The Problem With Wood Based Fibers
I was scrolling through social media when a friend had posted this video from NBC about viscose contributing to deforestation.
Learning From the Experts
While the information from this video clip is familiar to me, I occasionally forget that a lot of people still do not know where their textiles come from, how they’re made, and the exact impacts their purchases have on our world. Before launching and getting my degree in Fashion Design, I spent years learning about what makes high quality textiles while working for Atelier des Modistes in San Francisco and traveling to sourcing shows like MAGIC to learn from sustainability experts and speakers.
What Makes a Quality Textile?
Atelier Des Modistes taught me about the art of designer wedding gowns and how important fabric selection is whether you are making something custom or small batch production. Working with textiles from the same mills in France where Chanel and Elie Saab received their silk and lace really broadened my horizons on textile knowledge. The silks were so luxuriously soft that it redefined my expectations for softness.
It’s not just how the fabrication feels and looks, but also the processes that go into constructing it making it last for decades. Textile knowledge is where you can tell how experienced a designer truly is. You can have a well-made pattern, but if it is cut and constructed using a fabrication not meant for that pattern, the garment may not fit or drape on the wearer correctly.
Besides softness and drape I also observe the fabrication's durability, abrasion resistance, sustainability processes, moisture wicking, and how well it can retain color before approving it for a style. Understanding these qualities are what make a garment last for years. Going through this checklist is not as common anymore for most ready-to-wear brands as their primary goal is to now produce cheap, trend driven styles that fill up their stores online or in person. This is also known as "dynamic assortment" which is what drives fast fashion.
There were so many fabrications to choose from, but the fabrication that met all of my expectations was “Tencel”; a sustainable form of lyocell fabric created by LENZING. This fiber had the same luxurious qualities as silk/cotton blends, while offering so many sustainable qualities.
What is Tencel
First off, what is Tencel? Tencel is a cellulose fiber that derives from wood by dissolving wood pulp and using a special drying process called spinning. Before drying, the wood chips are mixed with a solvent to produce a wet mixture. This mixture is then pushed through small holes to form threads, chemically treated, then the lengths of fiber are spun into soft, yet durable yarns and woven into cloth.
How is Tencel Different from Rayon & Viscose?
The most commonly asked question is how Tencel is different from Rayon and Viscose as they all come from wood pulp. This video caught my attention because most people would assume that a textile that comes from something as natural as wood would automatically be environmentally friendly. So why is Tencel considered sustainable while rayon and viscose are not?
The key difference is that Tencel is made from sustainably sourced wood, while around 30% of rayon and viscose used in fashion are made from pulp sourced from endangered and ancient rainforests. Lenzing AG states it sources from sustainably managed PEFC or FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) tree plantations. This is good news, considering concerns about the increasing impact of viscose production on deforestation.
While the definition of sustainability is always evolving, Tencel is a huge step in the right direction. In the production process, it reduces the use of water, energy use, and chemicals through what is known as a “closed loop process”.
This process reuses 99% of the solvents that turn wood into fibers and yarns. As a textile, Tencel has qualities that are indescribably natural, long lasting, and familiar. When you machine wash and dry it over time, the fibers begin to form a brushed cotton like texture. The softening is thanks to its extra-long fibers that are formed during the spinning process.
Why I Chose Tencel
While the story on environmentally friendly practices caught my attention, what sealed the deal for me as a designer to use Tencel in most of my designs was its strength. I’m personally a big fan of the way silk feels and drapes, but silk can be such an inconvenience to maintain and doesn’t hold over the years when worn regularly. Silk is a fabulous textile that is wonderful to wear during special occasions, but it’s not meant for the rigorous demands of everyday life. While Tencel may be soft, it seems that Lenzing built it with the intent to make sure it can hold up even during the roughest days. Afterall, what good is a work of wearable art if it does not hold up over the years.