Lyocell is a natural, man-made fiber that (we think) is the future for sustainable, eco-friendly fabrics. Using less water and land than cotton, Lyocell fabric can be used to manufacture a variety of clothing and materials from shirts and jeans to conveyor belts and rope.
But what really is Lyocell? And why is it a great material for sustainable fashion?
We’ve answered these questions - and all the other ones you didn’t even know you had - for you below (and share why we used Lyocell to make our jeans).
What is Lyocell?
Made from cellulose derived from wood pulp, Lyocell is a “regenerated fiber” produced from trees including Oak, Eucalyptus, and Birch (at again&again, we use eucalyptus trees!).
The fiber is generated in a process that chemically dissolves the wood pulp to be extruded into fibers, spun into woven yarns, and finally woven into soft, light, and breathable Lyocell fabric. Lyocell’s production method utilizes a closed-loop system that recycles used chemicals during processing and uses less energy and water, compared to other cellulose-based fabrics.
This creates a truly sustainable fabric that does little harm to the natural environment when manufactured. Along with its eco-friendly production qualities (discussed below), the benefits of Lyocell as a garment and commercial fabric are uncanny.
Benefits of Lyocell Fabric:
- Flexible and elastic material
- Moisture absorbent
- Great for sensitive skin
- Soft and breathable
How Is Lyocell Produced?
The production of Lyocell fabric is truly revolutionary compared to other wood and plant-based fabrics because of the closed-loop system and non-harsh chemical approach used to produce Lyocell.
How It’s Made
- The wood pulp for Lyocell (from eucalyptus, birch, or oak trees) is extracted from forestry to be processed at a plant. Because we use TENCEL™ branded Lyocell (more details below), we know the Lenzing sustainably sources the eucalyptus trees that comprise our Japanese Lyocell fabric.
- At the plant, the wood pulp is sliced into small chips where it goes through a dissolving process to break down the pulp.
This is why making Lyocell fabric is so special – the chemical used to break down the wood pulp is an organic solvent called N-Methylmorpholine-N-oxide (NMMO). This amine oxide dissolves the wood pulp without any chemical change, needing no extra chemicals or processes to break down!
The production’s closed-loop system recycles the same amine oxides to dissolve more pulp again and again, producing more Lyocell fibers with virtually no waste.
This graphic by Lenzing shows the initial two steps of this sustainable process.
- Once the pulp has been dissolved into liquid, the solvent is filtered out of the liquid and processed through spinnerets, which spin the cellulose into thin fibers that are then washed and dried for a finished product!
What is Viscose? What is Modal?
Lyocell, viscose, and modal are three cellulose textile fibers that usually get lumped together as they are all derived from trees or plants; however, Lyocell is far cleaner and more sustainable.
A regenerated cellulose fiber, Viscose requires a more chemical-heavy process than Lyocell. The Viscose fiber process is not closed-loop, meaning more chemicals are needed as more Viscose fiber is manufactured. Additionally, the chemicals used to make Viscose are toxic and have been shown to cause environmental pollution and put the health of textile workers and surrounding communities where Viscose plants are at risk.
Viscose produces a similar product to Lyocell, but it creates far greater environmental harm and health hazards due to its production.
More similar to Lyocell than Viscose, Modal also uses a closed-loop system in production, making it less wasteful than viscose. While it is similarly sustainable to Lyocell, Modal differs from Lyocell in how the fibers are treated after they are spun into a fabric – the fibers are stretched, causing the fibers to be finer and feel more delicate. Modal can be used to make lighter and thinner fabrics than Lyocell for that reason.
Modal is a closer brother to Lyocell that produces a thinner, lighter cellulose-based fabric.
How Sustainable/Eco-Friendly is Lyocell Fabric?
From the fabric’s production to its raw material, Lyocell has the potential to revolutionize sustainable fashion by replacing cotton as the staple fabric. Here is a list of the many eco-benefits this fabric has:
- Lyocell is naturally biodegradable – if the fabric ends up in the landfill (ours won’t!), it will be long gone before any plastic leaves a landfill.
- Lyocell’s production model produces no harmful by-products. Everything that comes out is au natural.
- Raw wood pulp for Lyocell is obtained from well-managed, sustainable forestries. Additionally, these forestries require no pesticides or irrigation to be managed.
- The amine oxide N-Methylmorpholine-N-oxide (NMMO) used in Lyocell production is non-toxic and natural.
- Lyocell production uses fewer chemicals and produces less waste than other cellulose fibers.
- Compared to the production of cotton, Lyocell production uses far less water and land.
Add up the sustainable benefits and material benefits of Lyocell and you have a winning fabric for sustainable fashion!
What is TENCEL™?
If you’ve heard of Lyocell, Modal, or Viscose, you’ve probably heard Tencel thrown into the mix. Often used interchangeably, Tencel (properly named TENCEL™) and Lyocell are not the same.
TENCEL™ is to Lyocell as Nike is to running shoes – it’s a leading brand for Lyocell fiber and fabric manufacturing. TENCEL™ branded Lyocell is made by the Austrian company Lenzing and it has been manufacturing Lyocell fibers for the last 15 years.
The Lenzing Group, originally named Zellwolle Lenzing AG, started manufacturing Viscose fiber back in 1938 in Austria. After recovering from World War II, Lenzing shifted to an environmental focus as industries learned of the air and water pollution manufacturing viscose generated throughout the 1970s and 1980s. As other viscose fiber producers shut down, Lenzing worked on developing a closed-loop system for viscose manufacturing.
It wasn’t until 1990 that Lenzing constructed its first Lyocell plant and 1997 that their first full-scale plant in Heiligenkreuz, Burgenland (Austria) went into operation. Lenzing could finally utilize an eco-friendly method to produce botanical fibers for commercial use.
Lenzing then acquired the company TENCEL™ in 2004, allowing Lenzing’s Lyocell production to grow to the U.S. and U.K. Over the past 15 years, Lenzing has been producing TENCEL™ Lyocell for brands and commercial use across the globe, constantly innovating in their quest to make truly, sustainable fibers for world use.
So, the next time you hear or read Tencel (or properly TENCEL™), remember: it is just a brand of Lyocell fabric! And a really cool one too.
How Do You Care for Lyocell Fabric?
Garments that are made from 100% Lyocell or a mix of Lyocell with other fabrics (like cotton, nylon, bamboo, etc.) need to be treated with a little extra love.
100% Lyocell Products
Garments made from 100% Lyocell fibers need to be carefully washed and air-dried. They shouldn’t be thrown into a dryer and should only be washed on gentle cycles. Even better, follow these instructions below:
- Hand wash in cool water with a gentle detergent. It should be soaked for about 30 minutes until it is dried. You can also machine wash the garments with a delicate or gentle cycle (although we recommend washing your jeans infrequently!)
- Do not squeeze or twist the garment once washed
- Drip drying the garment is preferred, but it can also be air-dried
* To soften the garment if it is stiff, it can be thrown into a dryer with a damp towel on gentle cycle and low-temperature setting
** If you need to iron a Lyocell garment, this should be on a low setting and never on high
Mixed Lyocell Products
Lyocell products mixed with other fabrics should be treated based on what their label says. Some of them can be machine washed on delicate cycles and hang dried (machine drying isn’t recommended). Use a gentle detergent and be aware of how you dry your garment.
Does Lyocell or TENCEL™ Lyocell Shrink?
From our research, we found that Lyocell and TENCEL™ Lyocell clothing tends to shrink a little after their first one or two washes, like most fabrics.
After numerous washes though, these fabrics hold their shape well if they are washed properly. Additionally, Lyocell garments, like our jeans, tend to get softer after being worn and washed over time.
Avoid using hot water when washing Lyocell and avoid consistently drying Lyocell in a machine dryer as that will shrink the fabric.
TENCEL™ also has a variety of Modal called TENCEL™ Modal. We found that this type of fabric is more resistant to shrinkage and won’t shrink as much if tumble dried.
Given that, it is still important to always read the clothing labels to make sure you are properly washing your garments.
Bonus - Why are again&again Jeans Different with Lyocell?
When we hunted for the best fabric to make our upcycled jeans, we were looking for a fabric that was truly sustainable and that could be used again and again to make more jeans.
That is why we love Lyocell:
- Lyocell fabric made from eucalyptus trees requires 95% less water and 80% less farmland than cotton fabric typically used for jeans
- With Lyocell jeans, we can upcycle your jeans when they are worn down and you’re ready for a new pair. Our design – rivet-less and with woven patches – allows for easy upcycling.
You can read more about our sustainability philosophy here.