The inside scoop: TENCEL™
Stacked against other plant-based fabrics, this smooth and silky option delivers ultimate comfort and sustainability
As outdoor companies merge technical apparel with casual wear, light and versatile fabrics like TENCEL™ are growing ever-more popular. Now you can find this plant-based fabric in everything from Patagonia boxers to performance tees at Ortovox.
This is a good thing, as TENCEL™ is not only biodegradable, but also requires a lot less dye than cotton-based fabrics. For environmentalists and fashion-forward adventurers alike, TENCEL™ is gaining popularity like a breath of fresh air: welcome and invigorating. Of course, its impacts on the environment aren’t perfect, but the fact that this plant-based fabric is helping usher in a new era of outdoor apparel is most certainly deserving of applause.
With a feel like silk, the coolness of linen, more than the absorption of cotton, clothing made from TENCEL™ is an obvious choice for those who appreciate both a soft next-to-skin feel and the sweat-wicking properties of traditional activewear. It’s drapey characteristics and easy-to-dye composition has introduced a whole new level of fashion-forward aesthetic into performance apparel.
And from an environmental perspective, TENCEL™ has a lot to bring to the table. Sustainably made comfortable pants and cute tops need not suffer: active dresses, versatile button-ups, and yoga pants all provide a sampling of what TENCEL™ has been built to deliver.
Kaytlin Moeller, the sustainability manager for Royal Robbins, a brand that champions the use of TENCEL™, explains what sets it apart from other natural and plant-based fibers and fabrics is in how the fibers are harvested and produced.
TENCEL™ is made from wood, which is turned into a pulp and spun into fibers. “Sourcing from forests that aren’t managed responsibly and harsh chemical processing methods are a risk with conventional modal,” Moeller explains. But she points to data from The Higg Index, a measurement toolkit designed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to help determine a company or product’s sustainability performance.
The Higg Index’s Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) compares TENCEL™ to generic viscose (another plant-pulp process), conventional cotton, and polyester. TENCEL™ has lower scores in its impact on water scarcity, eutrophication (when a body of water becomes too saturated with minerals and nutrients, which induce excessive algae growth), and fossil fuel depletion. Overall, its MSI ranks best among the cohort.
Because of this positive sustainability aspect, Royal Robbins uses TENCEL™ fibers for a wide variety of garments “from woven shirts, pants, and shorts to knit tops, tanks and dresses,” Moeller explains. It creates a product consumers have come to love. TENCEL™ fibers “are naturally structured to regulate the absorption and release of moisture and help move sweat away from the skin. This contributes to the breathability and natural temperature regulating performance of the fabrics keeping the wearer comfortable and dry during a variety of outdoor and urban adventures and activities such as hiking or sightseeing.”
Tencel, a history
In 1972, a team of material engineers in North Carolina figured out how to dissolve wood and then spin it into a fine, fabric-making yarn that made a new type of fabric that was later coined “tencel.” The concept moved through several different hands, and different fabric iterations, before settling in the realm of an Austrian company, Lenzing AG.
Ever since, Lenzing AG has been the most prominent purveyor of tencel, and thus such wood-pulp fabric itself has universally become known as TENCEL™ — it’s a case of branding with the same relationship as Kleenex and tissues. While a few other, smaller manufacturers of tencel exist in the world, Lenzing AG is the most popular and experienced producer.
There are now technically two types of TENCEL™: Lyocell and Modal. The differences are subtle, but boil down to the type of wood and how the threads are treated. Modal tends to be lighter and sometimes a bit finer, while the process for Lyocell can make waste a bit easier to filter.
From wood to wearable: the process
Moeller explains the process for manufacturing depends on whether it’s of the Lyocell or Modal variety, but both are derived from sustainably managed forests, she says.
For the Lyocell version of TENCEL™, eucalyptus is mostly harvested, but there can also include a blend of other tree types such as acacia, aspen, birch, maple, and southern pine, all “from certified and controlled sources,” Moeller says. “Then the wood pulp is transformed into cellulosic fibers by a closed loop, solvent-spinning process which recycles water and reuses the solvent at a rate of more than 99%. Fibers are then knit or woven, sometimes independently and other times as a blend with other fibers into fabrics.”
Then with the Modal version, its beech wood, “primarily in or near Austria. Like Lyocell, a solvent spinning process is used. Lenzing uses renewable energy and strives to recover the process chemicals. Fibers can then be combined with other fiber types to create fabrics.”
Over time, the manufacturing of TENCEL™ textiles has grown more efficient in terms of its water and chemical use. The general process of turning bamboo into a fabric can be broken down into a few basic steps:
- Harvest trees and wood scraps, break into chips;
- Soak the chips in a chemical solvent that softens and breaks down the wood into a sticky, wet mixture;
- Push mixture through a screen with tight holes, forming threads;
- Spin the threads so they elongate;
- Treat the threads with chemicals to retain colors and shapes;
- Weave the yarn into fabric.
The pros, and the cons
“Oftentimes the comparisons aren’t straightforward,” Moeller explains. “For example, one material may have high impact on water scarcity while another may have high impact on emissions. One of the benefits of Tencel is Lenzing’s holistic approach to sustainability. They have evaluated energy, chemical, water, and raw material usage. As well as integrity of the source forests and end of life of their product.”
Sharon Perez, the Business Development Manager, U.S. Activewear for Lenzing, elaborates on this point, too: “Beech wood used at the Lenzing site is sourced from sustainably managed semi-natural forests in Austria and neighboring countries. It is harvested from certified or controlled sources following the stringent guidelines of the Lenzing Wood and Pulp Policy.”
Beech wood forests, she explains, are a natural and renewable source of raw material. Beech trees also grow naturally, without the use of chemical fertilizers or artificial irrigation. “The pulp production is self-sufficient in terms of energy while supplying a significant amount of bioenergy for the entire fiber production at the production site.”
In sum, while TENCEL™ might cost more to produce than other plant-based fabrics, its modal production causes around 80 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than other modal fabrics, according to Higg MSI scores—and that’s an environmental saving hard to ignore.
Other benefits of using TENCEL™ lyocell “include the traceable and sustainable origin of the wood pulp, and the use of a closed loop solvent and water recycling process,” Patagonia’s website says. The company also notes a goal they’re working to achieve soon: that all TENCEL® fiber used in Patagonia products be “generated from cellulose waste streams rather than from virgin materials.” Time and technology will tell when this high-level form of recycling takes root; hopefully it happens soon.
Caring for TENCEL™ apparel
Of course exact care will depend on the fabric construction and precise fiber blend, “but in general TENCEL™ Lyocell and Modal are easy care and machine washable,” Moeller says.
For many, a major TENCEL™ perk is just how easy it is to care for. The fabric naturally resists wrinkles and when compared to polyester TENCEL™ “provides a less favorable environment for bacterial growth,” Moeller says.
There’s “no need to feel stressed about body odor ever again,” explains the artisanal apparel company Wolk, based in Belgium. “Tencel fibers transport moisture directly to the fiber core, keeping the surface of your tencel T-shirt or sweater dry. The result: up to 2000 times less bacteria grow on tencel fibers than on synthetic fibers, eliminating body odor effectively.”
Also, it’s non-allergenic for all those with sensitive skin.
“From my perspective, the future with TENCEL™ is growing,” Moeller says. “There is good brand recognition among customers and, as sustainability becomes an increasingly important factor in buying practices, Tencel provides an alternative to traditional fibers.”
With opportunities to make activity-prone clothes look better, feel better and do better for the environment, TENCEL™ is an obvious choice for many manufacturers, designers, and consumers. Keep your eye out as offerings grow.
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.