry cleaners. "Most of the dry cleaners have a problem with rayon," she said. The most frequent difficulty involves the stiffening agents, called sizing or finish, that give the fabric its drape. Some are water sensitive, she said, and thus easily lead to permanent stains and discoloration. Rayon also tends to shrink, which is why dry cleaning is often necessary, she said. The agitation in a washing machine can contribute to shrinkage.

Manufacturers say rayon is now more practical and adaptable. But work remains. Manufacturers like the Fibers Division of BASF in Williamsburg, Va., a large maker of rayon fibers, are working on finishes that will make the fabrics more washable. Aside from their complaints about washability, consumers are very happy with rayon, the company said.

Shoppers who remember rayon as an inexpensive fabric now have to look twice when they read some price tags. A simple black shell blouse from the designer Jean Muir is $770 at Bergdorf Goodman, for instance. Women's suits by Armani that are mostly rayon cost $2,045.

But rayon is so popular that even its detractors feel they have to use it. Joel Benedek, whose company, Sherbrouck Ltd., makes blouses for stores like Barneys New York, has ordered 10,000 yards for the fall, making it his leading fabric. "I have a huge demand for it," he said. "If it were up to me, I would hesitate."

Benedek said rayon doesn't clean as well or last as long as cotton, silk, or linen. But maybe that doesn't matter. "No one is interested in holding anything that long," he said.

Living with rayon

Alice Laban of the International Fabricare Institute offers some guidelines on learning to live with rayon:

Rayon which has not been treated with a resin finish will water spot. Since care labels do not warn against dribbling at the water fountain or getting caught in the rain, you must pretest. After you buy the item, but before you wear it, place a drop of water on an inseam. If the water dries and the spot disappears completely, you're in luck. If the spot is still visible after it dries, take the garment back to the retailer and state the reason for the return.

* If you do water spot a rayon garment, take it to a professional cleaner who may be able to steam the spot away.

Avoid spritzing after you're dressed. Hairspray and perfumes will stain and spot.

If you followed care instructions and have dry cleaned but a spot refuses to go away, try a last-ditch effort before you declare the rayon garment a total loss. Try washing in cold water and a mild detergent. This will weaken the fiber somewaht and the garment may shrink, but it's worth a try.

Look for rayon and polyester blends. That small percentage of polyester adds a great deal of wearability to the garment.

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