This content was originally written for Indiesew and has been adapted for this blog. It was originally published on April 14th, 2017.
As different apparel fabrics become available to the sewing hobbyist it can be difficult to know how to approach them. I hear so many questions like: How do I keep modal knits from pilling in the wash, is there an easier way to cut from shifty silk crepe, and what in the heck is Tencel?
Just a few years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find fibers like cupro and modal in fabric stores. But these new fibers are now common in the fashion world and becoming more available in fabric shops because they’re so well suited to sewing clothing. Perhaps my favorite of those new fibers is Tencel (pronounced Ten-Sell).
The History of Tencel
First, it’s important to establish that Tencel is a brand name of a specific form of a fiber called lyocell (which is a form of rayon). Much like the way we use the word Kleenex to broadly to describe a tissue, the word Tencel is now often used to describe any lyocell fabric.
Tencel is a relatively young fiber, its origins beginning in the 1980s. It was developed from lyocell by a company called Courtaulds Fibres in Coventry, UK. But now the Austrian company Lenzing owns the Tencel brand.
Lenzing describes Tencel as an extremely eco-friendly product, as it’s produced in an almost 100% closed-loop system.
Tencel tends to have a very soft hand with lots of heavy drape. Because of its weight and density, Tencel is typically opaque.
We love Tencel for summer fabrics because it has all the beneficial properties of rayon and more. Tencel fabrics naturally feel cool or cold to the touch, making them ideal for hot summer days. Tencel is a breathable fiber that absorbs moisture much like silk or cotton, so it doesn’t trap heat against the body. Lenzing’s studies have shown that Tencel has superior abilities to reduce the growth of bacteria without chemical additives.
You’ll notice that Tencel generally has a matte, suede-like finish. It's soft against the skin and won’t irritate like polyester or wool can. It also has anti-static properties that make it a great alternative to silk.
How to Sew with Tencel
After sewing a few garments in Tencel, I’ve learned some important tips that make handling this fabric so much easier. Tencel fabrics are more suitable for the intermediate sewist due to its heavy drape. But unlike silk, Tencel isn’t slippery or shifty.
Because Tencel tends to be a pretty densely woven fabric, you do need to take a few precautions before sewing.
Be sure to use an extra sharp pair of shears or rotary cutter with this fabric. Carefully apply extra pressure to cut through more than one layer of Tencel fabric.
I recommend using sharp, extra-fine pins when sewing with Tencel. If you use pins that are too large, or have a ball-point tip, you’ll likely have a hard time pushing them through the fabric. What’s worse is that you can leave permanent pinholes in your fabric.
I also recommend using a topstitch needle or microtex needle in your sewing machine when sewing with Tencel. In my attempts, a universal sewing machine needle was not sharp enough to sew through this dense fabric.
How to Care for Tencel
Because of its soft hand and beautiful drape, you might assume that Tencel is a delicate fabric that must be washed carefully. Luckily, I’ve found the contrary to be true! I treat my Tencel garments just like I would a rayon challis garment. In fact, it seems to wash and wear even better!
I always prewash my Tencel fabric on a warm wash cycle and medium tumble dry cycle. Don’t skip this step as Tencel is prone to considerable shrinkage!
After my garment is sewn, I continue to wash my Tencel garments on cold and line dry them. You may notice that Tencel fabric gets really stiff and rigid when wet (even stiffer than 100% rayon). But after a few hours of hanging to dry it’ll soften up nicely. Any fabric made out of wood pulp will absorb lots of moisture (that’s a benefit to wearing it, remember!).
I press my Tencel fabric on the same setting I use for rayon (medium high heat, one step below the cotton setting with lots of steam). I find that just like rayon, Tencel will press into a crisp fold, making it easy to press hems.
How to Buy Tencel Fabric
Because Tencel is just a fiber from which fabric is woven or knitted, there are many different Tencel substrates on the market. Tencel twill and shirting are the most common substrates available. Although, Tencel jerseys can be found too.
You’ll likely see Tencel fabrics pop up in your favorite indie fabric stores as they becomes more popular. Because of its expensive production process, Tencel tends to range in price from $14 to $18 per yard.
Garments Best Suited for Tencel
Any garment that requires lots of drape will look great sewn in Tencel. The Lonetree Vest shown below is sewn in Tencel twill.
The Highlands Wrap Dress shown below is sewn in Tencel shirting.
If you can’t tell, we’re big fans of Tencel fabrics because they’re easy to wear and easy to maintain. If you’re still on the fence about Tencel, I recommend buying a small amount and using it with a pattern like the Coram Top. You’ll likely be converted to a Tencel lover after one sew!