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Everything To Know About Lyocell: Origin, History, Uses, Certifications & Sustainability

Everything To Know About Lyocell:  Origin

The source of lyocell’s strengths as a fabric starts with nature: it is made from cellulose, a material found in the walls of many plant cells. Lyocell is made from wood pulp, typically from farmed eucalyptus trees, and it is subjected to a chemical process to create the amazingly strong but soft fibers that can be made into a variety of garments and other things.
Born out of a quest to create a more environmentally friendly, versatile fabric, lyocell has numerous properties that make it a worthwhile fabric in a variety of applications: clothing – it is used as a substitute for cotton and for silk, medical dressings, conveyor belts, etc.
There’s a lot to love about lyocell, from the way it is made to the incredibly versatile finished product. Today we’ll cover all things lyocell, from the production process to the history, the uses, the certifications, and why it is such a big win for sustainability.
Lyocell is a fabric made from wood pulp | |. For the most part this is eucalyptus, although oak and birch are also sometimes used.
Once the trees have been cut down and the wood has been harvested, it is cut into pieces about the size of a U.S. penny and treated with the chemical amine oxide to help dissolve and grind it down into raw cellulose.
Amine oxides are organic molecules | |, meaning they are carbon- and hydrogen-based. They have many industrial applications: in addition to their role in creating lyocell, amine oxides are found in many home cleaning products | | and to a lesser extent in personal care and other products. They can also occur in nature | |.
Manufacturers of lyocell use the amine oxide N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide (NMMO) | |, a chemical that is able to break down the cellulose by breaking the hydrogen bonding network | | that keeps the cellulose insoluble to water and to other solvents.
Cellulose is an organic material | |, one of the most abundant organic materials in the world. It is a tough, fibrous, water-insoluble molecule, of the class of molecules known as polysaccharides. Best known for its role as a material in plant cell walls, cellulose is synthesized by many plants as well as by certain bacteria.
It is the strength and flexibility of cellulose that makes lyocell the amazing fabric that it is. Once the wood pulp has been cut, treated with amine oxide, and dissolved and ground down into raw cellulose, the result is a viscous, sticky liquid that can be pushed through mechanical spinnerets to create bright, white lyocell fibers.
The lyocell fibers can then be washed, dried, and spun into yarn. The lyocell yarn is the material that is woven into fabric.
The history of cellulose-based fabrics | | goes back to the 19th century. In 1855, Swiss-born chemist George Audemars patented an “artificial silk” he had derived from mulberry bark. Inspired by actual silkworms, Audemars tried to create artificial silk by taking inner bark from mulberry trees, dissolving it, and then dipping needles into the cellulose solution to draw out fibers.
Another chemist, an Englishman named Joseph W. Swan, had the idea of taking the cellulose solution and extruding it through fine holes. He initially sought to create filaments for electric lamps, but soon realized that he could use his method to create textiles.
Swan succeeded in creating cellulose textiles but failed to get much interest in them. As a result, it took until 1889 for Count Hilaire de Chardonnet, a French chemist, to exhibit artificial silk and successfully win an audience.
In 1891, Chardonnet built a plant to produce his new fabric in Besancon, France, and so rayon manufacturing was born.
Rayon, or viscose, is like lyocell in that it is produced from plant fibers. It differs in the manufacturing process: where lyocell is made by using NMMO to break down the fibers, rayon is made by chemically converting the cellulose to a material called cellulose xanthate | |, dissolving it in caustic soda – sodium hydroxide – and then regenerating it into cellulose | | as it is spun into yarn.
Technically, lyocell is a subcategory of rayon, a subcategory created by researchers who wanted a more environmentally friendly way of creating rayon | |.
Working for Eastman Kodak Inc., D. L. Johnson experimented with the use of NMMO to dissolve a variety of chemical compounds, including cellulose, in the period 1966-1968. Another pioneer was the company American Enka: from 1969 to 1979, researchers at this company worked to create regenerated cellulose fiber using NMMO to break down the cellulose, but they were unable to create a commercially viable process.
Finally, a research team led by Pat White at the British company Courtaulds created a method of manufacturing lyocell fiber in 1982. In that year, they were able to create up to 100 kg per week; this rose to 1 ton per week in 1984.
After that, lyocell manufacturing began to expand by leaps and bounds. Courtaulds opened a production line of 25 tons a week in Grimsby, England, in 1988. In 1992, they opened operations in Mobile, Alabama.
Courtaulds branded their lyocell fabric as TENCEL®, and for many people the terms “lyocell” and “Tencel” are synonymous and difficult to separate.
Another major manufacturer that started producing lyocell fabric around this time was Austrian-based Lenzing AG. Lenzing created a pilot plant in 1990, followed by a full-scale production plant at Heiligenkreuz in 1997. They branded their fabric Lenzing Lyocell®.
The story of these two companies merged in 2004, when Lenzing acquired Courtaulds’ TENCEL® group, including both the original plant at Grimsby, England, and the one in Mobile, Alabama in the United States.
Thanks to Lenzing’s acquisition of TENCEL®, the company is today the largest manufacturer worldwide of lyocell under any name. Lenzing’s plants produce about 130,000 metric tons of lyocell fiber every year.
As a fabric, lyocell combines some of the most favorable properties designers look for. There is probably better example of this than the fact that it is used as a substitute for cotton or silk | |: in particular, to make dresses, shirts, towels, and underwear.
Lyocell is so soft that it feels like soft cotton, but it is also significantly stronger than most fabrics. For these reasons, it is used to make many different garments, although it is more common to see it mixed with other fabrics – notably cotton and polyester – than to see it used on its own. The key idea with regard to mixing it is that the lyocell imparts strength to the mixed fabric.
The fact that lyocell is so smooth and soft means it is excellent for people with sensitive skin. It also has controllable fibrillation | | – this refers to the super-fine hairs found on the outer fibers – and that means it can be manipulated into a wide variety of textures. Lyocell fabrics may be created to achieve suede-like softness or a silky smooth finish, and essentially everything in between.
Lyocell is also very durable. It holds up to a beating whether wet or dry, and is especially resistant to wrinkling.
Lyocell is a highly absorbent fabric, and that means it is ideal for dyeing. Lyocell fabrics can be dyed to high-quality standards.
Another advantage of lyocell over cotton is that it is more breathable. It can absorb up to 50% more moisture. This also means it has anti-bacterial properties compared to cotton.
Commercially, lyocell is also used to create the fabric parts of conveyor belts. When conveyor belts are made with lyocell fabric they last longer and are more resistant to wear and tear. This again speaks to the strength of the cellulose fibers used to make lyocell.
Caring for lyocell fabric is relatively easy. More delicate fabrics may require hand-washing in cold water using a gentle detergent, followed by a drip dry. Lyocell fabrics shrink about 3% when they are first washed, but then resist shrinking from that point on.
Machine washing on the gentle cycle is workable for many lyocell garments. However, drip drying is still preferable to machine drying.
If it is necessary to iron a lyocell garment, this should be down only with a warm iron. Too much heat on a lyocell garment can scorch the fabric.
Finally, some lyocell garments are dry-clean only. This is typically due to other fabrics used in the making of the garment, typically fabrics used in finishing details or structuring elements – for example, linings, which may be more inclined to shrink than the lyocell garment.
Lyocell’s strong, supple fibers also make it an optimal material for use in medical dressings.

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