Tencel: Is This Sustainable Fabric Too Good to Be True?

Close up of Men's tencel shirt.
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Tencel is the brand name that has been used to trademark garments made from modal and lyocell fibers. Think of Tencel in relation to modal and lyocell like plastic bags that zip being called Ziplocks and tissues being referred to as Kleenex.

Modal and lyocell fibers are recognized for being incredibly soft as well as eco-friendly. These promising claims have made Tencel all the talk among textile producers, fashion gurus, and shops lately. So, does this trendy fiber actually live up to its reputation?

In a panel that conducted a blind comparison, Tencel was rated as softer than any other cotton or cotton-blended sheets. Beyond its softness, Tencel boasts a number of other lucrative qualities. Fabric made from Tencel lyocell drapes effortlessly, is wrinkle-resistant, and also holds dye well, meaning it can be dyed in a range of vibrant hues.

Due to its superior softness, Tencel modal is typically used to make comfortable loungewear and intimate apparel. Overall, Tencel is a great option for anyone seeking garments that are long-lasting, durable, and that retain their softness.

History of Tencel

Lyocell was first developed at a fiber facility in the United States in 1972, using an advanced solvent spinning process that turned wood pulp into textile material.

As attention to pollution was gaining popularity in 1992, Tencel lyocell was introduced to the market as a new and more sustainable generation of cellulosic fiber. In the wake of its creation, Tencel was first used in denim.

The Tencel lyocell brand was originally owned by British chemical company, Courtaulds. Tencel was Courtaulds’ foot into the textile market, which quickly developed into Tencel Kai, a textile industry group in Japan that was responsible for promoting Tencel.

Shortly thereafter, the “soft denim” trend was born. By blending cotton with Tencel lyocell, jeans had a softer, more comfortable feel. This trend took root in manufacturers across Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Soon, major brands around the world were using Tencel in their jeans, making the everyday casual pants that much more appealing.

Mercedes-Benz China Fashion Week S/S 2018 Collection - Day 9
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How Is Tencel Produced?

Tencel fiber is somewhat comparable to rayon. Both are classified as “regenerated cellulose” fibers that are created by dissolving wood fibers with a chemical solvent. Even though Tencel has a natural origin, it is still manmade. The fiber is classified as neither “natural” nor “synthetic.”

Tencel fibers originate from trees—primarily birch, beech, spruce, and eucalyptus—that are then manufactured into a fiber. Manufacturers take the wood pulp from these trees, dissolve it with a chemical solvent, and then push it through an extruder to form the fibers.

These fibers are then used to make garments. They can be blended in with other fabrics or used on their own.

Environmental Impact

The fabrics trademarked as Tencel are produced with environmentally responsible processes from sustainably sourced natural raw wood fibers. Tencel fabrics are also certified biodegradable.

What is important to note is that even though Tencel is a lyocell fiber, not all lyocell fibers are Tencel branded and thus aren’t guaranteed to be as environmentally friendly as Tencel fabrics. Lyocell that is not trademarked may come from unsustainable sources or may be a blend, containing a mix of lyocell and other fibers.

The major factor separating rayon from Tencel is that it requires more energy and more chemicals to produce than Tencel, a process that is wasteful and harmful to both the workers producing the fiber and the environment.

The process of producing Tencel, on the other hand, uses wood from trees in sustainably harvested forests and uses less-toxic chemicals that are recycled in the production process. Tencel is made with a circular production system in mind, during which 99% of the chemicals and solvents used to break down the wood pulp are recovered and recycled. Both biodegradable and compostable, the fibers used in Tencel can fully revert back to the nature, not causing any further waste.

In comparison to other common fabrics, Tencel also comes out ahead in many regards. For example, One study found that Tencel uses 40% less non-renewable energy than cotton. Nonetheless, the process is not flawless, as there are still harsh chemicals and dyes used in the production process of Tencel.

Tencel vs. Other Fabrics

Tencel is used to make products like bedding, shirts, and pants, among other items that are also commonly made out of fabrics such as linen and cotton. So, is there an advantage to using Tencel instead of these natural materials?

There are a number of qualities that distinguish Tencel from more common fabrics. Tencel absorbs moisture more effectively than cotton and is a sweat-wicking material. This could make Tencel an ideal fabric for someone living in rainy climates or for people with skin sensitivities to humidity that might be irritated by damp clothing.

Due to fine hairs on the outer surface of fiber strands, Tencel is also easily moldable. Manufacturers can shape the fibers into a variety of forms, from a soft, silky finish to soft texture likened to suede without compromising the quality of the final product.

Tencel lyocell fibers are recognized for being breathable, elastic, and wrinkle resistant. The breathability of Tencel makes it a top choice in activewear, and a great alternative to cotton in sportswear.

Despite its many selling points, there are a few downsides to Tencel as well. Tencel—and lyocell fabric in general—is more expensive than other fabrics. The fabric costs more to produce due to the technology that is used in processing.

A significant amount of chemicals is required in the production process of Tencel. Although the chemicals are non-toxic, they may cause skin irritations if your skin is particularly sensitive.

The Future of Tencel

Mercedes-Benz China Fashion Week S/S 2018 Collection - Day 9
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With a continued recognition and commitment to the importance of sustainability, Tencel has the potential to hold a significant place in the future of fashion. From many viewpoints, there is little reason that Tencel shouldn’t replace other fabrics in a wide variety of clothing items. Its versatility, durability, soft and lustrous feel, and lighter carbon footprint definitely help to promote Tencel.

However, there is a much smaller production capacity of Tencel than cotton and other fabrics, which makes it difficult to replace in quantity. Expanded production facilities for Tencel may increase its availability while simultaneously driving down production costs.

With an increased demand on the fashion industry to adopt environmentally friendly practices, the production capacity of Tencel may expand, opening up possibilities for it to become an increasingly central fabric.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is Tencel sustainable?

    Tencel is one of the most sustainable fibers because it's harvested from certified wood sources and is fully compostable and biodegradable. It has even earned BioPreferred designation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is only granted to products made from renewable resources.

  • Is Tencel better for the environment than cotton?

    Tencel is easier on energy and water than conventional cotton but not quite as sustainable as recycled cotton.

  • Is Tencel organic?

    Tencel, because it's patented, is always organic.

View Article Sources
  1. Wang, Ya, et al. "Analysis of the Spinning Process and Properties of Tencel Yarn." Journal of Minerals and Materials Characterization and Engineering, vol. 3, 2015, pp. 41-47., doi:10.4236/jmmce.2015.31006

  2. "Sustainability." Tencel.

  3. Shen, Li and Martin K. Patel. "Life Cycle Assessment of Man-Made Cellulose Fibres." Lenzinger Berichte, vol. 88, 2010, pp. 1-59.