What is TENCEL™ and what is lyocell?


Since we use a fair amount of TENCEL™ Lyocell we thought we’d take some time to clear up some of the misconceptions surrounding TENCEL™ and lyocell.

In short, TENCEL™ is a trademark – so just a brand name – for a number of fabrics made by Lenzing AG, an Austrian company. They’re all made in a specific way and are mainly made from cellulose (plant fibers, wood pulp). Apart from lyocell, the company behind TENCEL™ also produces several types of viscose and modal fabrics.

Lyocell is a soft fabric made by dissolving wood pulp.

So when we say our clothes are TENCEL™ Lyocell, what we mean is simply that they’re 100% lyocell produced by Lenzing AG using their TENCEL™ production method.

But of course it’s not that simple… is it?

Nope! Both lyocell and Tencel (no ™ back then) have been around since the 1980’s, and back then they were in fact one and the same. Adding to the confusion, lyocell is often mistaken for modal and viscose (or rayon as it’s known in the US).

To make matters even worse, the company behind TENCEL™ has made numerous attempts to rename and rebrand their fabrics while also creating more. Nowadays, you can find TENCEL™ Luxe as their main name for the finer lyocell filament (makes really, really soft fabric). But that doesn’t tell anyone what it’s made of, so we tend to stick with calling it lyocell or TENCEL™ Lyocell. We won’t even get into the 12(!) different TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers that are currently on offer.

So if someone labels their clothes just “Tencel” it’s likely because they themselves are confused and might not know which of the TENCEL™ fabrics they’re using. Is it important to know exactly which TENCEL™ fabric is used? Yes, because they’re not all equally environmentally friendly.

What makes Lyocell our favorite over the other viscose and TENCEL™ fabrics?

Lyocell usually competes with viscose (rayon) when designers pick their fabric. The two are similar, but they’re not made exactly the same way and don’t fully share characteristics.

Critically, lyocell production does not involve a certain chemical (carbon disulphide) that’s toxic to workers and the environment. So that’s the no. 1 reason: Why expose workers to health risks when we don’t have to?

Secondly, lyocell is quite durable. We prefer longer lasting clothes for the simple reason that we don’t have to burden our environment to make new ones all the time.

Those are the two main reasons why we prefer lyocell. But why TENCEL™ Lyocell? Because there are still plenty of unsustainable ways to produce lyocell and Lenzing AG, the company behind TENCEL™, has more or less solved those problems. The answer lies in how TENCEL™ is made.

How is TENCEL™ Lyocell made?

All the TENCEL™ fabrics are made by dissolving plant fibers, commonly referred to as cellulose, mainly from trees. Exactly which trees have changed over time, and is still changing, but the most common mentions are hardwood trees that grow quickly – like poplar or eucalyptus.

All the wood used to manufacture the fibers is derived from certified and controlled wood sources – that is sustainably managed forests – or put in another way: Forests that grow in size where trees aren’t felled on a whim. Trees are so important for our environment that we definitely don’t want to keep felling them in unsustainable ways, which would be when a forest starts becoming smaller instead of bigger.

Once dissolved, the resulting viscous goo is then processed and spun into yarn in a closed-loop system. The closed-loop bit is quite important: it means that the solvent used in the spinning of the fiber is reclaimed, recycled, cleansed and reused. This leaves very little byproducts or waste at the end of the process and is currently one of the most environmentally friendly manufacturing processes. Even though they reuse the waste water, a small part can’t be reused (various documentation over the years puts this somewhere between 8% and 1%). Lenzing AG solves this by also taking care to lead effluents directly to water treatment plants, instead of into local environments and rivers.

Those are the major environmental problems of lyocell and viscose production taken care of: sustainable sourcing of the plant fiber and pollution of the local environment by waste water.

If you look at fibers like bamboo, which sure grows fast (great to avoid deforestation), one of the problems is the waste water: there aren’t any factories that have the same closed-loop setup as Lenzing AG does, so they let out terrible amounts of contaminated water.

The final question: Is TENCEL™ Lyocell sustainable?

For now, we prefer TENCEL™ Lyocell as a low-impact product that has minimal impact on the environment in production.

Before we sign off, a special mention should go to TENCEL™ Refibra which is a blend of recycled cotton and TENCEL™ Lyocell that we also like to use.

If you want to see how lyocell compares to other fabrics, such as cotton, polyester, or wool, read our write-up on fabrics.

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