Cuprammonium rayon

Lustra-cellulose; glanzstoff; cupro, cupra

A graph showing the spectra for cuprammonium rayon.

Inventor: Louis Henri Despeissis (d.1892)

Patented:  1890 (lapsed); 1897 (Dr. Hermann Pauly on behalf of Max Fremery and Johann Urban)

Commercially available from: 1900

Trade names: Bemberg silk; Bemberger; Cupresa; Cuprama

Commonly used starting materials: cotton linters

Principal characteristics: feels and looks silky and smooth; can be manufactured with very fine fibres; drapes well; quite stretchy; easy to dye and absorbs colour well; breathable with moderate moisture wicking and heat retention qualities; anti-static and machine washable; prone to pilling; chars when it burns and leaves a coppery residue.

Principal uses: from the 1920s, when the properties of cuprammonium had been improved, it became popular for stockings and underwear. During World War Two it was used for parachute cloth in Germany and USA. Today it is utilised for light weight garments such as lingerie, blouses, evening wear and linings.

Environmental impact: Cuprammonium is a by-product of the cotton industry which unless the plants are farmed organically, requires intensive irrigation and the application of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. This can impact on local drinking water supplies and expose workers, those living in the vicinity of the cotton fields and the environment to land, water and air pollution. Cotton farming is also associated with exploitation, of farmers and farm labourers who include children and forced labour. Using the cotton linters to make cuprammonium utilises waste but further toxic chemicals are involved in the fibre’s production. Its manufacture was halted in the United States in 1974 because it contravened US Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Today, closed loop manufacturing processes are used but the responsible disposal of the waste that can no longer be recycled remains an issue. There are no ecological certifications for cuprammonium.

Care and signs of degradation: so far observation leads us to believe it is a relatively stable fibre.

Recyclable? Yes, by mechanical recycling.

Biodegradable? Cuprammonium is biodegradable under optimum conditions, but the process may be inhibited by the chemicals used to dye and finish the fabric.

Potential narratives

  • how research and development for one industry can benefit another. The manufacturing technology used to create cuprammonium fibres was developed from the technology originally used to create electric light bulb filaments.
  • the social, political and ethical issues of global textile production.

Documented garment exemplars:

  • Berkshire stockings of knitted Bemberg™ cuprammonium rayon - see 1910s and 1920s
  • Charles James cape of woven cuprammonium rayon and silk - see 1930s and 1940s

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