This lyocell article is my first follow up to a previous article on viscose, for which I had a number of comments questioning sustainable alternatives, bamboo (I will talk about this another day!) and ethical fabrics in general.
Fibres within the regenerated cellulose family
Viscose, lyocell, modal, cupro (which you might know as Bemberg), acetate – as a seamstress these will probably all sound familiar to you. What they have in common is that they are all cellulosic fibres. They started life as plants, were turned into pulp, had chemicals added to dissolve the pulp, and went through a spinning process to turn them back into a fibre that could then turn into a yarn. What makes these fabrics different from each other are factors like the feedstock used (for example, cupro uses cotton linter instead of trees) or the chemicals needed to dissolve the pulp.
There is a bit to say about each of the fibres so I am going to split the blog posts up about these. This one is about lyocell, which is often heralded as the one with the eco friendly credentials. You might know it as Tencel™, the trademarked name for the lyocell produced by Austrian manufacturer Lenzing.
Lyocell: a regenerated cellul]ose fibre obtained by dissolution, and an organic solvent (mixture of organic chemicals and water) spinning process, without formation of derivatives – as defined by EU legislation.
(Note that the US the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also has its own definition as a subcategory of rayon which is along similar lines).
What makes lyocell sustainable?
The production process is largely the same as viscose, but with a key difference as you can see in my infographic below. (the viscose infographic which includes descriptions of each step is in this post here.)
The primary benefit is the dissolving wood pulp step, where the chemicals used are different from viscose. According to Lenzing , probably the most famous of lyocell producers, the sustainability factor comes from the closed loop process. The solvent (amine oxide solution) that dissolves the wood pulp is non-toxic, and 99.5% of the solvent and water in the process can be recovered, recycled and reused.
Where have I seen lyocell (or Tencel™) before?
Lyocell has been been around for a long time; the name was recognised in the US with the FTC back in 1996. I know I have crossed paths with it – I can recall owning a pair of red Tencel™ jeans in the 90s! (no kidding! I was Miss anti fashion). The sticking point for me back then was because they were so different from my regular denim jeans, a bit floppier and had a smoother texture. As time went on and the red jeans wore out I kept a lookout for more Tencel™ clothing but without much success. It seems 20 years later it still hasn’t completely made it into the mainstream. Especially when you consider that the whole regenerated cellulose family is less than 10% of global fibre production.
Why is lyocell being marketed as the new great thing now?
It does amuse me in some way that this can be the case, seeing as the technology is not new. Most recently I have seen the brand Citizen Mark marketing a new Kickstarter campaign for a new range of lyocell shirts. Their marketing line is Better than Silk– machine washable, sustainable, breathable. To be fair, other more well established brands have been selling Tencel™ clothing for awhile. I do find it a little curious as to why lyocell was never a super cool kid back in the 1990s. Here are some of my ideas:
- The need for it wasn’t as urgent in the 1990’s; we had cotton and polyester and were happy with that. In this day and age of climate change, sustainable fashion is becoming in vogue (and I hope its here to stay). Consumers are more demanding in this area and retailers need to do more to look responsible.
- Consumers get used to what is available to them. In a previous post I discussed the book “Curing affluenza” which discussed different solutions for changing culture and what is available in the market. It is unlikely that we will see lyocell as a mainstream product in fabric shops if we don’t ask for it. But fabric shops generally stock from textile manufacturers or from overstock (leftovers from industry, e.g. excess from factories) – so the textile industry also needs to be scaling up the use of this fibre. And so on and so forth.
- The feel of 100% lyocell is quite different from viscose. They both have the same drape and a sheen that reminds me a little of silk. But texture wise when you stroke it, there is a resistance (kind of like soft baby skin or suedette) rather than being smooth liquid silk. Eileen Fisher state on their website that Tencel has a cottony feel and that viscose is still more versatile.
- Production cost is likely higher than viscose. Lyocell was invented in the 1980’s whereas viscose has been around for about 200 years. It costs money to upgrade technologies, and if the product ain’t broke and consumers still love and demand it, I would suggest there is little incentive to change.
How much more sustainable is lyocell than viscose?
Beyond saying lyocell is more eco friendly, how much is difficult to quantify. There are different ways of rating fibres depending on the mix of weightings and factors, for example, water usage, carbon impact. The Made-by consultancy rating (used by brands such as H&M) gave lyocell a B vs viscose an E (ratings go from A to E). However, this rating is 5 years old and due to be updated in 2018. The Higg Material Sustainability Index is another system used by big fashion brands (e.g. North Face) which assigns a single aggregate score based on different criteria. The lower the better. The score for lyocell as 48 (Amber on their traffic light scale) and viscose as 53 (just tipping into red) – suggesting that lyocell really is only marginally better (as an aside, alpaca is 281 which is off the charts red).
My conclusion here is that the emphasis of lyocell’s sustainability being focussed solely on production implies that the benefits are isolated. For example, the colouring and finishing of lyocell is likely the same as other fabrics.
If lyocell is fairly uncommon fabric where can I find it?
I decided awhile ago that if I was going to look at buying viscose anyway (because of the drape), it would be worth looking for a lyocell alternative if I wasn’t going for silk.
UPDATE MAY 2020: For the everyday dressmaker, there are various shops which stock Tencel™ under the Meet Milk and Mind the Maker fabric brand. If you are looking for something wholesale or thinking about suitability for your own brand, you really need to be doing your own homework. Or pay a fashion sourcing consultant to help you which is what I did. Specialist knowledge is not free and there’s a good reason for that. (Can you tell I’ve been asked about this one too many times? 😉 Rant over.)