THE SUSTAINABLE MATERIAL GUIDEBOOK - PART 2:
WHAT ACTUALLY IS TENCEL?
By Talitha Ward
In this second instalment of The Sustainable Material Guidebook, we are delving into everything Tencel – from what it is, to how it’s made and, most importantly, what makes it one of our favourite sustainable textiles.
A brand, a fiber, a material? Tencel has remained a mystery, even to those of us who pride ourselves in our sustainability efforts. Being a more conscious consumer is not always easy in an industry founded on capitalism and driven by consumerist behaviour. In this second instalment of The Sustainable Material Guidebook, we are pulling the veil from the mystical Tencel that seems to be taking over our wardrobe and our feeds more than ever.
Recently made popular in mainstream fashion and in the sustainable sector, some in the industry have gone on to launch entire brands around Tencel clothing. Unbeknownst to many, this trendy fiber has a deceptively long history, dating all the way back to 1838 when cellulose was first discovered. However, it only truly became relevant in the fashion-sphere when artificial silk (or rayon) production began in the 1890s. As environmental concerns surrounding rayon became more prominent, Tencel was developed as a sustainable solution. So, to break it down, Tencel is the trademarked brand name belonging to Austrian company, Lenzing. The generic term for
Tencel is lyocell, however, due to its widespread use, Tencel is what you will likely see and hear most often where lyocell is concerned. To simplify the relationship, think of Tencel’s correlation to lyocell as Hoover is to vacuum cleaner or Google is to search engine.
Tencel is what is known as semi-synthetic; it is made from wood pulp, the cellulose fibers of trees. The chips of hardwood trees are broken down and softened into a pulp which is washed and dried into sheets. After being broken down, pressurised and heated in amine oxide, these sheets dissolve into a clear liquid. This clear liquid is cellulose which is transformed into fibers by being filtered and pumped through spinnerets. After sitting in amine oxide for a second time and being washed with demineralised water, the cellulose is now lyocell fibers. These fibers are dried and lubricated before being compressed, carded and cut.
Now, we know what you’re thinking, and, in a green-washed world, you are more than justified to have suspicions. A large environmental concern of cellulose fibers is the sourcing of wood, which, in the case of rayon and viscose, can often be traced back to endangered plantations. However, going back to our Tencel vs. lyocell point – not all lyocell is made the same. When producing Tencel, Lenzing strictly works in partnership with PEFC and FSC to only source from sustainably managed forests rather than contribute to deforestation and climate change. That alone gets Tencel its first point from us!
You thought it couldn’t get better? Wait for it. This incredible eco-fiber is manufactured using a closed-loop solvent system. The typical procedures of processing, treating and dying textiles often release an exponential volume of emissions into our atmosphere; not to mention, creating potentially life-threatening conditions for the health and wellbeing of textile workers. In the treatment phase, Lenzing uses a process called NMMO. By operating with this system, a jaw dropping 99% of emissions released are repeatedly recaptured and reused. And, to put the cherry on top of the (very sustainable) cake, the main chemical used, amine oxide, is non-toxic, making it safe for textile workers, unlike the dangerously toxic carbon disulfide used in the production of viscose.
It is easy to see why Tencel has become an increasingly popular choice amongst designers and manufacturers alike. Sustainability aside, it is loved for its versatility and adaptability that allow it to mimic various fabrics from suede and linen to cotton and silk. This naturally wrinkle- and shrink-resistant textile is also incredibly absorbent due to its wood-origins, meaning it requires less product in the dyeing process than cotton. The typical dyeing of fabrics can involve intensive rounds of dyeing and rinsing which can be unbelievably toxic to textile workers, nearby water sources and communities. So, Tencel gets another point from us!
While cellulose-derived fabrics have been around for going on 200 years, Tencel - with its botanic origin, organic solvents and use of renewable energy - leads the pack with its sustainability credentials and minimal environmental impact. This biodegradable fabric is a gamechanger for consumers taking steps towards a more conscious and cleaner wardrobe.
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