Artificial silk or (as the term is used in the textile industry) Art silk is a synthetic manufactured fiber which resembles silk but costs less to produce. Frequently, art silk is just a synonym for rayon.
The first successful artificial silks were developed in the 1890s of cellulose fiber and marketed as art silk or viscose, a trade name for a specific manufacturer. In 1924, the name of the fiber was officially changed in the U.S. to rayon, although the term viscose continued to be used in Europe. The material is commonly referred to in the industry as viscose rayon.
In 1931, Henry Ford hired chemists Robert Boyer and Frank Calvert to produce artificial silk made with soybean fibers. They succeeded in making a textile fiber of spun soy protein fibers, hardened or tanned in a formaldehyde bath, which was given the name Azlon. It was usable in the making of suits, felt hats, and overcoats. Though pilot production of Azlon reached 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg) per day in 1940, it never reached the commercial market; Du Pont's nylon was the winner in the quest to produce artificial silk.
Although not sold under the name art silk initially, nylon, the first synthetic fiber, was developed in the United States in the late 1930s and used as a replacement for Japanese silk during World War II. Its properties are far superior to rayon and silk when wet, and so it was used for many military applications, such as parachutes. Although nylon is not a good substitute for silk fabric in appearance, it is a successful functional alternative. Du Pont's original plans for nylon to become a cheaper and superior replacement for silk stockings were soon realized, then redirected for military use just two years later during World War II. Nylon became a prominent industrial fiber in a short time frame, permanently replacing silk in many applications.
Despite a generally similar appearance, genuine silk has unique features that are distinguishable from artificial silk. However, in some cases art silk can be passed off as real silk to unwary buyers. A number of tests are available to determine a fabric's basic fiber makeup, some of which can be performed prior to purchasing a fabric whose composition is questionable. Tests include rubbing the pile in your hand, burning a small piece of the fringe to smell the ash and smell the smoke and dissolving the pile by performing a chemical test.
- "Is Your Silk Oriental Rug Made of Real Silk?". Jacobsen rugs. Retrieved 2012-05-23.
- "A Short History of Manufactured Fibers". Archived from the original on 11 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-11.
- "Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet: Rayon—The Multifaceted Fiber". Archived from the original on 6 June 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-11.
- See Du Pont's Press release on Nylon in 1938 which claimed nylon was "strong as steel" and the "first man-made organic textile prepared from raw materials of the mineral kingdom."
- "Nylon Sellout," Newsweek, May 27, 1940, pp. 65-66.
- "Stocking Panic," Business Week, August 9, 1941.
- "Hosiery Woes," Business Week, February 7, 1942.
The burn test and other methods for fiber identification:
See The Stocking Story: You Be the Historian at the Smithsonian website.