Think of sustainable fabrics, and your mind probably wanders to ill-fitting hemps and other itchy fibres normally associated with people who sell ‘herbs’ at world music festivals. But as sustainability becomes an ever more pressing concern in fashion – which is the world’s second largest polluter, behind oil and gas production, let’s not forget – designers are experimenting with novel fabrics that are flattering on the body and easy on the planet.
Chief among these is Tencel, which you almost certainly haven’t heard of yet. The brand name of a form of lyocell, this entirely natural fabric is made – and we’re deadly serious here – from trees (more on that to come) and it’s one of the most sustainable fabrics to dress yourself in.
Over the past couple of seasons, dozens of designers have picked up on its miraculous properties, from global behemoths to cult streetwear brands, and are using it in everything from shirting to underwear. It’s growing in popularity not just because of its low carbon footprint, but also because it’s an affordable alternative to superfine cotton, suited to casual shirts and cool, slouchy tailoring as well.
What Is Tencel?
Let’s get into the nitty gritty. When we say it’s made from trees, we really mean it’s made from the natural cellulose found in wood pulp, which is an often wasted by-product from harvesting timber.
The tree pulp is collected cheaply, and processed to extract the cellulose. This material is then stabilised and used to form a soft, cotton-like fibre that can be spun into yarn, and then into a finished fabric. This also allows Tencel to be blended with other natural fibres, so in summer, linen and Tencel blend shirts, or cotton and Tencel blend trousers are growing increasingly popular with menswear brands that are focused on sustainability. Best of all, Tencel is harvested and produced with a minimal impact on the environment, making use of an otherwise waste product, and it’s completely biodegradable too. It’s also important to flag that all the wood and pulp used in the production of Tencel fabrics comes from sustainably managed forests and plantations – certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. In short, it’s as eco-friendly a material as it gets.
Where Does Tencel Fit Into Your Wardrobe?
Like us, you’re probably sold on the eco credentials, but how does Tencel behave, and what is it like to wear? Essentially, think of it as a cross between cotton and silk. It’s light and airy, and can be quite floaty – giving shirts and trousers a fluid, breezy feel.
For this reason, it lends itself to louche summer shirts and trousers. Even so, heavier versions of Tencel are used in winter shirts and tailoring. Being a natural fabric, even heavy Tencel garments breathe and keep the wearer cool, which make it suitable for year-round use.(Incidentally, this is why it works well for underwear too.)
If you’re looking to incorporate a few different Tencel pieces into your wardrobe, the obvious place to start is with a couple of short-sleeved summer shirts with Cuban collars. There are no shortage of these to choose from with designs ranging from luxury makers like Turnbull & Asser, through to cult Scandinavian brands like NN07.
Beyond short sleeve shirts, there are a few other options for upping your wardrobe’s sustainable fabric quota, read on for these below.
Five Key Pieces
The Tencel Shirt
This oversized shirt is from Swedish brand A Day’s March, which specialises in elevated wardrobe staples. Its Tencel shirts are superb; affordable, comfortable and nicely cut. Our favourite is this one, cut in a soft petrol blue Tencel twill that drapes beautifully and looks great. Wear it open over a white T-shirt tucked into pleated chinos.
Another Scandinavian front-runner, Danish designer Native North has been a pioneer in using Tencel for several seasons. Its Japanese cotton/Tencel blend trousers are a firm favourite; with a low-rise, relaxed fit and taped side-seams.
They’re finished with metal buttons and contrasting internal seams for a luxe finish and you can pick them up in navy, black or this versatile khaki colour. Soft and comfortable, these will only get better with age.
The Tencel Trucker Jacket
Levi’s might have been making jeans for the best part of 170 years, but the brand isn’t afraid to innovate, either. New for the season, the American denim powerhouse has experimented with an environmentally kinder cotton/Tencel blend denim for a tight range of washed trucker jackets.
Cut in a classic style with a panelled front, pointed collar, two utility pockets and pressed metal stud buttons, this is everything you could wish for in a timeless denim jacket – with extra points for sustainability.
Tencel Tailored Shorts
These relaxed chambray shorts are cut in a soft Tencel melange by resortwear brand Frescobol Cariocia. With wide legs and a neat drawstring waist, they’re a comfy choice for even the balmiest of days – great for long weekends away or a fortnight on the beach.
A soft texture and indigo colouring give them a denim-like appearance, and they’re finished with a zip fly and one rear pocket for valuables.
CDLP’s luxury boxer briefs are comfortable and chic, which is really all you want from underwear. Low-rise and form-fitting, they’re made from a Tencel and elastane blend that breathes, stretches and maintains shape over time. There are lots of clever features on these, including a shaped pouch, label-free construction to ensure there’s nothing that’ll irritate your skin, and fitted legs so they maintain their silhouette.
Smoother than silk and softer than cotton, these will flatter where it matters most.