by Elizabeth Burton
Though countless have heard the term, many still wonder: "What is Tencel?" Tencel -- also known in its unbranded form as lyocell -- is an eco-friendly fiber derived from the eucalyptus tree, popular in some circles since the 1980s. The article “Lyocell, the Fabric of the Future” from Lyocell.info outlines the history, manufacturing process and uses of Tencel and lyocell. According to the article, lyocell -- and by extension Tencel -- is a cellulosic fiber that falls somewhere between natural and artificially synthesized. The article explains that “the main raw material for lyocell is the cellulose from wood pulp,” making it a natural fiber. After the wood is harvested, the pulp is processed in a way that chemically breaks it down before it is combined with other elements. This dual process pulp is then “reformed into easily woven fibers.” This makes the fiber partially synthetic. The article argues that this defines lyocell -- or Tencel -- as a “recovered or regenerated fiber” rather than simply a synthetic or natural fiber. Tencel is now known as a "natural eucalyptus fiber," as it is primarily derived from the eucalyptus tree.
When Was the Natural Eucalyptus Fiber Invented?
The paper “Wet Spinning of Synthetic Polymer Fibers” by H Karakas for Sustainable Fibers notes that Tencel originates from the UK in the '80s. Today, the Austrian company Lenzing AG controls the Tencel brand in addition to several other lyocell fiber brands. Tencel has since been applied in multiple facets of daily and specialized use, including performance-wear, home linens, fashion clothing and much more.
What is the Difference Between Tencel and Lyocell?
Tencel and lyocell are often mentioned interchangeably in conversation about sustainable fibers and innovation fabrics. This might cause consumers to wonder if they are -- in fact -- the same exact material. The article “What Are Lyocell, Modal & TENCEL? A Short Guide About Their Uses, How They’re Made, & More” by Better Meets Reality outlines the differences between lyocell and Tencel. According to Better Meets Reality, the primary difference between Tencel and lyocell is that “lyocell is its own type of fiber." This is as opposed to Tencel, which "is a specialized brand and type of the fiber lyocell.” In plain terms, this means that the two are different materials derived from similar basic units and processed similarly.
Tencel is basically a branded version of lyocell with more intensive and strict methods of manufacturing. These methods focus on sustainability and observing a closed-loop process of production. Both lyocell and Tencel chemically dissolve wood pulp before processing it into fiber. However, lyocell may or may not be processed in a closed-loop system the way Tencel is. In short, Tencel “is a specialized brand and type of the fiber Lyocell – it’s the most well known lyocell fiber.” Both Tencel and lyocell are considered rayon fibers. Rayon is any fabric created from processed cellulose. It is typically derived from the pulp of oak, natural eucalyptus or birch trees and is -- at one point -- chemically treated.
What is Tencel Like Today?
How Does Eco-Friendly Tencel Fabric Feel?
Consumers often describe Tencel and lyocell fabrics as smooth, somewhat elastic and a bit heavier than other fabrics like cotton and silk. In her article “Everything You Need to Know About Tencel Fabric” for Good Housekeeping, writer Lexie Sachs notes that Tencel fibers simply “feel amazing.” Tencel tends to be light, moisture-wicking and cool to the touch when compared to other natural fibers. It is also generally smoother to the touch than other fabrics, as it is much less likely to wrinkle than bamboo, cotton and linen. Recent buyers of this Tencel bedsheet set describe the lyocell sheets as “silky” and “super soft and thicker than the standard sheets.” They are also described as “cool all night long” and “temperature controlled.” Because Tencel fabric is antimicrobial and hypoallergenic, it is also gentle on sensitive skin. This quality of Tencel is evidenced by a recent review of the same Tencel bedsheet set. The reviewer described the sheets as “perfect for those suffering with itchy, eczema prone skin.”
Who Uses Tencel?
Sustainable brand still struggle to balance production cost with commitment to the environment, while still competing against fashion fashion and furniture brands which use outdated or unethical practices
According to the article “What Is Tencel And Is It Eco-Friendly?” from Conscious Life and Style, famous fashion brands have jumped on Tencel. A few of the best known include brands like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher and Madewell -- all of which design clothing with Tencel fabric. In her article “6 companies using fabric derived from trees” for Business Insider, Francesca Rea explains why fashion and home brands made the switch. Quoting Matt Dwyer -- DMI of Patagonia -- Rea writes that the outdoor-wear company chose to shift their fabric choices towards sustainable fibers like Tencel after learning about the effects of in-field production as opposed to factory production.
Dwyer explains that Patagonia’s “environmental assessments revealed [that] because the polyisoprene polymer [the “tree fabric” they use] was produced in trees instead of factories using solar energy instead of generated electricity, up to around 80% less climate-altering CO2 was emitted in the manufacturing process when compared to traditional neoprene.” Home goods brands like Olive + Crate have chosen to market their products around the sustainability and minimal environmental impact of Tencel fibers. They emphasize Tencel's eco-friendly production just as much as their superior feel and use in the home goods space.
Growing Public Interest in Sustainable Fibers like Tencel
Google Trends data over the last fifteen years demonstrates a rapid increase in interest in sustainable fashion between 2015 and today.
Over the past twenty years, interest in sustainability has skyrocketed in the United States and abroad. As depicted above, US Google Trends data over the last two decades have shown a steady climb in attention paid towards sustainable fashion. Interest in fast fashion and sustainability in general has also been piqued. The last few months have seen an even more inclined rate of interest, with Google Trends tracking the activity. Google Trends has recently noted a more than 5,000% increase -- known as a “breakout” search term -- in searches “What is fast fashion?” Other breakout terms in recent days have included “sustainable clothing,” “sustainable brands,” “green fashion,” “fast fashion documentary” and “fast fashion environment.” Given this long-trending upward tick in attention paid towards sustainability, it should come as no surprise that searches for alternative fibers are rising too.
Google Trends data over the last ten years demonstrates a steady increase in interest in sustainable fashion between 2010 and today.
Tencel -- the natural eucalyptus fiber -- is currently a breakout star on Google Trends just as sustainable fashion is. The terms “TENCEL fabric,” “TENCEL sheets,” “what is TENCEL,” “TENCEL shirt,” “TENCEL pillow,” “TENCEL material" and “TENCEL lyocell material” are exploding on Google. In addition to these, eighteen other Tencel-related terms have emerged as “breakout” search terms on Google. Tencel reached an all-time search high on the engine in 2019, with comparable numbers following throughout the past year. Lyocell and bamboo have been similarly popular, with an incredible increase in interest over the last few years in both.
Clearly, Tencel, lyocell and other trends rooted in sustainability are here for the long haul. Tencel’s superior feel, durability and strength -- combined with its closed-loop production -- make the fiber an excellent choice for fashion, home goods and performance wear. The sky certainly appears to be the limit for semi-synthetic fibers like Tencel.