Wondering what’s the difference between tencel, rayon, modal, lyocell or viscose? We get it, it can be a little confusing to distinguish between these fabrics. Afterall, they are all cellulose materials meaning they are originally made from wood pulps.
So let’s dive in and explain the difference between tencel and modal, as well as earlier generations of regenerated fabric such as rayon and viscose.
Let’s start with an overview of the development of these fabrics. It’s helpful to break this down into 3 separate generations of cellulose fibre. Rayon → Modal → Lyocell
Each of these fabrics have slightly different traits and mark the evolution of cellulosic fibre production:
Generation 1 - Rayon: sometimes called viscose rayon or artificial silk. It is known for its high luster and bright shine whilst feeling soft and smooth to wear.
Generation 2 - Modal: The second generation of cellulose fibre. Its softness has been enhanced and strength has been added to the fabric so that it doesn’t shrink or stretch when wet.
Generation 3 - Lyocell: The latest development in cellulose fabric technology. It’s better for the environment due to advancements in sustainable manufacturing. Lyocell also retains the softness, drape and potential antibacterial properties of previous generations.
You’re likely asking where tencel fits into this? TENCEL™ is actually the trademarked brand name given by the Austrian company Lenzing AG to their process of creating lyocell fabric. This is important to remember for the rest of this article.
For now you can think of TENCEL™ as the Coke of the lyocell world. Just how Coke has become so popular that it is now used to refer to all cola soft drinks, TENCEL™ too has become the most well known and trusted lyocell brand.
In short, TENCEL™ is just the brand name for one company’s lyocell fabric that is manufactured to a high sustainable standard. We have devoted a whole article to the sustainable and eco friendly benefits of Tencel. **Spoiler, it really is as good as it gets.
So far we know that there are three generations of regenerated cellulose fibres, rayon (generation 1), modal (generation 2), and lyocell (generation 3). We also know that tencel is just one brand of lyocell fabric manufactured by Lenzing AG in Austria.
Despite the fact tencel, modal and rayon are all made from wood pulp, the way they are manufactured means they are not truly a natural fibre like cotton, hemp or wool. Nor can they be considered synthetic fabrics as they are originally sourced from natural wood.
This is why they are typically referred to as ‘regenerated cellulosic fibres’. The properties of these cellulose fibres are more similar to natural cellulose fibres like cotton or flax than synthetics such as nylon or polyester.
For those of you who are hungry for knowledge, we are here going to deep dive into the characteristics of rayon, modal, lyocell and Tencel, describing what exactly is the difference between the three generations of regenerated fabrics.
Rayon has been around for over a hundred years. It was the first regenerated cellulose fibre, patented as “artificial silk” in 1894. Rayon can be created through two different manufacturing processes.
The first way to produce rayon is mechanical processing. This involves a labour intensive and relatively expensive industrial process in order to mechanically break down wood into fibres that can be used in clothing. The output is a fairly coarse fabric, similar to hemp, flax or bamboo linen.
This is why chemical processing is typically preferred when commercially producing cellulosic fabrics such as rayon, modal, lyocell and even bamboo. It is less labour intensive, cheaper to make, and the output is the silky soft “artificial silk” that shoppers come to expect.
This chemical process is called viscose processing. Rather than breaking down the wood mechanically, it is dissolved in a chemical solution until it forms a pulpy viscous substance. This pulp is then pushed through a spinneret (which looks similar to a shower head with small holes), forming thin fibres which can be woven together to form “regenerated” yarns.
To break down wood into a pulpy solution requires some pretty intensive chemicals, including caustic soda and carbon disulphide. These chemicals are extremely harmful to human health, and if released into the environment can cause significant disruption to ecosystems. It’s been calculated that as much as 50% of the chemicals required to process wood in this way cannot be recycled and often end up being released into the environment. Sadly this makes chemical processing of these popular soft fabrics incredibly bad for the planet.
It’s normally pretty easy to identify rayon made in this way as the label will simply state “rayon” or “viscose”. If you are trying to dress sustainable, we recommend avoiding these fabrics where possible
Modal is the second generation of “regenerated” cellulose fibre. It was created due to the desire to produce a higher wet strength rayon fibre whilst retaining all the benefits of rayon.
Modal was first developed in Japan in 1951. Like Lyocell, most Modal is today produced by Austrian company Lenzing which started selling their version in 1964. Lenzing produces modal primarily from sustainably harvested beech trees, and uses an environmentally friendly process of bleaching and chemical recapture.
Production of modal is very similar to the viscose process required to make rayon, with a few modifications to produce a higher strength fibre with an even softer finish.
The third generation of cellulose fabric is called lyocell. Lenzing began production of its TENCEL™ Lyocell fibre in the 1990s.
Lyocell has many advantages over rayon and modal. One of the main benefits is the way it's manufactured. We’ve written at length about the sustainable advantages of TENCEL™ Lyocell here, but this is a quick recap on what’s been said.
Lyocell’s sustainable production processes are its claim to fame. It’s the most modern method for producing ‘regenerated cellulose fibre’ from wood, typically eucalyptus trees.
Unlike viscose and modal production, the lyocell process dissolves eucalyptus wood in a closed loop system without any intensive or potentially harmful chemicals. Instead it uses an organic amine solvent called N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide (NMMO). This closed loop system enables manufacturers to recover and reuse 99% of the NMMO solvent which can be fed back into the production process.
As the primary manufacturer of lyocell, Lenzing’s TENCEL™ Lyocell provides the assurance that it is one of the most sustainable production processes of any modern material. As well as recovering over 99% of the solvent required, it is also highly energy efficient and powered by bioenergy. The wood required to make TENCEL™ is all sustainably sourced and certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). This has helped Lenzing’s TENCEL™ Lyocell gain the “European Award for the Environment”.
Rayon can be used for a wide variety of products. It’s incredibly soft and comfortable to wear and can be easily dyed into whatever colours you desire. Rayon is breathable and wicks moisture from the skin, making it ideal for hot or humid weather. Rayon also does not pill (those annoying little balls that form on the outside of some fabrics), feels gentle on your skin and provides moderate resistance to wrinkling. It’s advisable to wash rayon on a delicate wash, as it does lose strength when wet. Ironing should be fine but it is less resistant to high temperatures than cotton, so can shrink if tumble dried. Follow the care instruction on the label if in doubt.
Modal has virtually the same properties as regular rayon but has the added benefit of having strength when wet. It is even more soft than rayon, making it ideal for intimate body contact and is often used in underwear or sports clothing. The additional strength given to modal means it is machine washable and can be tumble dried without shrinking or stretching. Modal textiles hold their colour well so typically don’t fade or gray over time.
There are a number of benefits of lyocell over rayon or modal. Something that lyocell is renowned for is its ability to absorb moisture and wick it away from the skin. In fact, it can absorb moisture around 50% more quickly than cotton and release it into the atmosphere, making it perfect for sports clothes as well as more intimate garments, bedding or sheets. This means that lyocell (and tencel) are incredibly breathable to wear, benefitting you by helping to maintain and regulate body temperature.
The ability to wick moisture quickly from the skin in theory also helps prevent the growth of bacteria, meaning your clothes should stay smelling fresher for longer. This limits the number of times that an item needs to be washed, which is key to dressing more sustainably. In comparison, bacteria are able to thrive on man made synthetics like nylon or polyester.
The reason lyocell is able to absorb moisture and transport it away from the body so readily is actually due to nanotechnology. Sounds impressive I know, but lyocell fibres contain microscopic nanofibrils which are hydrophilic (meaning they have a strong attraction to absorb water), helping keep your body cool on hot days.
These fine fibres are also extremely smooth and gentle on skin, feeling softer than both rayon and modal. Like modal, lyocell also has the benefit of being durable even when wet. It doesn’t wrinkle or crease easily, making it a particularly good material to wear if you are one of those people who hates ironing (like me). The versatility of this fabric means it's perfect for anything from light silky flowy dresses, flexible activewear, sheets or even stiffer shirts.
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