What Is Tencel Fabric: Sustainable Lyocell Guide
Great drape? Check. Doesn’t wrinkle when you wear it, or stuff it into a suitcase for vacation. You betcha. Easy to dye and for factories to work with. Yup. And, wait, it's also breathable (read, comfortable), feels luxurious, and it’s sustainable. The fiber I am talking about is Lyocell. Or, if your fancy, Tencel Lyocell fabric. So, what is tencel fabric?
No wonder lyocell material has become one of the fashion industries' fibers of choice for the past few years. Because, these features make it a particularly popular textile not just for clothing, but also home goods. But, if Lyocell is so perfect, why isn’t everyone using it for everything? Don’t worry, I’ll get to that.
This article is going to teach you all about what lyocell is, explore the fibers pros and cons, help you determine if it’s the right fiber for your clothing garments, and teach you where to source it.
We are going to cover some high-level textile stuff (sciencey). But, it’s important, and I know you can handle it.
BUT BEFORE WE GET STARTED
Have you heard about the super secret document that everyone in the fashion industry uses, but no one is talking about? Probably not. That is because you can't find it on Google or Instagram (believe me, I've tried).
It's a form I have used for over 13 years at every job I have ever had. Literally everyone from brands to fabric suppliers, use it, but you can't find it anywhere publicly.
The best part? It can cut your sourcing time in half, and save you tons of money in product development! This is the kind of info consultants charge the big bucks for. And, I'm giving it away for free until the end of the month.
So, get ready to make fashion startup life a whole lot easier, and GRAB YOUR FREE DOWNLOAD OF THE NOT SO SECRET SOURCING DOC HERE
HERE’S WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- What is the difference between lyocell and Tencel?
- What is lyocell fiber?
- How is lyocell fabric made?
- Properties of lyocell fabrics
- Hand feel
- Does it wrinkle?
- Is lyocell better for hot or cold weather?
- Wash and care instructions
- Should you use lyocell in your clothing line?
- This or that?
- Tencel™ lyocelll vs lyocell
- Lyocell vs modal
- Lyocell vs viscose
- Sustainability - I saved this for the end for a reason
- Where to buy Lyocell fabric
- Additional sustainable fiber resources
LYOCELL VS TENCEL?
Is lyocell the same as tencell lyocell? Yes, and no. Is a Xerox and photocopy the same thing? How about a band-aid and bandage? Or, a Kleenex and tissue? The difference between each example in all of these pairs is that one is a name brand, and the other is generic.
Tencel Lyocell fabric is a name-brand version of Lyocell that is made and controlled by the company Lenzing.
But, it gets a little more confusing. While Lyocell is a fiber, and Tencel is the branded version of that fiber, lyocell is also a manufacturing process (I'll explain more in just a minute).
The pro to using Lenzing's branded Tencel and not the generic kind of fiber is that with Lenzing, you get all their traceability, meaning you know exactly where and how the fibers were made. But, the down side is that information comes at a higher price.
WHAT IS LYOCELL FIBER?
Lyocell is a third generation rayon. First came viscose, then came modal (which was an improvement to the original viscose system), then came lyocell. And, all of these fibers are different types of rayons (think all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares).
All rayons are semi-synthetic cellulose fibers made from plant material. Viscose, modal, and lyocell are just different types of rayons. The same way, scarlet, fire engine, and crimson, are all different variations of the color red.
Modal was first invented to try and make viscose more sustainable, which resulted in a semi-closed loop system. This means that some of the waste product from the production of modal was able to be reused to make more.
Then, lyocell took this a step further and created an almost completely closed-loop system. About 99% of the waste from lyocell production can be put back into the system to make new fibers. Pretty cool, huh?
HOW IS LYOCELL MADE?
Lyocell fibers are made similarly to viscose and modal. Lyocell and Tencel Lyrocell are semi- synthetic fibers, meaning they are man made, but are derived from plants. A totally synthetic fiber would be made from petroleum, FYI.
During the production process, wood pulp is gathered. The pulp is broken down into a liquid by chemicals, and that liquid is pushed through a teeny tiny shower head called a spinnerette. It’s pushed into a solution on the other side that will solidify the liquid and turn it into solid yarns.
Technically lyocell material can be made of any type of regenerated cellulose, but bamboo and eucalyptus trees tend to be the most popular wood sources.
Tencel lyocell can also be made from different types of wood pulp, but generally, it is made from eucalyptus only.
Both bamboo and eucalyptus are fast growing, so they can be harvested and replanted quickly without leading to deforestation.
I bet you have seen bamboo fabric marketed as a sustainable fabric option in stores. It is especially popular in pajamas, and home goods like bed sheets.
But, that bamboo fabric isn’t what a lot of brands and the media have led you to believe. It is not a natural fiber that comes from the dirt like cotton.
It is a rayon.
Now, here is something very interesting that a lot of people don’t know. Bamboo rayon can be made in two different ways. It can be made using the old viscose rayon system. Or, it can be made using the lyocell system. Viscose bamboos tend not to be a very sustainable option, while bamboo lyocell that is made in a closed-loop manufacturing system is.
So, the next time you are buying bamboo bed sheets, know they are nothing special, they are just regular old viscose or lyocell.
WHAT ARE THE PROPERTIES OF LYOCELL FIBERS?
This section is going to help you learn lyocell fabric properties - everything that Lyocell can and can’t do. This way, you can determine, for yourself, if it is the best option for your clothing collection.
For simplicity, in this section I am going to use the word Lyocell, but please note that everything I am saying also applies to Tencel Lyocell fabric and fibers as well.
What does lyocell fabric feel like?
Lyocell feels like a cotton viscose blend. It’s the best of both worlds! Lyocell has that nice, slinky, drapable feel that looks like silk or viscose. But, it tends to feel more comfy and cozy like cotton.
When you look at lyocell fabrics under a microscope, you can see tiny hair fibers poking up. This would also be the case if you were looking at cotton. Those little hair fibres are what create that soft feel (compared to a sleek and smooth hand feel with silk).
Is lyocell fabric stretchy?
Lyocell, on its own, is not a stretchy fiber. But brands that use it will often add spandex, elastane, or lycra, which are all very stretchy fibers. Underwear is a common example of a lyocell product that also has elastane added into the fabric!
But, there are other ways to get stretchy fabrics without adding stretchy fibers.
Knit fabrics tend to have more engineered stretch than woven fabrics. Meaning you can use non stretch fibers, and still get a stretchy fabric. So, if you are looking for a stretchy lyocell fabric without elastic, opt for a knit over a woven.
Does lyocell fabric fabric shrink?
Lyocell fibres tend not to shrink significantly.
But, the most important factor in fabric shrinkage is not the actual fiber, but the fabric construction. Knits, especially loose knits, tend to shrink the most. Woven fabrics tend to be more stable.
The way around shrinkage, no matter the fiber, is to have the fabric mill pre-shrink the fabric by pre-washing it or using a system called sanforizing. Sanforization is more eco-friendly because it does not use water. Instead a machine vibrates the fabric to relax the yarns, which allows them to shrink up to the same way a washing machine would.
Is lyocell fabric absorbent?
It is very absorbent. Even more so than cotton. Cotton fibers have an absorbance of about 8%, while lyocell material has around 11%.
This increased absorbancy is great for moving moisture away from the body, and creating a cool-feeling fabric - perfect for hot climates.
Does lyocell fabric wrinkle?
The ability to not wrinkle is actually called resiliency in the textile science community.
Resilience is rated on a scale: excellent, good, fair, or poor. Cotton and viscose have poor resiliency, meaning they wrinkle easily. Lyocell material comes in with a rating of fair. While that is not great, it is still better than the other two fiber options.
And, if you are curious, the fiber with one of the best resiliencies is polyester.
Is lyocell fabric ideal for hot weather?
In hot weather, lyocell is very good at not just absorbing but also wicking moisture. Wicking sounds like a super technical sporty term, but really all it means is moisture movement. So, fabrics that are good at moving moisture are good at wicking.
When a fabric is both good at absorbing and moving moisture, it is an ideal option for hot climates. That is because it will absorb sweat from the wearers body, then move and spread it out so it evaporates quickly. The key to staying cool isn’t just absorbing it up; it’s evaporating it quickly. That evaporation is what creates the sensation of cooling.
What are the wash and care instructions for lyocell fabric?
While lyocell is not as delicate a fiber as silk, I still recommend washing on cold and drying on a tumble setting. Modern washing machines and dryers create a lot of friction. That friction is what breaks garments down and makes them look worn out.
I also always give shopers the bonus tip to wash clothes inside out. By doing this, you will protect the fabric on the outside and help keep your clothes lookinf new for longer.
PROS OF LYOCELL FIBERS
One: It’s a Good Alternative To Organic Cotton
I can’t tell you how many times I have had this exact conversation with designers (too many). It goes something like this…
And, we never really get anywhere.
Lyocell is kind of the loophole to this conversation.
It offers the flowyness that designers are looking for, but it is much more sustainable than traditional viscose. It is the bridge between cotton that is too stiff, and rayon that leads to deforestation and other environmental contamination issues.
Two: It Is More Sustainable
Lyocell does not contribute to deforestation or chemicals in the environment and is biodegradable.
One of the most important yet overlooked issues with sustainability is wearability. I always tell my clients, you can have the most sustainable fibers and products in the world. But, if no one wants to wear it because it’s ugly or doesn’t perform well, then what is the point?
Lyocell material allows you to have your hyperboreal cake and eat it too.
That is because, Lyocell is a versatile and sustainable fabric that offers a great alternative to traditional materials like cotton and rayon. Its ability to wick moisture, shape retention, and biodegradability make it ideal for hot climates and eco-conscious consumers. With proper care, Tencel Lyocell garments can last longer and help reduce our impact on the environment, as sustainable fashion continues to gain popularity.
CONS OF LYOCELL FIBERS
One: It Still Uses Chemicals and other Resources
Lyocell is not a natural fiber, even though it’s often made from bamboo or eucalyptus. And at the end of the day, a lot of chemicals and resources are being used to create it. Some examples of these chemicals include N-methyl morpholine- N-oxide (NMMO) and amine oxide (MMNO). Both of these chemicals are considered very low toxins, and most of the chemicals (up to 99%) can be reused again in the process.
But, the collecting of the wood, turning it into pulp, making a fiber, then packaging and shipping those fibers to a yarn spinner is all very resource heavy. It requires water, heat, and tons of electricity! Which all lead to climate change.
When you think about recycled and regenerated materials in general, ask yourself, how much more needs to go into the system, for something new to come out? And, is the cost of those resources worth it?
Two: It’s Pricey
Brand name Tencel Lyocell fabric is even more expensive than textiles made with generic fibers. But, in recent years, the price of Tencel lyocell fabric has come down a lot. But still, it is one of the most expensive fibers around.
To reduce costs many brands end up using generic lyocell material, which usually means less transparency (read, insight into wear the fibers came from and how they were made).
Understanding this tradeoff between price and transparency, is, in my opinion, one of the keys to understanding greenwashing.
THIS OR THAT
Again, I will be using the term lyocell to include Tencel Lyocell fabric in this section.
Ok, so let’s pretend we are designing a womens dress. In the following examples, I will tell you where lyocell would be the best choice or where other fibers might be a better choice.
Lyocell VS Cotton
What we are really looking at in this comparison is flow vs structure.
Many of my clients often complain that they love the feel of cotton, but it’s just too stiff for the styles they are creating. They want something that moves and flows in the wind. So, If you want that easy, breezy, comfort of cotton, but a little more flow. Lyocell is the choice.
Lyocell VS Modal
Same, same, but different.
Do you prefer the feel of silk or of cotton? Both fabrics are going to have a nice drape and feel. They will also both have a lot of movement (think, not stiff or structured). If you want your dress to feel more like silk and be a bit more shiny, modal is the way to go. For a more natural and matte cotton feel, choose lyocell material.
Lyocell VS Viscose vs Cotton
For brands that want the feel of cotton, but the drape of silk.
Lyocell material is unlike all other viscose because it is designed to feel more like cotton. The fiber will fibrillate when washed. Meaning, it will become a little bit fuzzy, the way cotton does.
Now, there is a hack to get a viscose to feel like cotton. And that is by using staple-length viscose fibers. Viscose is generally one very long filament fiber. But some manufacturers will cut it up into cotton-size pieces, and twist those pieces together to form a yarn. The result is a fabric that feels a lot like cotton.
So, again, if you want a cotton feel with a silk like flow, the Rolls-Royce rayon of fibers is going to be lyocell. But, if you are looking for something cheaper, you can try staple length (don’t forget to say that bit) viscose.
IS LYOCELL SUSTAINABLE? SHOULD I USE IT IN MY BRAND?
Are you looking for sustainably sourced textiles? It might be right for you. Or, maybe not.
It really depends on you and your values.
If you know me, then you know I am a true believer that nothing and everything is sustainable.
The right answer for every brand depends on what the end use of the product is, and the pros and cons of the alternative.
That is why I took the time to create so much high-level, textile science, information in this article. I didn’t just want to tell you, hey Lyocell is a closed loop system, and it doesn’t use petroleum; omg, so sustainable use it. I want you to learn the facts and make your own decisions for yourself.
WHERE TO BUY LYOCELL FABRICS
Thinking about using Lyocell, or branded Tencel Lyocell fabric in your line? Here are some of the best ways to source the fabrics you are looking for.
- Start with Lenzing: Lenzing is….They will be able to direct you to fabric manufacturers in their supplier matrix. They might be a little more pricy, but when you buy from them, you know that the cellulosic materials going into their system are not damaging the planet and leading to deforestation, making this process more environmentally friendly.
- Birla Excel: The little known competitor of Lenzing is Excel fibers by Birla. “Birla Excel is made from a unique closed-loop process where the byproducts are completely reused, thereby minimizing discharge and reducing environmental impact. Designers swear by this resilient, wash & wear fabric as it imparts wonderful lustre, drape and softness. Its unique propensity to fibrillate can be controlled or accentuated for aesthetic versatility.”
ADDITIONAL FIBER RESOURCES
Want to learn more about other types of sustainable fibers? I got you.
- Rayon: everything you could possibly ever want to know about all the different kinds of rayon.
- Recycled cotton: pros and cons, and information on if it is a commercially viable option to help clean up fashion supply chains.
- Recycled polyester: Is it really just greenwashing? Spoiler, kinda.
- Modal: a comprehensive breakdown, just like this article, but on modal instead.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Do you plan to use Lyocell or Tencel Lyocell fabric for your brand? Let me know in the comments!