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What in the World is Tencel Fabric?

At the end of World War II, the company Lenzing have seen the destruction during their time to help German troops of Austria to produce viscose fabric for their military supplies. Viscose fibers are made by using the pulp of trees to create a cloth material. While it was a durable material, tree supply ran low over time.

Until the near late 20th century, two semi-synthetic fibers, lyocell and modal, were invented to help increase sustainability for trees. Lenzing decided to later combine these fibers into a new and improved clothing material that will be later called Tencel.

Now, Tencel fabric could be in almost anything by seaming it on a cloth product as a finish, combined with other fibers to create a new type of fabric, or by itself. And eventually, it helped pave the way to search for better solutions to sustain forests while creating less waste for the planet.

The question is what made it possible. Considering Tencel carried chemicals within its fibers, it's unsure why it's a more eco-friendly fabric than all-natural fabric such as cotton. In this article, we'll be going over how Tencel was created, its qualities, and why it helps the environment.

What is Tencel, Exactly?

Tencel is actually the name of the company that produces the fabric. Its parent company, Lenzing, has been a sustainable producer for over 80 years. They started creating paper from cloth waste until World War II. Lenzing became part of the war effort with the German troops of Austria providing a cloth fabric called viscose, the first semi-synthetic made of sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide. 

Near the end of the war, Lenzing and the German military recognized a shortage in supplies on trees that prevented them from manufacturing any more military goods. After the war was finished, the company was on a mission to find a way to keep their fabrics with sustainable resources. A couple years later, the company managed to combine two semi-synthetic materials into their own unique cloth.

The first one is modal. It was invented in 1951 in Japan as an alternative to silk. Its name came from the term used to describe the fiber, High Wet Modulus fabric, and made similarly to viscose. The fibers are made of beech trees wood chips that are first submerged into sodium hydroxide to extract the cellulose. They are then taken to a bath of carbon disulfide to form sodium cellulose xanthate. Finally, they take one final soak into the sodium hydroxide, washed and rinsed to be ready for clothing manufacture.

21 years later, America Enka came up with their alternative fabric, lyocell, the second material. This fabric is in almost everything to create a long-lasting material with other fabrics. It's also made from eucalyptus trees, specifically their pulp. The pulp is put through a bath of N-Methylmorpholine and N-oxide (NMMO). Then, it becomes a clear liquid that is pushed through spinnerets, creating long, thin fibers. Finally, the fibers are washed, dried, and separated to prepare for clothing manufacturing.

The Benefits of Tencel


Tencel fabric is a very light-weighted material that is super soft and flexible. Because of its ability to stretch, it makes it comfortable for exercising. Unlike other fabrics, it's 50% more absorbent compared to other fabrics. This helped keep its color, prevent sweat stains, and become machine washable without any odors left behind.


With the combination of lyocell and modal, Tencel fabric makes it a very durable material that withstands tearing. The fibers are tightened thanks to being made out of tree pulp cellulose. They help maintain the fabric without any shrinking and wrinkling occurring. However, it can take damage if it's washed rigorously by hand or in harsh machine-washed settings.


Since modal and lyocell are alternatives fibers for silk, it has a shiny surface. When hung or clinging onto an attachment, it can drape over. Similar to cotton, Tencel can be seam into different textiles. While on a microscopic level, they are tight, clumpy fibers.


In addition to its moisture absorbency, Tencel does not absorb bacteria such as the ones from your sweat. This is to prevent any odors from building in the fabric and any allergy reactions. However, it is not hypoallergenic as the fiber-making process may contain materials you could be allergic to.

Tencel vs Cotton

For ages, cotton has grown to be widely used in almost anything. Around the world, there is a total of 62 different types of cotton fabrics made as Egyptian cotton is the highest quality cotton you can purchase. To understand why cotton is still used today, we also need to look at why Tencel can be a great alternative to cotton.

The cotton fiber process starts out by picking the cotton from the boll part of the cotton crop. It is then sent to gins to be fluffed and cleansed of any dirt and seeds.  Next, it is compressed and shipped to the textile mills. Finally, it finished its journey by having the fibers separated and woven into fiber strands.

Cotton is an all-natural fiber that is very versatile. It can be used for comfortable loungewear and create insulation for winter clothing. It's strong enough to resist tearing, and its fiber structure makes it a breathable material for movement.

When comparing it to Tencel fabric, cotton may be an all-natural resource, but it has more issues than semi-synthetic cloth.

The largest one is the water consumption needed to grow cotton crops. Tencel used little water as the fibers are from sustainable trees and can be recycled as new raw material without harvesting more trees. Cotton, however, consumes more water to continuously grow in larger quantities. If you wanted to a kilogram, it takes up to 20,000 liters of water. That's only for 7 cotton shirts.

On the comfort scale, cotton can be soft but can cause skin irritation when used over time. It's very absorbent with not only water but sweat as well. It can build unwanted odors and causes allergies to occur. It's uncomfortable to sleep in if you are someone who tends to sweat in the middle of the night as it insulates heat. Tencel fibers have a cooler temperature that can help improve sleep comfort.

While both fabrics are durable against tearing and washing, Tencel doesn't last very long and is frequently recycled and replaced by consumers. Cotton on its own can last up to at least 50 years. But unlike Tencel, cotton is not heat-resistant, can be damaged by mildew, and shrinks while drying.

Is Tencel Eco-Friendly?

Since the invention of lyocell and modal fibers, these two semi-synthetic fabrics created a backlash in the environmentalist community because of the heavy amounts of the chemicals they used in their fiber process. Today, Tencel decided to modify these fibers to use lesser amounts of those chemicals while keeping their copycat characteristics of silk intact.  This is to help improve the fabric to become safer to be biodegradable and decomposable.

Because Tencel fibers are made of sustainable tree cellulose and a few chemicals, it's not simply recyclable. Instead, it undergoes a process called the circular fashion system. With the circular system, salvaged sustainable cloth can be reused, repaired, redesigned, or resold before it's determined to be recycled. When recycled, the fibers of the Tencel cloth will be made into raw materials for design, and the cycle repeats. 

The circular fashion system sounds similar to recycling, but there are a few differences. The recycling process involves separating waste from anything that isn't considered biodegradable, decomposable, or reusable. Yet, it still means waste making its way to landfills. With a circle system, the process wants you to create zero waste possible by recycling used materials to produce a new product.

Is Tencel natural or synthetic?

It’s in between natural and synthetic, or semi-synthetic based on Tencel’s fiber-making process. Lyocell and modal are made from sustainable trees from sustainable forests and are combined with a few chemicals to form the fiber strands.

Is Tencel breathable like cotton?

Yes. Despite the cloth having clumpy, tight fibers, Tencel is a breathable cloth. It's comfortable to wear and can be worn in all seasons. It can keep you cool during exercise and while you sleep.

Does Tencel shrinks when washed?

Tencel does not shrink when getting washed. Instead, it's more delicate to clean and will need gentle care to prevent damages. You either gently hand-wash it in cold water, or with machine washing, set your watching machine to "Delicates" setting with cold water with the spin cycle on the no spin or the low spin.

Tencel is a revolutionary fabric that continues to improve itself to keep the environment sustainable. While their fiber-making process is seen as harmful, it has shown that semi-synthetics are effective when becoming more green than taking the all-natural route, as Lenzing learned from their past mistakes during the second World War. 

Its impact on the circular fashion system has provided new benefits of creating no waste similar to the start of their journey with paper made out of cloth waste. And with its qualities to silk and cotton, Tencel fabric can be used for D.I.Y clothing and for clothing and furniture companies that are converting themselves into sustainable businesses.