Sustainable fabric spotlight: Tencel® fabric and Lyocell

Sustainable fabric spotlight: Tencel® fabric and Lyocell

Tencel has been becoming more and more popular both within the mainstream fashion industry and with sustainable fashion enthusiasts alike. It is favoured for its softness, breathability, flattering drape and resistance to wrinkling. However, it has also been dubbed one of the most sustainable fabrics and is being used by many popular sustainable fashion brands, including Organic Basics, People Tree.

This article is part of a new series on the Ruby Rose Sews blog, called Sustainable fabric spotlight. Within it, I will introduce a sustainable fabric and talk about the good and the bad of it. You can check out the first in the series Hemp

How sustainable is this fabric really, and what sets it apart from other eco-friendly fabrics? That will be the topic of this week’s sustainable fabric spotlight.

What is the difference between lyocell and Tencel®?

You may have stumbled upon two different terms, lyocell and TENCEL®, and wondered what the difference between the two is. Both are a man-made fabric composed of wood pulp and a sustainable alternative to synthetic fibres such as polyester or nylon. However, while lyocell is the generic name used for different varieties of the fabric, TENCEL® is the brand name or a type of lyocell.

Man-made but sustainable?

Often, we group fabrics into two categories: natural and man-made. The natural fibres, such as cotton or hemp, are often considered eco-friendly and good, while man-made fibres are the ‘bad’ ones made out of plastic.

This categorisation becomes tricky when it comes to Tencel fabric, as it falls somewhere in between the two. It is made out of natural material (wood pulp), which is then synthesized. This makes it sustainable while avoiding some of the ethical issues the industry is facing during the production of fabrics such as cotton. However, it also makes the fabric prone to quick judgement due to the term ‘man-made’.

Tencel is a great alternative to viscose, which although beautiful can be problematic. The chemicals used in the production of viscose often leak out into the rivers, polluting the surrounding land. The chemicals used can cause terrible health problems for the people who produce the fabric. In fact, it is so dangerous to produce that most European countries do not allow it.

Sewing with Lyocell

As Tencel is so similar to Viscose, it has a natural drape and adds weight to the fabric. Sustainable tencel is lovely to work with, although it can be quite slippery and floaty. It’s a woven fabric so will work for many patterns. I’ve used it in quite a few of my projects such as these Pietra shorts sewn with beautiful Tencel from Good Fabric Store

For fine fabrics like these, I recommend using extra fine pins, as they stop the fabric from snagging. In general, they are just gentler on other finer fabrics like silks etc.

Another tip is to overlock your pattern pieces as soon as they are cut to reduce fraying and stabilize the fabrics.

Ruby Rose in tencel leopard dress

A closed-loop production

Lyocell and Tencel fabric is made on a closed loop during the production process. What does that mean? The amount of waste and chemicals released into the environment during production is minimal and harmless. The chemicals they use are also more gentle for the environment and less harsh.  No bleach is required during the process, compared to the manufacturing of cotton where bleach is commonly used. This means that the resulting fabric is free of chlorine. The fabric itself is also naturally biodegradable after use and will decompose within a few days in waste treatment plants.

Easy to Grow

Bamboo, which is most often used, is quick to grow, creating a large yield and when compared to cotton it takes 5 times less land.

That makes Lyocell sound like the perfect sustainable fabric, right?

folded lyocel fabric samples

The bad about Tencel

Some of the properties of Tencel can result in some environmental issues during the production process. Most importantly, the fabric often takes some time to accept dyes. Due to this, some harmful chemicals may be used during production, if dying the fabric. The best thing you can do to avoid this is to choose natural, undyed lyocell, rather than one in vibrant colours which may have been treated with harsh dyes. However, lyocell requires a lot less dye than cotton.

Another problem that may arise during the production of lyocell is forest habitat destruction, so if you are buying a lyocell item, make sure to find out where it came from. Most lyocell comes from sustainable tree farms, but it never hurts to double-check on the company website to keep your mind at ease. Some lyocell varieties are also made out of bamboo, which is one of the most sustainable materials in the world, as it is resilient, does not need to be chemically treated and grows incredibly fast.

Overall, lyocell is an excellent sustainable fabric which provides an eco-friendly alternative to synthetic plastic fibres. The way it is produced also helps avoid some ethical issues which arise during the production of natural fibres. It is not perfect, but it gets quite close. However, on our sustainable fabric spotlight ranking, it takes second place after hemp.

Have you got any experience with Tencel or Lyocell? In a few years, this rising fabric may become a stable part of our sustainable closets, if it is not already!

Ruby Rose wearing anna allen demeter top

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