Tencel / Lyocell Fabric: The Basics

I’m a neophile, always on the lookout for what’s “new,” interesting, undiscovered.  Naturally, this extends to my fabric choices.  On top of that, I like to use “eco” fabrics.  I fell hard for hemp from the first skirt I made with it, and that love ripened into calm predictability.  When I need a cool, comfortable, hard-wearing fabric, I turn to hemp.

I also sew with organic cotton, linen (most of which is defacto organic at the very least) and bamboo fabrics.  When Sewco started carrying Tencel/Linen blends, I snapped up several meters in black and white.  Later I dyed some of the white Tencel blue.  I had heard of Tencel, I knew it had mad awesome “eco” qualifications, but I had no idea why.   I was pleased to find a “new fabric” for experimentation, but thought I should do some research before slicing up my new fabric.

Firstly, Tencel is the brand name, and Lyocell is the generic name.  I’ll refer to it as Tencel because it’s more familiar.  Tencel is made from wood pulp, apparently eucalyptus wood, in somewhat the same way as rayon.  It’s neither a “natural” fiber (meaning it occurs in nature), nor a “synthetic” (it is biodegradable).  It falls into the slim category of “man-made natural fibers.”

What sets Tencel apart from regular rayon?  It is created using a “closed-loop” production process.  That means the fabrics are created with zero waste, using sustainable energy sources.  I have a healthy suspicion of such claims, but I have found many varied sources that attest to Tencel’s excellent production practices.  Read more about Tencel production on Organic Clothing Blog.

That’s all well and fine and wonderful, but what’s it like to sew?  To wear?  How does it wash?  Can I tailor it, or should I stick to simple shapes?  I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I’ll find out as I sew with it.

I have read that Tencel:

I already used Tencel in my Social Dress, the blue will go to finish my 30’s skirt, the black for my husband’s new shorts, and a little left to play with.  I’ll be sure to keep track of how it wears.  Of course, I’ll report back with my findings!

It’s not a common fabric, I only found two sources:

FashionFabricsClub- I have never used this Tencel
Silk Road Textile Merchants- Unfortunately, their Tencels are not online, but I bet they could help you if you emailed themDo you own any Tencel clothing?  Have you ever sewn with it?  Do you sew with “green” fabrics?  If you know any other sources of Tencel fabric (or nettle, I’m desperate for nettle) please link me!

(Notice the new icon?  That’s the Consulting Dressmaker, I’ll introduce her to you tomorrow!)


35 comments

  1. Oh yay! I’m so glad you are posting on this. I’ve really been thinking about the new cellulose fabrics, and especially their green claims. Apparently they have been making a huge stir at all the big textile expos in the states.

    I’m really interested in how your tencel sews and wears. Pity that it is so hard to find. I’d be somewhat dubious of what FashionFabricsClub is selling. Their fabrics are often NOT AT ALL what they are advertised as. I wouldn’t trust that it was tencel unless it says so on the selvedges when it arrives.

    I love the new icon – I noticed it right away. I can’t wait to ‘meet’ her!

    • Yes, I may go to Sewco and ask them to put the Tencel online. It feels like really good stuff, and I’ve been rather rough with it.

      I’m interested in the “pilling” that happens… Linen is a plant with long fibers that will break completely before they pill, so I wonder if blending tencel with linen results in a smoother fabric? We’ll see.

      Thanks for the tip on fashion fabrics… I have ordered a few things here and there from them, no complaints but I might just have lucked out…

  2. I shall look forward to hearing about your experience. I have some charcoal gray tencel from Sewco in my stash. I bought it with loose summer pants or a skirt in mind. At one point I remember Tencel jeans being the thing to have (and they always felt soft in the store) but I haven’t seen it around recently (not that I have been hunting too hard). Did it accept the dye well?

    • Yes, I would say it accepted the dye with eye-blinding brilliance. I’m actually rather hoping the color fades down a little over time. ;)

    • I only just found out myself, very interesting… It’s a little wiggly to cut, like rayon… I just used extra pins and it settled down well enough.

  3. I have made a dress from a Tencel twill. I love the drape but it definitely does not resist wrinkles. And it shrinks like the dickens. I love your consulting dressmaker icon!

  4. I have to admit my memories of Tencel are some floppy jeans I had in the 90s that looked odd but felt lovely! Maybe it is time to get over my prejudices and give it a go? I look forward to hearing how it all goes for you :D

  5. When I had my online fabric business, I occasionally came across Tencel and also cupro (similar to Tencel) and I would snatch it up for resale. It is very drapey. And I have found it washes similar to rayon.
    I never came across it in weights that could be used for tailoring. It was always dress and blouse weight. Tencel denim is to die for, truly soft and drapey and the colour always seemed so rich.
    Now I never see it, our local fabric store wouldnt’ have a clue what it is.
    What I saw of it, I really liked.

    • Tencel denim? Surely a jacket could be fashioned from that? Either soft and unconstructed or rigorously underlined… Hmmm…

      Thanks for the tip, it’s interesting to hear about your experiences with tencel.

  6. I did alterations for a high-end dress shop in the mid-90s. The Tencel garments that the owner stocked (it was a new fiber then — has been around almost 20 years by now) acted as much like rayon as any other fiber. Could just have been the weight used in the slacks, skirts and jackets she stocked; I’m sure that heavier weights act more like a similar-weight linen or cotton. I liked the stuff. Could never have afforded her prices myself, so never wore garments made of this fiber. Have only infrequently seen Tencel in fabric stores — but then, there are few real fabric stores in existence at all anymore in NC, USA.

    • The fabric is a little more expensive than what I’d normally pay, but I figure if it performs well that’s the trade-off.. We’ll see..

      I didn’t realize it was 20 years old… I remember seeing it about ten years ago but never understood what it was so left it alone. I wonder if there’s been a development in manufacture or a marketing push since then?

      • I hope there’s been a big enough marketing push that I can soon buy some locally to try out (am too much of a dinosaur to trust mail-order fabrics). Customers reported that the fabric acts like an all-natural fiber when you wear it. Haven’t read anything about how it decomposes in a compost situation. Wool, linen, cotton and rayon break down pretty well in my own little bin. I’m guessing that lyocell would also rot reliably.

  7. Yay! Thanks for all this! I remember when rayon first showed up (in the age of RTW challis probably) it pilled like crazy. so I’m curious about longevity and how a new fabric wears-in. Can I assume from what you’ve said that something labeled “lyocell” is not necessarily made in a zero-waste facility? Do both lyocell and bamboo (another man-made natural fiber) both fall under the general category of rayon because they are still cellulose?
    I treated myself to some organic cotton sheets after your fabric recommendation. Thanks!!

    • Tencel is the brand name from the company that first developed it, but I understand the technology has been shared to a certain extent because it’s a good closed-loop system.. So I *believe* they’re the same, it’s just the name. If it’s “tencel” then you can be sure it’s made exactly that way, and with “lyocell” it probably is, but maybe not because it’s made by another company.

      Bamboo comes in two types- the commoner form is exactly like a rayon, which means the cell structure has been processed into fibers. It is not like tencel, because most rayon uses harsh solvents and etc to process the fibers. Tencel doesn’t.

      The other, less common type of bamboo comes from beating down the stalks to release the natural fibers, then softening it and spinning the threads. Kind of like linen production. It’s a stiffer, sturdier fabric usually.

  8. I had RTW blouses and skirts in Tencel that, yes, wrinkled (some) but wore like crazy and kept their jewel-like colors through many washings. I’m looking forward to learning more about sewing with and finding Tencel..

    An aside: I purchased some beautiful cupro from Julie Culshaw (hi!) several years ago and dear husband longs for the promised shirt from it…

    • Ah- thanks for that, I’m feeling a little better about investing in several meters of it. :)

      What a small world. Make the shirt! :)

  9. I remember tencel jeans were VERY popular when I was a teenager in Australia. They were very soft and very thin, but my mother refused to buy me any because they crushed easily and looked saggy in the butt, had terrible VPL and the material wore badly – basically the opposite of how jeans traditionally wear. I’m curious to see if tencel has changed any in 15 years.

    Love the new icon!

    • Note to self- do not make tencel jeans. Ever.

      I would suspect the quality of the fabric has changed, but I couldn’t say for sure… We’ll see.

  10. Ooo, I like the icon!

    I’d like to get into using more green fabrics. I don’t buy fabric online, though, and the selection here isn’t that great. Although that said, i have discovered a few other fabric stores in the last couple months, so maybe I’ll have to check them out and see what they have.

    I’m extremely curious about bamboo jersey/cotton/whatever it is that you use for knit tops, and that’s entirely your fault. :D

    • You can always request the fabrics. I get the idea that the fabric is out there, but maybe the retailers don’t know we want it.

      I like organic cotton jersey (when I can find it) and hemp jersey, and sometimes bamboo though I find the quality of bamboo varies wildly and I’m looking for a reliable source for bamboo jersey that doesn’t pill. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

  11. Oh, sounds interesting! I’m very keen to know more about the wrinkle-resistance, particularly after reading the comments above.

    I love the *idea* of cotton and linen, for all the reasons you’ve previously written about, but I don’t like either wrinkled outfits or ironing so I’m looking mostly to silks. My work wardrobe has to be fairly formal, and I always look for softness against the skin rather than crispness in materials.

  12. Do you find that silk wrinkles less? What kind of silk? I think it has almost as much to do with the weave as with the fiber content of the fabric… I have a “basketweave” pique cotton skirt and it’s nearly impossible to wrinkle the thing. Of course, it is a little heavy but it’s not hot…

    Very interesting…

    • Yes, thus far. I always do a crinkle test in the shop.

      I’ve had luck with shantung (the really nice stuff is not too shiny for daytime) and woven (basketweave?) varieties and I have a piece of fine, smooth Italian silk (remnant from Gardams, almost affordable) which has been sitting folded on a shelf, awaiting it’s destiny as a simple top – it hasn’t creased at all.

  13. I remember having a pair of tencel jeans some 15-20 years ago (and now I feel old). Apart from tracksuit pants they were probably the most un-jeans-like pair of pants I’ve ever owned, but by gosh they felt lovely. Incredibly soft and drapey, and they never faded. Since I was in my early teens at the time, I don’t now remember anything else about them – how they fit, how much they cost, how long they lasted – but they were so comfy, and they LOOKED just like denim. Very clever. I’ve avoided tencel since in the belief that it was another proper-man-made, but I’ll keep an eye out for it now.

  14. It’s interesting to see people’s reflections of their Tencel jeans from the 90’s (must have been an Aussie thing). My recollections are closer to Sarah’s. They were a must have wardrobe item at the time and they felt and looked gorgeous. I don’t remember excessive wrinkling/sagginess. I just remember loving them! If I recall correctly they were more of a wide leg style and they were closer to a navy blue than a true “denim” colour. They felt gorgeous.

    I could imagine some gorgeous dresses made using tencel…

    • Must have, and yes- it’s so interesting!

      I’m kind of toying with the idea of making that weird quirky black and white 40’s dress in tencel and something else…. Hmmm… Depends on how “outre” I want it to look…

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