What Is Lyocell Fabric & Why Is It a Sustainable Material

Lyocell or Tencel lyocell (as it is called in many circles) is one of the rising stars in the sustainable fashion world. It is a versatile fabric made from natural resources like wood pulp and features a unique chemical composition and production process.

Lyocell is used in an extensive body of purposes. It is used in fashion, industrial production, and even medicine!

Its popularity isn’t surprising though. Lyocell has many valuable qualities and exceptional characteristics that make it one of the most well-loved fabrics in the sustainability industry.

Below, we’ll break down everything you need to know about lyocell from its roots and history and how lyocell is made to what makes it so special, and how to care for your lyocell fabric properly.

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Lyocell: A Brief History

The process of making lyocell fabric was originally developed in 1972 by textiles manufacturer American Enka. The original intention behind its production was to create a more environmentally friendly alternative to other rayons (i.e., viscose rayon).

In the next decade, there were numerous attempts at commercializing this new fabric, to little avail. However, by the 1980s, the situation had improved considerably, and Lyocell fabric was slowly being produced on plant-wide scales at multiple tons per week.

Many company changes and buyouts later, hundreds of thousand tons are made per year. Lenzing AG alone makes 130,000 tons per year—making them the largest lyocell manufacturer globally.

From its humble beginnings as a fabric with an innovative chemical structure, lyocell is now commercially produced across different continents.

What Is Lyocell Fabric Used For?

You will find lyocell in many fashion garments like dresses, tops, and perhaps most notably, denim jeans. The fabric’s excellent drape and colorfastness [1] make it a good option for many fashion items.

Lyocell is also frequently used in underwear due to the exceptional comfort it provides the wearer. It is super breathable, soft, and comfortable, making it an excellent option for people with sensitive skin.

In addition, lyocell’s ability to manage moisture makes it a great fabric to use in activewear or any garment that will be used for physically-intensive activities.

But the name lyocell isn’t only prevalent in fashion; it’s popular in industrial production as well. Lyocell is often used in conveyor belts due to its strong tensile strength and ability to withstand pressure. This strength also makes it an ideal alternative to cotton bandages used in the medical field.

Is Lyocell A Semi-Synthetic Fabric?

We’ve already mentioned that lyocell is typically made from wood pulp. This leads many to the impression that lyocell fabric is natural. However, it does not fall under our list of natural fibers and cannot truly be considered one because of the production process.

Lyocell can be more accurately described as semi-synthetic. While it is made from a natural substance and will biodegrade at the end of its life, lyocell, like all rayons, has to undergo intensive chemical processing to transform the wood into cellulose fiber.

And this process is anything but natural.

To further understand how this fabric can be dubbed semi-synthetic, let’s tackle the details of how to produce lyocell.

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How Are Lyocell Fibers Made?

Much of the magic behind lyocell fiber lies in how it’s made.

It typically starts as wood chips that are then dissolved in various chemicals to transform them into wood pulp. The wood used to make lyocell can come from wood chips like oak or softer ones like bamboo and eucalyptus.

Once the wood pulp is ready, it is washed and may then be further processed through bleaching. The resulting pulp is laid out and dried into large 500 lb. sheets of material rolled into spools for further processing.

These spools are then cut into smaller pieces and soaked in amine oxide. And this is where all the chemical processing truly begins to set in. More specifically, the cyclic amine oxide called N-Methylmorpholine-N-oxide (NMMO) is what’s used to dissolve all the wood pulp into a cellulosic material[2] .

Once the wood cellulose is filtered and free of impurities, it is then extruded through spinnerets—which are essentially devices with tiny holes on them through which the cellulose passes. The result is a set of long, thin fibers of cellulose.

These fibers need to be set and washed before the production process is completed. Once they’re ready, the fibers are lubricated and detangled for easier carding and spinning into yarn.

Afterwards, the lyocell yarn can then be woven with other textiles like polyester, silk, and wool. The resulting material can be finished in numerous ways depending on its application post-production.

Lyocell is technically another form of rayon. It’s made using virtually the same method with some differences regarding the solvent used. Unlike conventional viscose or rayon processing, lyocell production uses a less environmentally harmful solvent that can be reclaimed and reused.

For the most part, around 99% of the NMMO used in the production process can be recovered and used for the next batch of pulp. This significantly lowers the environmental impact of the fabric, thus making it a viable alternative to other rayons.

Is Lyocell Stretchy?

Lyocell fabric is not very stretchy on its own, and it is a fairly inelastic fabric despite what other sources claim. As a common cotton alternative, it has about the same amount of “give” as regular cotton—which is to say not that much at all.

However, lyocell can still be used in clothing items that require a lot of elasticity (i.e., activewear). It is a simple matter of blending lyocell with some elastane or Spandex to make it stretchier and more elastic.

Do note that adding elastane to any garment would impact how it biodegrades. If there is only a marginal amount of elastane in the clothing item, it can still be compostable, but you may need to remove the remaining elastane from the compost. We have not tried this ourselves, so we cannot attest to how effective this method is.

If you are interested in knowing more about elastane and how it fits into your sustainable closet, take a look at our comprehensive guide here.

Lyocell Characteristics: Pros & Cons

While lyocell fabric is now seen as an eco friendly alternative to numerous types of synthetic fabrics, it still has some pros and cons.

At Puratium, it’s always been a core belief that there is no single, perfect solution to all our problems. Instead, we should look at materials through critical eyes and weigh their potential benefits to their environmental footprint, as we will explore below:

Sustainability

Being a sustainable fabric is one of lyocell’s main selling points, and it is frequently touted as a more earth-friendly alternative to other fabrics and its conventional rayon counterparts. Fortunately, these claims are largely true.

While lyocell is not the perfect fabric (as this is an impossible standard to fill), it doesn’t use toxic chemicals or use up large amounts of water during production. When compared to other types of fibers, lyocell often tops the sustainability charts.

Closed-Loop Production

To tie in with our previous explanation on sustainability is the fact that lyocell’s production process can be made in a nearly closed-loop system.

More than 99% of the solvent used to create lyocell can be recaptured and used in another batch. Lenzing AG, the largest manufacturer of lyocell fabric worldwide, is one of the manufacturers that stick to the practice of recovering and reusing solvent. They even recycle some of the water used in the production of lyocell.

However, we should also note that not all lyocell manufacturers produce in a closed-loop system. Lenzing AG is not the only manufacturer globally, and there are undoubtedly those that make lyocell in a less than ideal manner.

Breathability

One of the best things about lyocell fabric is that it is incredibly breathable. The material is super absorbent and is perfect for places with hot or humid weather.

Because it is so soft and breathable, lyocell is often used for items that require comfort, like eco friendly undies.

Lyocell is also an excellent fabric for activewear and other fabrics that require efficient moisture management. Although it is not generally known to wick moisture, lyocell still does a good job at dealing with any moisture from working out, doing yoga, etc.

Strength

Lyocell is soft and breathable. But did you know that it also has a high tensile strength? This means lyocell is able to withstand high amounts of pressure, making it useful in various industrial applications.

In fact, lyocell is the only regenerated cellulose material that can exceed cotton’s wet tensile strength [3] . When wet, lyocell retains around 85% of its tensile strength, which is impressive compared to other fibers.

Cost

A significant drawback of lyocell is that it’s expensive. Lyocell clothing is almost always more expensive than its more conventional counterparts like cotton. This makes the fabric not the most practical alternative.

However, lyocell’s price is cheaper when combined with other less expensive textiles (e.g., cotton, polyester). But this might impact lyocell’s biodegradability as synthetic materials like polyester do not biodegrade.

Maintenance

Lyocell is a fabric that requires a relatively high level of maintenance. For best care results, it should be hand washed and not exposed to direct heat (e.g., using a warm iron, not using heat for machine cycles).

We’ll discuss in a later section the best ways you can care for lyocell fabric.

Although the fabric is indeed very strong, it is susceptible to damage when not cared for properly. In a sense, it is very much like high-end fabrics that require diligent care and maintenance.

Energy Intensive

As already established, lyocell is already a decent, sustainable alternative to many standard fabrics used today. It is manufactured in a closed-loop process, made from natural components like eucalyptus trees or hardwood, and it is also biodegradable.

However, the process of making lyocell is pretty energy-intensive. All the processing, from dissolving the pulp into a clear liquid to the carding and spooling the fabric, requires quite a lot of energy.

Whenever we assess a material’s environmental impact, it’s vital to go beyond just the resources themselves and evaluate how the processes affect the planet.

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Do We Recommend Lyocell Fabric?

We would definitely recommend lyocell fabric for the next time you want to buy undies, jeans, dress shirts, and more.

That said, it is still vital to inquire about the origin of the lyocell used. Some companies making lyocell are not as efficient nor as sustainable as Lenzing lyocell. Many sustainable brands are willing to disclose the source of the fabric, and some will even go as far as including it in their product description.

If lyocell is within your budget and you can assure that it came from sustainable sources, then, by all means, go for it!

Lyocell VS Other Fabrics

Now that we’ve covered in much detail what lyocell is like as a fabric let’s take some time to compare it to some common alternatives.

Rayon (Viscose)

Lyocell was initially intended to be a more eco friendly alternative to viscose rayon. Thus, in reality, lyocell is actually just a version of rayon. More specifically, it is considered a third-generation rayon, with modal being the second one and viscose being the first.

But whenever the word rayon is used, the general understanding is that it refers to the first generation: viscose. Modal and lyocell are not frequently referred to as rayons, although the manufacturing process shared between the three are strikingly similar.

Put simply, lyocell is the better fabric among the two. Unlike rayon, lyocell is made with a direct solvent, resulting in a more environmentally-sound process. It also takes up less energy to produce.

Viscose rayon is typically less absorbent than lyocell and has an inferior drape. These differences are clearly manifest in the price. Viscose is much cheaper than lyocell and is also much more accessible.

Cotton

In any comparison of lyocell with other fibers, it is inevitably compared with cotton, which is one of the most used textiles in the world.

Lyocell and cotton are similar in the sense that they can both provide exceptional comfort and feel soft even against sensitive skin. However, while lyocell is already ultra-soft from the moment you buy it, cotton might need a little bit of wash and wear to get to that optimum softness level.

In most cases, lyocell is clearly the most sustainable choice. For context, conventionally produced cotton is an incredibly thirsty crop. It takes thousands of liters of water just to make enough for a pair of jeans, and our scale of production certainly doesn’t help things.

But while that is true, there is also a sustainable option to cotton. Namely, organic cotton. The organic alternative is made using earth-friendly methods and has a comparably lesser environmental impact. If you are choosing between organic cotton and lyocell, and the only determinant is sustainability, organic cotton could possibly be the better choice.

In spite of those, lyocell remains a less viable alternative to cotton because it can be a bit challenging to care for and frequently comes at a steeper cost.

Silk

Rayon fabrics were first developed as alternatives to silk. During the war, there was a fluctuating supply of silk from other countries, and developing a similar fiber was a risk mitigation technique against supply shortages.

Being that lyocell is already a much-improved rayon, it bears a lot of similarities with silk. For one, both fabrics are soft and have excellent drape abilities. Both are also high-end fabrics and can be a tad expensive.

However, the two are not entirely the same. Silk has a signature feel to it, but it is not animal-friendly. Some kinds of silk are reportedly cruelty-free, but as we discuss in our article on ahimsa silk, it isn’t as simple as that.

On the other hand, lyocell is a vegan alternative. No animals are used during the process, and it is entirely animal-friendly.

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Caring For Lyocell

Lyocell is a strong fabric. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exert care and effort when cleaning your lyocell clothing. Proper care and management of your fabrics are likely some of the best contributions you can give to make them last longer and thus, have a lesser impact on the environment.

When cleaning lyocell, it’s essential to follow the fabric’s washing instructions. Most lyocell fabrics are blended with other synthetic fibers and may have varying washing details.

A good rule of thumb, however, is to wash lyocell in a gentle cycle or hand wash in cold water if you have the time. Cleaning your fabrics is a significant contributor to wear and tear, especially if you run it through the washing machine.

As such, only a gentle cycle is recommended if you don’t have the time for handwashing. And if you are using the washer, just make sure to use cold water to avoid shortening the life of your lyocell clothes.

It is also best to use a gentle detergent for your washes. You can even make your own zero waste laundry materials if you want! We have a full guide to making zero waste detergent here.

After washing, make sure not to wring your lyocell. Instead, gently press the water out of the fabric and hang or line dry outside. Tumble drying your lyocell is generally not the best practice. But if you must, use the gentlest setting possible.

If you want to iron lyocell fabric, make sure to use the warm iron setting and never push it up to high heat. If you’re steaming, hover over the fabric with your steamer.

Lyocell fabric, though strong, can be quite delicate at times. It is vital to avoid high, direct heat since it may damage your fabric considerably.

Final Thoughts

Lyocell is one of the most sustainable fabrics you can get your hands on. It’s made of natural materials, produced sustainably, and is naturally biodegradable. All in all, that’s a pretty impressive roster of qualities for a fabric.

However, just like with any other fabric, it’s still important to care for your lyocell clothes diligently and ensure you can wear them for a long time.

The rising popularity of fabrics like lyocell is a good start to achieving a sustainable fashion industry, but it is only the beginning. We still have a long way to go if we ever hope to undo the damage the fashion industry has cost our planet and set off a course for a more sustainable and eco-conscious future.

Resources:

  1. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00405000.2021.1981652#:~:text=Color%20yield%20of %20dyed%20lyocell,properties%20under%20optimized%20dyeing%20conditions.
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B978085709499550009X
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9781845699314000040
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