FIBRE 101: TENCEL
Everything you wanted to know about the heralded fibre, Tencel. Is it really that good?
Image by Courtney Holm
Fibre 101: Tencel
I often get asked about Tencel. What makes it so special? How is it any different from viscose or rayon? Is Tencel lyocell and is lyocell Tencel? Here I am again (hello!) to bust some myths and tell some truths. I've done a lot of research on this fibre and would love to share it with you.
First of all, what is it and why do I keep capitalising the name Tencel but not other fibres? Here's why- Tencel© is the branded name given to lyocell that's processed in an especially environmentally considerate way by the cellulose fibre innovation company, Lenzing.
So, the question becomes, what is lyocell? Lyocell is a man-made cellulose fibre originating from wood pulp. Its particular process, which is unique from the viscose process, was invented in the 1970s, supposedly as an alternative to viscose that was more environmentally friendly but also to be able to dissolve the wood pulp directly in a solvent. The organic solvent used was N-methylmorpholine oxide, or NMMO, and was first applied by an American subsidiary of the Dutch Akzo Group. Lenzing, an Austrian fibre company, had also been playing around with lyocell and eventually released "Lenzing Lyocell" in 1987, licensing the rights to the technical know-how from Akzo's lyocell process using NMMO.
After years of acquiring knowledge and slowly breaking into a very tough market place dominated by polyester and cotton, Lenzing was finally able to acquire its one major competitor, as well as the production facilities, skills and rights to the name, Tencel. Thus in 2004, Lenzing Lyocell became Lenzing Tencel. As much as Tencel's mostly closed loop process is romanticised, the method of re-using the solvent over and over was primarily developed because of its sheer expense. Today, Lenzing Tencel is 99.8% closed loop in its solvent usage. Its focus, at least from a marketing perspective, is to preserve the environment and provide new breakthroughs in cellulose fibre technology.
There's a lot of confusion about what can and can't be called Tencel, as the name is used on many lyocell products, even if those products aren't actually created by Lenzing. This can pose a problem since the very specific environmental work conducted in the growing, processing and making of the fibres, is totally unique to Lenzing Tencel. This kind of lyocell (the Tencel kind) is a lot harder to find than run-of-the-mill lyocell, yet we still see it on many garment and fabric labels. That's because it has a good reputation, but it's technically incorrect to be labelled that unless it is, of course, made by Lenzing.
Lyocell is less regulated and less transparent than Lenzing Tencel, and therefore is not always the most "eco-friendly" option. There's no way to verify the solvents being used are reclaimed. The wood pulp origin is not traceable, nor is it verified for responsible harvest. It's important to note that there are a lot of environmental issues - from water, land and air pollution to people's health being affected by the production of regenerated cellulose fibres (AKA Man Made Cellulose Fibres or MMCFs), particularly viscose. You can ready more about that on our viscose blog post here.
What about the trees, you ask? First of all, those trees in the photo aren't eucalyptus. If you're from Australia, you'd know that already. The thing is, most eucalyptus trees are native to Australia, and they have been cultivated in other parts of the world for paper making and, more recently, fibre making for textiles. This is an interesting thing to note. There may be some downfalls planting eucalyptus on land where it isn't native. I wonder if there's anyone who knows more about this issue (if it's even an issue) than I do? I'd love to hear from you with any insights.
Back to what I do know. Lenzing are very transparent about the origin of their wood pulp. About 50% of their raw materials come from their own rapid-growing eucalyptus tree farms. The remaining 50% come from neighbouring Western European countries, and are all certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. They have an ongoing relationship with Canopy and continue to asses their impact, especially around deforestation. These trees do not require any irrigation or gene manipulation either, which is something the cotton world is reckoning with.
The great thing about Tencel for me as a designer, and a consumer, is that it is quite versatile. It's strong, not quite as strong as polyester but much stronger than cotton. It lends itself to many different styles of yarn production, from super soft knits, to silky weaves. It's a fantastic blending fibre, is completely biodegradable and, finally, uses a very small amount of water to cultivate the trees and process the fibres and yarns. 100 times more water is required to produce cotton fibre than Tencel (including growing, harvest and production). The solvent used in Tencel is completely non-toxic and certified safe to handle and wear.
Lenzing reckon that the fibre yield is also 10x that of cotton. In other words, where 1 cotton t-shirt can be extracted from 6sqm of soil, you can get ten Tencel t-shirts from the same amount of soil - though I am curious what dataset this is based on, because, if you've read my Fibre 101 on Cotton, you'll know that farm regions produce vastly differing yields and consume vastly different water quantities. Lezing also appear to firmly believe in the cultivation of new "tree farms", that while helping them gain raw material for their product, will simultaneously help filter out air pollution and provide nutrients to soil.
So what's the drawback? Well, Tencel is expensive, much more so than its lyocell relative. It's also not commonly available or accessible to everyone. Tencel fibres might not be suitable for every application and final product outcome. They also still require the use of resources like trees, water and land to cultivate. Depending on how you look at it, Tencel may be lower impact than cotton, but I wonder what would happen if every company in the world ONLY used Tencel? I just don't see how our earth could sustain it. We cannot overlook the potential for deforestation of rainforests when profit is involved. My advice is to begin adding it into our wardrobes as a special and healthy alternative to many of the questionable fibres out there, like polyester, untraceable cotton or conventional silk. Remember, there is no perfect fibre, however a balanced use of healthy ones may just be as close as we'll get.
On that, A.BCH has some lovely Tencel pieces to get you started. Shop all A.BCH Lenzing Tencel pieces here.
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