What is Tencel fabric? This man-made fabric is sustainable and versatile. Here’s a guide to what you can make with it and how to sew with it.
Tencel is a man-made modern marvel of a fabric that’s rapidly gaining popularity thanks to its sustainability and versatility. It has applications in apparel, home goods, and sewing projects in your near future–but you may be wondering where Tencel comes from and what it’s made of. Let’s dive into the answers before you commit to stocking this fabric in your crafting supply closet or she-shed.
What is Tencel?
Tencel (sometimes also known as lyocell or modal) is a man-made fabric composed of cellulose. TENCEL™ is the trademarked brand name for the fabric, which was originally licensed by UK-based company Courtaulds but is currently owned by fiber manufacturer Lenzing in Austria, but Tencel is the name that’s colloquially used when referring to lyocell or lyocell-type fabrics. It’s a type of rayon made from an improved process that was developed in 1972. Brand name TENCEL™ is highly regulated and carries guarantees about the sustainability of the fabric’s source and process.
Depending on who you ask, Tencel is referred to as either a natural fiber (because it’s made from plants) or a semi-synthetic fiber (both because it’s man made and because of the chemicals involved in the manufacturing process). Either way, it’s a fairly sustainable source of fiber, as Tencel is made from responsibly-sourced wood pulp, whereas similar fabrics like rayon and viscose are typically made from non-sustainable sources.
In addition to being sustainable, this plant-based fabric is soft, durable, breathable, silky, and hypoallergenic. It has a feel and a sheen that looks remarkably similar to silk and is often used as a cheaper vegan silk alternative.
A lot of the Tencel produced today comes from tree farms in Australia, but factories in the UK, US, China, and Indonesia are often used to process the wood pulp into cellulose fiber for fabric.
TENCEL™ Lyocell vs TENCEL™ Modal
There are two types of brand-name TENCEL™ available for use: lyocell and modal. Both are made from wood pulp, though the type of wood used is different. Lyocell is made from eucalyptus. Lyocell is also the stronger of the two and absorbs moisture more efficiently. Modal is made strictly from responsibly sourced beechwood and is softer and more flexible than lyocell. Both types of TENCEL™ can be combined with other fibers to form blends with best-of-both-worlds properties for a multitude of uses.
How is Tencel Fabric Made?
All types of tencel start with trees–usually eucalyptus or beechwood as mentioned above. Trees are grown on farms and cut when they reach maturity. The wood is ground into pulp and combined with solvent to dissolve the wood chips to dissolve them into cellulose. The cellulose is then physically pushed through tiny holes to create threads that are then spun into fiber, treated again with chemicals, and finally woven into sheets of fabric.
What Can You Make With Tencel Fabric?
Tencel is mostly used in clothing and bedding items like high-end sheets and blankets. Tencel is best known for its breathability and moisture-wicking properties, so this lightweight fabric is great for warm-weather clothing. It drapes beautifully when worn and is great for things like:
- Flowy pants
- Children’s clothes
- Silk-style scarves
- Hair accessories
- Sheets and pillowcases
How Does Tencel Impact the Environment?
Tencel gets mixed reviews when it comes to sustainability. It’s not as environmentally friendly as several true all-natural fabrics like organic varieties of linen, cotton, and hemp, but it’s better for the environment than synthetics and standard versions of these natural fibers.
It takes a considerable amount of water to grow the trees and process the pulp into fiber, plus the chemicals used to break down the wood pulp are non-toxic (and get recycled through the process indefinitely in a closed-loop process!) but are not necessarily great for the environment. The emissions produced from the factories where the fiber is made should also be taken into account.
On the other hand, pure Tencel fabric or Tencel blended with other natural fibers is compostable and biodegradable and won’t take forever to break down in a landfill, so it gains some environmentally positive points there.
Where to Buy Tencel
You can source non-branded Tencel easily on the internet from sources like Amazon or online fabric retailers. Your local craft or fabric store may not have it or may have a few limited options. If you’re looking for brand name TENCEL™, you may have an even harder time getting your hands on it, as the brand typically partners with businesses to produce products and doesn’t sell their fabric to the public.
Tips for Sewing With Tencel Fabric
Tencel shares lots of silk’s positive traits, as well as a negative one: can be slippery and difficult to work with. Go slow, lay it flat to cut, and use sharp scissors or a rotary cutter like you would with silk
Use small pins
Also like silk, tencel can retain holes from pinning and sewing long after you’ve completed your project. To avoid leaving permanent marks, use the smallest, sharpest pins you can get your hands on.
Make sure your needles are sharp
Tencel is densely woven and not easy to sew with the standard needles that come with your sewing machine. Use a fresh needle as often as possible and try a sharper and smaller (but still sturdy) needle like a microtex needle.
Staystitching can tame slippery edges
Using a staystitch is a great way to keep your pieces stable while you work–just make sure you’re doing it as close to the seam as possible so if you decide to remove it later you don’t see the holes left behind.
Select thread with the fabric’s finish in mind
Because of tencel’s shiny finish, you should select a thread that compliments it or contrasts it, depending on the look you desire. Matte threads will contrast heavily with the shiny finish and shinier threads like silk threads will blend in pretty seamlessly.
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