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Fashion: Nature of a man-made fabric

Another cellulose fibre? This is different. It's called Tencel, and promises to be the silk of the future. By Tamsin Blanchard
Imagine a fabric that drapes beautifully, feels soft as silk, is hard-wearing enough to be thrown into the washing machine, is crease- resistant and environment-friendly. Too good to be true? No. Such a fabric really exists. Its name is Tencel.

Tencel is the first new fibre to be launched for more than 30 years. Scientists have been working on the fibre at Courtaulds for the past 20 years under the leadership of researcher Pat White, who was awarded an MBE last year for his trouble. But fashion designers have had access to it only since the beginning of the Nineties, when designers including Helen Storey and Katharine Hamnett tried it out in their jeans ranges. This spring, it has hit Marks & Spencer, Next and Jaeger, not to mention the collections of such diverse designers as Paul Costelloe, John Rocha and Jean Paul Gaultier.

Tencel (not to be confused with Tactel, a form of nylon used in high- performance sportswear and underwear) is cheap to produce, made, like viscose, from wood pulp and completely biodegradable. But it is a more absorbent fabric, with a higher performance than viscose, which has to be cleaned and looked after with care. Viscose manufacture also creates effluents that require costly cleaning up processes, while Tencel produces almost none. As part of a pounds 250m investment plan from Courtaulds the fabric will soon be manufactured in Britain as well as America: a new factory will open in Grimsby later this year.

Sandy MacLennan, consultant for Tencel, is developing new ways to mix it with other fabrics. "It can be used in its pure form, when it is very soft and supple and quite dry to touch. Or it can be blended with other fibres to give a new look. Tencel with silk is absolutely astonishing, but it's too expensive to put into production."

There has also been work done with nylon. "People have been amazed at the immediate impact the fibres had on each other. Tencel gives nylon softness and a natural feel, while the nylon adds lightness to the Tencel."

Peter Hetherington, a technical manager at M&S, says: "Tencel is very 'drapey' and very soft; you need a lot of fabric in the garments to show the extra drape. This season, we have styled the clothes to suit the qualities of the fabric." Prices start at pounds 26 for an indigo shirt.

Katharine Hamnett has been using Tencel since 1991 in her denim ranges to give a softer "handle". She is attracted to the fact that before the dyeing process it is one of the purest man-made fibres in production, as simple as wood pulp dissolved with water. "No fibre is perfect," says Hamnett. "But Tencel is a good step in the right direction".