If you’ve been shopping for eco-friendly clothing, the chances are that you’ve come across Lyocell fabric. More sustainable fashion brands now use this increasingly popular material in their search for eco-friendly alternatives to materials with a higher environmental cost.
Lyocell is often compared with cotton and other semi-synthetic fibers like modal and viscose. It is important to recognize that Tencel is a brand name for a type of lyocell. You’ll find the Tencel line often praised for its sustainable production process. While we also see appealing properties such as breathability, comfort, and softness attributed to Tencel fibers.
If you’re wondering if these claims stack up, this article helps you answer "what is lyocell?" and everything else you might need to know about this sustainable fabric option.
Both generic and Tencel branded lyocell come from plant-based fibers derived primarily from eucalyptus cellulose fibers.
Lyocell is a type of semi-synthetic fiber that we obtain from natural raw materials made up of cellulosic regenerated fibers. What makes it a semi-synthetic fabric is the production process that requires soaking wood cellulose in solutions.
This is a type of rayon fabric that manufacturers make in a similar way as viscose and modal. However, lyocell production uses more sustainable processes and solutions than others, and as a result, its eco-friendly qualities have led some to call it a "miracle fabric."
Producers acquire lyocell from wood pulp, either from eucalyptus trees, birch, or oak. One of the reasons why Tencel fibers have become a popular name is because Lenzing AG is the world’s largest lyocell fiber manufacturer3. Lenzing owns the Tencel brand, and Tencel is the subdivision that produces its semi-synthetic textiles. Aside from Tencel Lyocell, this also includes Tencel Modal.
Fashion brands use Tencel Lyocell to make various styles of clothes, from sustainable activewear and basics to eco-friendly yoga clothes and eucalyptus sheets. This is because they recognize Tencel for its softness, durability, breathability, and sustainability.
Also, some brands mix and blend Tencel fibers with others like cotton, merino wool, nylon, and polyester. For example, bamboo lyocell blends lyocell with another sustainable material, bamboo. However, when combined with less sustainable materials, Tencel / lyocell clothing may not always end up as sustainable as suggested. Once a manufacturer mixes Tencel with synthetic fibers, it begins to lose its eco-friendly features.
Lenzing’s method to generate its textiles makes for another reason why those in the know praise Tencel, created from eucalyptus wood pulp from sustainably managed sources. Lenzing certifies the fibers using the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standard as 100% bio-based.
Elsewhere, rather than less sustainable cotton, you can also find lyocell used in everything from medical dressing to conveyor belts and papers.
You'll find Lyocell has a bit of stretch. Like other plant-based fibers, lyocell blended with other natural fibers adds a little more stretch for everyday fabrics used to make everything from jeans to casual wear.
As a naturally biodegradable fabric with moisture-wicking properties, you'll also find it increasingly popular in the sustainable fashion world and a common choice of sustainable fashion brands.
The production processes of lyocell fibers start with wood. Tencel and Lenzing fibers come from sustainably sourced wood and trees, and they’ve designed an eco-friendly manufacturing process with a minimal carbon footprint.
The procedure involves a closed-loop system that transforms wood pulp into cellulosic fibers. Also, during lyocell production, the manufacturers recover and reuse the solvent. Compared with other rayon manufacturing techniques, lyocell / Tencel manufacturing presents a more eco-friendly system.
The first step is harvesting eucalyptus trees, and then they cut the trunks into tiny wood chips. Afterward, factory workers use a solution of non-toxic N-Methylmorpholine-N-oxide (NMMO) to dissolve and soften the eucalyptus wood chips into pulp. NMMO is an amine oxide that has proved to be an excellent solvent for dissolving cellulose. Usually, they recycle the solvent during manufacturing activity.
Consequently, this process produces a sticky raw cellulose solution. Next, they pass and filter the viscose liquid through spinnerets, which have tiny holes. In turn, the solvent spinning technique generates long, thin fiber threads.
The manufacturers next immerse and set the fibers in diluted amine oxide. Then, they wash the fibers in demineralized water. After drying, the fibers are ready to be spun into yarn. Eventually, the textile fibers are woven into lyocell fabric for apparel and other products like bedsheets.
The origin of cellulose textile fabrics dates back to the 19th century, with researchers and chemists testing ways to develop artificial silk. George Audemars, a Swiss chemist, patented an early version of rayon fiber called artificial silk. He developed a method to take the inner barks of mulberry trees, dissolve them and dip needles in the solution to draw out the thin fibers.
Building on this, Joseph W. Swan, another chemist, conceived an idea. He would take the solution and force it through fine holes. At the time, he was able to generate fibers, yet there was not much interest in the products of his labor. Later in 1891, Count Hilaire de Chardonnet, a French chemist, built the first plant for commercial rayon production.
Later on, between 1966-1968, Eastman Kodak Inc.’s D. L. Johnson reported dissolving compounds in NMMO4. In the following years, an establishment in the United States called American Enka further explored using the NMMO solution and its applicability to producing fabrics.
The researchers set out to create regenerated cellulose fiber. However, they weren’t successful enough to commercialize it. Finally, a research group at Courtaulds, a British establishment, developed a process for producing lyocell fiber. Pat White led this research team in the 1980s.
In 1992, Courtaulds Fibers began operating in Alabama, US. The company created a trademark brand name for its lyocell fiber and fabric - Tencel. Around this period, Lenzing AG, an Austrian company, produced this fiber from wood pulp. They called their lyocell textile Lenzing Lyocell. Later in 2004, Lenzing acquired Courtaulds’ Tencel group.
As a result, Lenzing became a major lyocell producer. Sometimes, brands use Tencel fabric to refer to lyocell. Lenzing has since built a reputation for using innovative technology to produce its materials.
People consider Tencel / lyocell fabric a versatile choice. Brands use it to create products like sustainable t-shirts, bed sheets, activewear, and more. However, the main question is the sustainability of this fiber and if it stands out amongst others.
When people think of eco-friendly fibers, it’s easy for the mind to wander to organic materials and other fabrics like organic cotton and hemp. This section will examine the impacts of Tencel / lyocell on the environment to determine the sustainability of products made from Tencel / lyocell.
We can trace the environmental effects of Tencel and lyocell fabrics from their source or origin. Eucalyptus trees grow at a fast rate. These trees do not require pesticides or irrigation to grow. However, some farming processes require some use of pesticides which can be toxic. Typically, eucalyptus grows on land not fit for food-producing agriculture.
The lifecycle of Tencel / lyocell has a minimal impact on the environment2, which helps create a more sustainable product compared with cotton and synthetic artificial fibers that use more land, pesticides, and fertilizers.
We can recognize the spinning procedure as a green technology that uses non-toxic chemicals. It also reduces water and air emissions. Lenzing claims to have developed a method that enables them to recover about 99% of the solvent in a closed loop.
The amine oxide solvent used to break down cellulosic fibers is non-toxic compared with the chemicals manufacturers use for viscose rayon. The manufacturers recycle the solvent during operations. Therefore, it doesn’t release harmful byproducts into the environment, and no chemical intermediates are formed - unlike other fibers produced using synthetic chemicals.
A primary environmental concern with generic lyocell fibers is the energy used during manufacturing and dissolving wood pulp and its knock-on ecological impacts on our climate.
As a result, it is important to track the source or manufacturer of lyocell material when purchasing. Also, if the manufacturer does not grow the trees in sustainable forests, this causes an environmental issue.
Various brands on the market use Tencel to make their products. Some of them include:
MATE the Label offers clean essentials using low-impact dyes and natural and organic fabrics. They use Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified materials and offer a collection of sleepwear pieces offering long-lasting softness utilizing a blend of Tencel Lyocell and organic cotton. MATE the Label describes their cotton-Tencel blend as “the next best thing to sleeping naked.”
Tentree seeks to champion transparency. The team carefully selects the material they use for each piece, making sure it upholds their sustainability values. Its material bank includes Tencel lyocell fabric, organic cotton, hemp, and recycled polyester.
Patagonia designs outdoor wear and gear for sports such as climbing, surfing, skiing, and snowboarding. A leading brand with a sustainability ethos, they continue to seek the means to reduce energy use and emissions during their manufacturing processes. Patagonia uses Tencel lyocell and other sustainable fabrics to make its clothes.
Athleta creates lyocell clothes often blended with other fabrics that integrate technical features and performance for girls and women. From athletic wear to yoga wear, Athleta provides sustainable options for activewear. Athleta is B Corp certified and uses fabrics like organic cotton, Tencel Lyocell, and Tencel Modal.
Organic Basics uses eco-certified materials to create its underwear, activewear, dress shirts, and essentials. Some of these materials include GOTS Certified organic cotton and Tencel lyocell. Whether you’re looking for a shirt, dress, sweater, or denim piece, Organic Basics stocks essentials while recognizing the textile industry’s impact and seeking to make positive changes.
Mother of Pearl is a luxury sustainable womenswear establishment based in London. It celebrates individuality, authenticity, and sustainability. The brand uses eco-friendly materials like organic cotton and Tencel to make its pieces.
Tencel lyocell manufactured sustainably compares favorably when compared with conventionally grown cotton. People often regard cotton as a thirsty crop because it requires a substantial amount of water to grow. Also, farmers use pesticides and other chemicals while growing cotton. They do not require these potential pollutants for eucalyptus farming that produces the raw materials for the viscose process used to make Tencel lyocell.
Tencel Lyocell is a more sustainable rayon option than modal. It requires an organic solution to produce it, compared with sodium hydroxide that many manufacturers use to make modal. However, people often celebrate Tencel Modal due to Lenzing’s procedures to create cellulose textiles.
Viscose manufacturing requires sodium hydroxide, which Tencel / Lyocell does not need. Regarding the finished products, lyocell clothing is more breathable and moisture-absorbent than viscose and other synthetic fibers.
Does lyocell shrink? Typically, your new lyocell garment can shrink a little on the first wash.
How to wash lyocell? Lyocell is a delicate material; therefore, like other natural materials, it is best washed on a gentle cycle in the machine or by hand. Cold water with a gentle detergent is the best bet to keep your new lyocell garment at its best. Drip dry and avoid harsh detergents or conditioners. Iron lyocell with a warm iron only if needed, and no hotter.
Like all clothes, pay attention to the label as manufacturing processes can vary.
In general, you’ll note the importance of knowing the source or manufacturers of the lyocell product you want to purchase. The source will determine the level of sustainability of the product. For instance, Tencel is a well-known lyocell brand that clothing brands patronize for its transparency and sustainable practices producing some of the most sustainable fabrics.
As a result, it’s easy to get the latest information on the sustainable material you’re buying through a simple web search so you can ensure you're buying an environmentally friendly option.
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Choudhury, A. K. R. (2017). Sustainable chemical technologies for textile production. In Sustainable Fibres and textiles (pp. 267-322). Woodhead Publishing.
Chen, J. (2015). Synthetic textile fibers: regenerated cellulose fibers. In Textiles and Fashion (pp. 79-95). Woodhead Publishing.
Chen, J. (2015). Synthetic textile fibers: regenerated cellulose fibers. In Textiles and Fashion (pp. 79-95). Woodhead Publishing.
Love, E. W., & Nedorost, S. T. (2009). Fabric preferences of atopic dermatitis patients. Dermatitis, 20(1), 29-33
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.