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How Tencel Became Denim’s Go-To Ingredient

It’s not easy for a new fiber to make a dent in an industry as cotton rich as denim, but after 30 years Lenzing Group’s Tencel lyocell has a first-row seat in the category’s sustainability and comfort overhaul. Made with sustainably-sourced natural raw wood and produced using environmentally responsible processes, Tencel lyocell have become an ingredient brand synonymous in the denim sector for its low amounts of water, low carbon footprint and softness. 

“Today, many brands are committing time and effort to sourcing innovative materials that are durable and ethically made. But not every innovative material fits the bill,” said Berke Aydemir, head of R&D and technical sales at Naveena Denim Mills. “Tencel fibers are made using more environmentally responsible processes than artificial fibers such as nylon and polyester, and they deliver comfort and durability. Plus, they look good. These attributes fit the changing lifestyle and expectations of consumers.” 

Tencel lyocell’s journey began in 1992 with production in Alabama, followed by Lenzing launching the first full-scale lyocell production plant in Austria in 1997. Lenzing acquired the Tencel brand and its production sites in the U.S. and U.K. in 2004, and production was further expanded in 2011 when Lenzing established the first lyocell fiber plant in Lenzing, Austria. 

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As closed loop processes gained importance, the company introduced Tencel lyocell with Refibra in 2017, a technology that utilizes a mixture of wood from sustainable sources and cotton waste from garment production.

Turkish mill Orta was the first company to get exclusivity of lyocell in Europe (before Lenzing bought the Tencel brand), and then lost it to Spanish firm Tejidos Royo, which Orta’s marketing and washing manager Zennure Danışman said “very wisely” used the fiber in lighter weights and created a new market.  

“Still, it’s a nice story and good experience for Orta, and we should really give credit to Tejidos Royo for their success of using Tencel as a first in our industry,” she said. Orta’s journey with Tencel lyocell resumed in the 2000s and the fiber is now part of 20-25 percent of its production. 

In an era where comfort and sustainability are must-haves, Genious Group president and founder

Adriano Goldschmied said Tencel branded fibers are essential. The “Godfather of Denim” was introduced to the fiber at its onset when he was looking to “give denim a more feminine and friendly style.” He was so impressed by Tencel that he designed a complete collection, which went on to revolutionize the textile and denim industries.

A who’s who of denim brands have followed suit including Boyish, Guess, Kings of Indigo, Levi’s, Madewell, Mavi, Mother, Rag & Bone, Reformation and more. 

“Tencel opened a whole new window and perspective to the denim world,” said Noman Nadir, Soorty VP of research and product development. “It brought the ability of denim designed to be more premium and popular.”

Alberto Candiani, president of Candiani Denim, echoed this sentiment, describing the fiber as one of the “most significant” recent innovations in denim. “We first used Tencel in our blends back in 2014,” he said. “It was a 60 percent Tencel, 38 percent cotton and 2 percent elastane [fabric] with a beautiful look and touch. It is still in production today; it became a core fabric for many Californian premium brands.”

Tencel was part of DL1961’s 2008 launch and it remains a key piece in DL Ultimate, the brand’s line of fabrications with regenerative fibers. “Tencel has allowed the denim industry to transform its manufacturing and product quality,” said Sarah Ahmed, DL1961 co-founder and chief creative officer. “Jeans incorporated with Tencel are not only beneficial for the environment, but the consumer benefits too because of improved fit and function.” 

Sustainable solution

With its circularity and solution for low-carbon emissions, Goldschmied described Tencel as the “answer to an eco-strategy in fashion.” 

“I think once you get to know the fiber and its characteristics, Tencel adds a layer to denim. It’s like denim on its own is bread, but add Tencel, and it is now avocado toast,” said Suzie P. Lee, Black Orchid VP of operations and production. “I have always been fascinated at the ‘life’ that Tencel has. It breathes and grows as if it was alive and as challenging as that was when we first worked with the fiber, no other fabric can give you the luxurious and buttery hand that Tencel does. Best part of it all is that it is sustainable and organic.”

It’s for those reasons that Vietnamese spinning and denim mill XDD Denim opened its facility in 2020 with Tencel x Refibra being a part of its production. The blend is featured in Ecology Denim, XDD’s 5-in-1 concept that combines it with GRS-certified recycled cotton, organic cotton, textile waste and Hyosung’s Creora bio-based spandex. “Our vision is to provide marketable fabrics and trends to our customers with sustainability methods. Therefore, Tencel will [play a role in the development] of our hero product,” said Man Ng, XDD’s denim director. 

XDD’s capacity is on track to reach 4 million yards by 2023, and one-third of products will be using fiber from Lenzing. Ng anticipates that XDD’s use of the fiber will increase following the launch of Tencel’s new $450 million production facility in Thailand. The new plant, which Lenzing said is the largest of its kind in the world with a capacity of 100,000 tons per year, started production on schedule and will help to better meet the increasing customer demand for Tencel branded lyocell fibers.

Tencel exists in 80 percent of Boyish’s collection of sustainable jeans, with fabrics containing anywhere from 18-40 percent of the fiber. 

“With the recent sustainability boom, Tencel has become a huge player,” said Jordan Nodarse, Boyish founder and creative director. “I’ve visited their factory in Austria several times and I’m always impressed at the level of efficiency behind the manufacturing process of Tencel. They even monitor the rivers and wildlife of the surrounding areas of their manufacturing plants. That’s rare for fiber companies to ever care more about anything than just bottom-line profit. Tencel does it all.” 

Soft spot

As denim companies increase ways to entice consumers away from loungewear and activewear, so has its use of Tencel. 

“Denim was traditionally seen as sturdy, if a bit rigid,” said Baber Sultan, Artistic Milliners director of product development. “The spectrum has grown and Tencel has played a big role in that by bringing another dimension to it, adding comfort and luxe, and to be able to do that while being sourced responsibly is a huge win.”  

The fiber has gone on to become a major part of the Pakistani vertically integrated denim manufacturer’s production; it uses over 350 tonnes Tencel a month. 

Chinese mill Blue Diamond started its use of Tencel in 2012, beginning with lightweight woven shirting in both 100 percent Tencel constructions and Tencel/cotton blends for the European market. About 20 percent of its total production now includes Tencel fibers.

The mill’s LZ-45 fabric (79 percent cotton, 21 percent Tencel) is the largest order volume that it runs. The fiber gives the 12 oz. denim a soft hand without compromising the authentic 3×1 twill favored by denim heads. “It looks rugged and authentic, but sophisticated and modern to the touch,” said Gary You, Blue Diamond’s VP of business and product development. 

“Tencel not only brought another cotton alternative to the denim narrative but leveled it up on how traditional workwear can be elevated,” he added. “When blended with other natural fibers, it made it fancier, smarter and sexier.”

Soorty Enterprises’ production with Tencel ballooned 128 percent in the last year, and Nadir said further increases are expected. 

“When we look at the past five years, we see all our best sellers are woven with Tencel fibers, including the launch of completely new concepts,” said Alper Cataloglu, Soorty’s senior manager, product development. “Consumers appreciate the added value that comes attached with materials that are innovative by nature.”

The Pakistani manufacturer’s first trial with the fiber, a 10 oz. 2×1 shirting fabric made with 100 percent Tencel, was developed in March 2009. The prototype bares similarities to “Reload in Blue,” a brand-new elevated loungewear concept developed by Soorty and Tencel to make denim more comfortable for home. 

“Tencel gave us an opportunity to make the big impact in women’s denim market,” Cataloglu said. “Being able to construct and weave authentic and luxurious fabrics with softness and comfort was a big change maker with a big impact.”

Indeed, Tencel branded fibers are known to be soft to the skin, smooth to the touch and contribute to breathability, offering specialty fiber solutions across all segments, especially women’s.  

“Tencel covers a broad range of aesthetics—from looking good to feeling good,” said Munir Alam, Azgard9 COO. The Pakistani mill designed its first fabric with it in 2005 to meet the “soft touch requirement” from its customers. Azgard9 now produces one million meters of fabric using Tencel a year.

Approximately 10 percent of Global Denim’s fabric styles contain Tencel. The fiber was brought to the Mexican mill’s attention in 2016 for its ability to enhance the strength, softness and drape of fabrics—qualities that were especially important as the mill sought ways to further explore the women’s market. 

“Our first fabric was the Love Agean blue and hot is still one of our best sellers,” said Anatt Finkler, Global Denim creative director.  

Inspiring partner

To many, Lenzing’s Tencel exemplifies the supply chain partner of the future—a provider of raw material and an innovation partner. The company has a history of developing inspirational capsule collections with mills, designers and other industry creatives to demonstrate its endless possibilities and how it complements other fibers and sustainable technologies. 

“Denim is an innovative and competitive industry with multiple big players investing in R&D, newness and purpose,” Cataloglu said. “We all can count multiple examples where it has pioneered and led innovation for the better.” While cotton remains the dominate fiber in the denim industry, he said the success of Tencel reveals how it is open to solutions and innovations. 

The fiber has also become a catalyst for collaborations and education through its Carved in Blue platform, a network of editorial content, videos and podcasts that pull back the curtain on denim production and sustainability. As an “agent of change,” Finkler said Tencel has become a “pillar in the denim industry” by keeping the community connected and inspiring positive change. 

“Tencel made us realize there are other natural alternatives to cotton gives us the look we love with the hand we can’t live without,” You said. “But it also made us rethink traditional denim, much like stretch fibers did for denim. It made us think out of the box to create new again. We can’t wait to see the other new projects Lenzing has in store for the denim industry.”