First produced commercially in Mobile, Alabama almost 30 years ago, lyocell is currently enjoying a lot of attention as a plant-based fibre used for clothing. Both luxury and high street labels are investing in the buttery-soft textile: Swiss loungewear brand Hanro recently released a shirt made of 100% lyocell, London label Mother of Pearl uses it and Zara, Mango and H&M have also placed their bets on it. Selfridges calls it a “miracle fabric”. So what exactly is it, and is it really that good?
How is lyocell made?
It all starts with wood. Mostly, it’s eucalyptus, though oak and birch will also do. After being harvested, the wood is cut into penny-sized pieces and ground into a pulp, dissolved by the chemical amine oxide. What remains is raw cellulose – a sticky, viscous liquid. The mixture is pushed through spinnerets, and bright, white lyocell fibres emerge, which, after washing and drying, are ready to be spun into yarn and eventually woven into fabric.
What does it feel and look like?
Lyocell can have many different textures, but the basic fabric is soft to the touch. It is hypoallergenic and doesn’t cling. Lyocell is also 50% more absorbent than cotton, which means it’s often used for activewear. “That softness, the friendliness for the skin, but also the moisture management are really the three key advantages that lyocell brings versus a lot of other alternatives,” says Robert van de Kerkhof, chief commercial officer of Lenzing AG, an Austria-based company that produces a large part of the lyocell worldwide and has been at the forefront of the fibre’s innovation.
Why is it sustainable?
It goes back to the source: eucalyptus trees grow quickly, without irrigation and virtually any pesticides, on land no longer fit for food. The production of lyocell doesn’t use toxic chemicals, and 99.5% of the dissolving agent can be used repeatedly. Compared to cotton, lyocell has the potential to use less than half as much water in production. The fabric’s breathability is also great for the planet, as it doesn’t start smelling as quickly and can be washed less frequently, saving water.
There’s a big but, though. “So the material has potential, very good potential. But who is producing it?” asks Professor Susanne Sweet, research manager for the Sweden-based Mistra Future Fashion programme. “One of the major impacts in production is the energy use and the climate impact. So if you produce it in countries where they use fossil fuels or coal or something, it is going to be really bad. It’s understanding the system – it’s not just the material,” she cautions. This means that when buying lyocell, it’s worth checking if it can be tracked all the way back to the source.
Lyocell, Tencel, Newcell, Excel – what’s with all the names?
Lyocell is the generic, widely used name for the textile, but it’s not the only term you will see in your clothes labels. The “cel” comes from it being a cellulosic fibre. Tencel is the brand of lyocell sold by Lenzing AG, which was invented by the textile company Courtauld in Britain – the “ten” stands for tenacity. The futuristic Newcell was one of the earlier variants of the textile, and the unfortunately named Excel is lyocell manufactured by textile company Birla.
What is lyocell used for?
In fashion, “100% Lyocell” labels mostly grace athleisure and wardrobe staples made to last. Powney likes using it for casual dresses, shirts and summer basics, because, she says, it’s perfect to “just sort of roll up and put in your suitcase”.
What does it cost?
Fast fashion versions are available from under £30 (though sustainability is another question there), and Hanro’s new “Balance” shirt, made from 100% lyocell, is £57. Mother of Pearl’s polka-dotted lyocell cami retails for £185, and the Tentree “Kayaker” T-shirt, made of lyocell blended with organic cotton and recycled polyester, is available for £28.99.
Can it replace materials such as cotton and viscose?
Hanro CEO Stephan Hohmann sees it like this: “Tencel will replace viscose certainly in the future. Cotton, however, still strongly stands for most consumers for a natural material and its superior wearing comfort.” Powney prefers it to cotton and, she says, citing the easily creasing nature and larger environmental impact of viscose: “We want to use lyocell as much as we possibly can instead of viscose.”
“The growth of it will be much more in blending with other fibres,” says Van de Kerkhof. Lyocell can blend well with cotton, polyester and even silk, which adds properties like shine that it doesn’t have on its own.”
“It can, to a certain degree, replace cotton,” says Sweet, adding that “cotton is a wonderful material, but it has a huge environmental impact”.
Is lyocell susceptible to greenwashing?
“Yes, of course,” says Sweet, underlining the importance of transparency when it comes to where and how the lyocell is manufactured. “I think for a lot of brands it’s quite an easy box to tick,” agrees Powney, “because the world is changing, and because customers are demanding more and brands knowing that they have to change, I think it’s just such a go-to solution.”