Sustainable Fabric: What is Tencel and Lyocell?
When it comes to sewing sustainably, the choice of your fabric can make a big difference. But it is a minefield..
One of the reasons I started to sew was because of the lack of sustainable clothing choices I found on the highstreet. It’s crazy how many retail ranges are filled with extortionately prices polyester and acryclic clothing, or the number of cheaper ranges who think badging their cheap fashion with a BCI badge means it’s ok.
RTW linen is so expensive and although I had learned about Tencel and was looking out for it, the options were far and few.
..By sewing, I can make mindful choices about what I sew with, although I am no angel. But, wherever I see the word Tencel, my attention is grabbed.
Tencel is a lovely fibre to sew and wear and it is considered to be one of the most sustainable fabric options…. although this is affected by what it is blended with.
Tencel is made from Eucalyptus and so as a ‘natural’ fibre it is breathable. Tencel often has a beautiful sheen and a phenomenal drape. Watch out for what it is blended with though as if that is a fibre of less sustainable credentials, this reduces the sustainability of the fabric overall..
So What is TENCEL?
Firstly, let’s answer one of the most confused facts about Tencel. Tencel is a brand name, not the name of the fibre. The fibre is called Lyocell and you will only see this called Tencel when it has been produced by the company, Lenzing. It is this company that originally created the fibre process and while most of the lyocell you find in the fabric stores is Tencel lyocell, there are other versions of standard lyocell being produced.
There are some important differences with Tencel vs standard Lyocell so it can be helpful to know what you are buying.
TENCEL VS LYOCELL
Tencel is the brand name/trademark for the fabric Lyocell when made by Lenzing. The benefit of lyocell under the Tencel trade mark is knowing that the source of the wood pulp is from sustainable and certified sources. Lenzing also blends the wood pulp with other fibres using their ‘refribra’ technology. This process uses scraps of cotton in the process to reduce waste.
What makes Lenzing Tencel Lyocell more sustainable than standard Lyocell? Lenzing guarantees the fabric us produced using certified and sustainable wood sources. Moreover, if also process the pulp using a closed loop system which reduces the chemical load on the environment and limits water waste.
Surprisingly, Tencel lyocell was first developed in the 1972 although it has only recently become a popular and well-known fabric.
Lyocell is effectively a form of rayon but it is quite different to the rayon that most of us know. Rayon is a cellulose fibre, plant based and a ‘natural fabric’. Rayon however is not very good for the environment mostly as a result of the production process, water usage and incredibly high chemical processing which is not good for its producers or the planet.
How is Lyocell made?
The first step in the process to make lyocell is turning the wood chips into a pulp. This is done by mixing the chips with a solvent based liquid. This creates a pulp which is then dissolved using a special process called jet spinning.
During this process, the pulp is pushed through a mesh to form the fibre threads, which are subsequently spun into a yarn.
While being produced, the fabric uses much less energy and water than other fabrics. Cotton is well known for using lots of water and in comparison, Tencel uses much less. Tencel is also white as it is produced and so it doesn’t need to be bleached in the same way as cotton, meaning less of a chemical load.
When it comes to dying, it needs a lot less dye than cotton to get those beautiful vibrant colours, but as with most fabric it is still dyed with harmful dyes, it just uses less of them
This process, whilst being largely the same as that used for viscose, is hugely different in it’s impact on the environment and workforce. The chemical load for making viscose is huge, using sodium-hydroxide in levels harmful to humans. The process for making lyocell uses a very different chemical base which isn’t harmful in the same way. Additionally, and most importantly the chemicals used for lyocell can be recovered from the water at 99%. There is a closed loop system meaning the water is reused and hardly any of the solvent is released into the environment.
The benefits of making your own clothing with lycocell are many:
- Fibres create an incredibly smooth and soft fabric. Lyocell is known for its beautiful drape and a high quality feel
- Breatheable fabric
- Strong fibres, moisture wicking suitable for many uses
Tencel’s Sustainable Credentials
A Dutch not for profit organization, Made By (made-by.org), has created a benchmark for fabric based on its environmental impact. In its ranking, from Class A to Class E, Tencel was ranked in class B. For reference Organic Linen was ranked class A, and standard linen Class C.
A Organic Hemp, Organic linen, mechanically recycled nylon, mechanically recycled poly, recycled cotton, recycled wool
B Chemically recycled nylon or poly, CRAiLAR ® Flax, In Conversion Cotton, Monocell ® bamboo lyocell, Organic Cotton, Tencel ® Lenzing lyocell,
C Organic Wool, standard flax linen, standard hemp linen, PLA, Ramie, Lyocell
D Modal, poly acrylic, virgin poly
E. Bamboo viscose, cotton, viscose, rayon, elastane, virgin nylon, wool
No go: acetate, polyester, acrylic, nylon, spandex
There are a growing number of fabric stores with Tencel in their ranges so if you haven’t tried it yet, have a look for it and give it a go. I am sure you won’t regret it!
I recently made a Paper Theory Zadie, in colour blocked Tencel. It’s one of my favourites already!
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