What Is Modal Fabric And Should We Add It To Our Sustainable Fabrics List?

Modal fabric is well-known for its absorption properties and its soft and breathable nature. It is also often referred to as a more eco friendly version of cotton.

But that’s not necessarily true.

Usually made from beech trees, modal is a semi-synthetic fabric that’s more durable and flexible than its predecessor, viscose rayon. It holds color well and doesn’t shrink or pill. It’s most commonly used in activewear, underwear, even bed sheets for its softness and flexibility.

However, modal fabric is not without some drawbacks. Although it is marketed as a sustainable and environmentally friendly choice, we know for sure this isn’t always the case.

Knowing the above, what is modal fabric really? This article will provide some insight into modal production and whether modal fibers are actually sustainable or not.

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Modal Properties - Its Pros And Cons

Before we get into the many details of the manufacturing processes and modal’s sustainability factor, let’s discuss what modal is like as a fabric first.

Pros

  1. Durable- Modal is a tightly woven fabric. This means it can withstand stress pretty well and holds up nicely against the elements. The fabric’s durability is why it’s used so often in sportswear.
  2. Stability- One of the major cons of viscose, which is another type of rayon, is that it shrinks easily. Modal doesn’t do that. It can hold shape and size when you wash it, which makes cleaning pretty quick and easy.
  3. Comfortable- Modal is close to cotton in terms of general feel, so you can expect it to be a generally comfy fabric type(we compare the two here).
  4. Elastic- Modal fabric is also quite elastic, which makes it so ideal for activewear.
  5. Drapes well- As a silk alternative, modal also has excellent draping properties for which silk is so popular.

Cons

  1. Sustainability Issues- Modal isn’t the most environmentally friendly clothing fabric despite being made of natural fibers.
  2. Expensive- Bear in mind that modal is a premium fabric. It isn’t like cotton or polyester in the way that it isn’t easily accessible and cheap.
  3. Less breathable than cotton-This isn’t really a con in itself. However, modal is often compared to cotton, so it is worth noting that, while modal is relatively breathable, it will not be as breathable as cotton.
  4. Cannot insulate- Another con for modal is it isn’t excellent at trapping heat. If you were planning to wear modal during colder days, know that it’s not the most practical fabric for insulation.

What Is Modal Used For?

Since modal is known for being a breathable and absorbent fabric, it’s used for various clothing items.

You’ll see it in activewear and underwear since modal fabric is pretty comfortable against the skin, giving a silk-like feel. Modal is also pretty easy to clean, so it’s perfect for fabrics that see a lot of use and wear.

Its fame in activewear is due to its durability and absorption properties. Modal fabric is pretty common in yoga pants, bike shorts, as well as swimwear.

In addition to that, modal is also frequently used for items that have a high comfort factor. These include clothing pieces like undies, robes, and t-shirts.

Modal fabric is also used for household items like bed sheets and linens since they’re very comfortable on the skin.

Some types like spun dyed modal fabric are even used in industrial scenarios! This type of modal can be useful as furniture and automobile textiles as well as become heavy-duty curtains or carpets [1].

Why Is Modal A Semi-Synthetic Fabric?

Alright, modal is made from cellulose fibers, which in turn, are made from plants. But modal isn’t actually classified as a natural fiber.

Instead, it is considered by most as something that falls in between—semi-synthetic fiber. Although modal is technically made from plants, the production process is what makes it synthetic.

Making modal fabric requires a lot of different chemicals. The fabric’s durability and properties come from all the processing it undergoes, from plant to pulp to cellulose, and finally, to fiber.

As such, it can’t really be considered purely natural when it has undergone so many material-altering processes.

That said, despite being semi-synthetic fabrics all rayons are biodegradable. This is one of the best selling points rayon fabrics (like rayon) have. It’s what manufacturers use to present them as an organic solution.

How is Modal Fabric Made?

Textile manufacturers make modal in a pretty similar fashion to viscose rayon, the steps of which you can read about here. But there are some significant changes, such as a lesser amount of sodium hydroxide.

Wood pulp is dissolved in sodium hydroxide, then further soaked in carbon disulfide, thus creating sodium cellulose xanthate. The resulting product will then be soaked in sodium hydroxide another time and then run through a spinneret before it is ready to be woven into fabric.

The modal production process involves using chemicals like sulfuric acid, caustic soda, carbon disulfide, and chemicals like bleach and dye. Not really very natural at all.

Once it’s woven into a fabric, then it’s ready to be assembled and sewn in any fashion. When we put it into words, it seems pretty straightforward. But in reality, modal manufacturing isn’t that simple.

In transforming beech trees to fabric, where do the chemicals go? Are they dealt with ethically and sustainably? Do they affect water systems? These are some questions that are worth asking in any production process.

Let’s take a deeper look at modal and its sustainability factor in the next section.

Are Modal Fibers Sustainable?

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Image by ChristyDawn.com

Since modal rayon is biodegradable and is a plant-based fabric, it can often be touted as environmentally friendly. The reality, however, is far more complicated.

Modal production requires a lot of synthetic materials, so it isn’t sustainable outright. If you see a product made using modal, it’s always good to exercise skepticism. Never assume that the modal used was made ethically and sustainably.

Due to the nature of production and the source materials, modal fibers still have many environmental impacts unless the manufacturers make the process more sustainable. And even so, modal production will still have an environmental impact.

For instance, recycling solvents and ensuring they don’t leech into the nearby water systems is one way. Another would be to use sustainably sourced trees.

Thus far, the most sustainable modal you’ll find comes from Lenzing, a textile manufacturer in Austria. But even then, Lenzing modal still is not the most eco friendly fabric you can find.

When buying modal, always make sure to check deeper than just what you read on the label. If it doesn’t specify that it’s Tencel or Lenzing Modal, try to determine where the modal was sourced.

Certain types like the China modal might not cut it in the sustainability factor. The country is notorious for lax policies regarding these practices, so keep your eyes wide open.

Is Buying Sustainable Modal Possible?

There are two main ways modal fabrics can be more sustainable and eco friendly. Just like viscose rayon, modal is better if made with responsibly sourced wood and if the solvents are recycled.

However, let’s clarify that these measures are only mitigating actions limiting the scope of the fabric’s impact. It doesn’t change the fact that producing modal means the environment will be taking quite a hit.

Responsible Wood Sourcing

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It is imperative that the wood used to create fibers is sourced sustainably. If it comes from unregulated forests, the fabric has failed to be sustainable right from the start.

For instance, 99% of Lenzing’s wood is sourced from forests certified or controlled by the appropriate bodies. They also never use wood from endangered or primeval forests, nor do they source from rainforests in Indonesia or West Africa [2].

Although beech is the traditional tree of choice used to create modal rayon, eucalyptus, pine, and birch trees can also be used.

Closed-Loop Manufacturing

One of the significant environmental offenders in modal’s production process is the chemicals used to create the fabric. The main concern is the disposal of these solvents, which might end up in nearby water systems or nature.

Recycling solvents will make a huge difference in making modal less harmful for the planet.

Again, Lenzing’s closed-loop solvent system is an example of this. Their rayon production process involves chemically recapturing the resulting gases for reuse during the next cycle.

Through this, less toxic waste is eventually released into the environment, and the brand won’t have to source chemicals for the next production run.

Modal vs. Other Common Fabrics

Modal vs. Viscose Rayon

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Modal is actually the second generation in three major categories of rayon fabrics. Modal is considered an upgraded version of viscose rayon. Not only is it more durable, but it also takes less toxic chemicals to produce, thus, more eco friendly.

Unlike viscose, modal fabric is a high wet modulus rayon. This means it gets stronger when wet and usually has a more stable shape. Modal rayon is also a more versatile type of rayon. It is more absorbent and breathable than viscose rayon, making it ideal for activewear.

Although modal rayon undergoes a process quite similar to the one used to create viscose rayon, it is still more sustainable than viscose due to the slightly altered materials used.

However, even though modal performs a bit better than viscose, they still share certain properties. For instance, both are pretty good alternatives to silk since both types of fabric drape really well. In fact, viscose and modal fabrics were initially created as alternatives to silk.

Overall, all these changes and improvements make modal a more expensive fabric. Modal clothes are generally more expensive than conventional cotton or viscose rayon.

Modal vs. Lyocell

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While modal is the 2nd generation of rayon, lyocell is the third and most sustainable version. It’s made in pretty much the same way but with far fewer toxic chemicals. Instead of the usual solvents, making lyocell involves the organic solvent NMMO.

You’ve probably noticed that Lenzing is one of the best rayon manufacturers today. They make the manufacturing process much more eco friendly and produce higher quality fabric. Lenzing even recycles up to 99% of their solvent!

One downside, though, is that eco friendly clothing made from lyocell tends to be quite costly. It’s a material that actually appears on our list of vegan, sustainable fabrics, but the cost might be a little bit too much for some people.

Modal vs. Cotton

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Image By Christy Dawn

To understand modal fabric further, let’s take a look at it in comparison to cotton.

Cotton and modal are both alternatives to each other, meaning they have a lot of similarities. However, they also have some significant differences.

For instance, unlike cotton, modal is typically very absorbent—absorbing up to 50% more than cotton. This is why modal is often a fabric of choice for eco friendly activewear brands.

On the flip side, cotton is quite soft and comes in various thicknesses and weights, while modal has a silky kind of softness. Both are still great fabrics for clothing, though.

If price is your consideration, modal clothing typically ends up being more expensive than cotton. However, this price disparity might be because cotton production is so common worldwide, and many farmers are (sadly) getting the shorter end of the stick.

Is Modal As Breathable As Cotton?

One of the main questions asked in the modal vs. cotton debate is which one is more breathable. And while modal is still a pretty breathable fabric, it usually has a tighter knit, making it less breathable than cotton.

However, we also have to consider that cotton can come in various weights. Denim would probably be less breathable than modal despite modal being less a less breathable material in general.

Which Is Better?

Modal and cotton are pretty comparable to each other since modal fabric properties are often similar to that of cotton. But when it comes to which one is the best, there are many factors we have to consider, such as price, weather, function, and plenty more.

Modal is more expensive than cotton and is best for certain pieces like sportswear or undies.

In reality, modal and cotton are often blended to achieve the right balance between soft and breathable. If you want the silky texture of modal while getting optimum softness, you may find that these blended fabrics work best.

If you want to learn about other cotton comparisons, check out our guide on cotton vs. linen.

Is Modal Vegan?

Yes! Since modal fabrics are made from trees and do not contain any animal or animal-derived components, they are completely vegan.

However, if you are vegan to limit your environmental impact as much as possible, then modal might not be the most sustainable alternative.

At Puratium, we always like to think that veganism is far more than just avoiding animal-related components. It is a way of life that encompasses our impact on not just animals but also the environment.

So although modal might be vegan, it doesn’t make the top of our vegan fabrics list.

Is Modal Biodegradable?

Since modal fabric is semi-synthetic, some of you might be wondering if it loses its biodegradability to the production process.

Fortunately, the answer is no. Even with a very extensive (and synthetic) manufacturing process, modal fabrics remain biodegradable!

However, remember that biodegradable does not mean compostable in your back garden. Make sure to safely dispose of it by checking your local recycling center policies, or by finding a second life for your item.

Caring For Modal - Best Practices

Just like any other type of cloth, natural fabric or not, your care for modal will extend its life. And thus make it more sustainable. If you have modal clothes, make sure to follow these tips or use the prescribed method by the brand you bought the piece from.

You can clean modal fabric using the washing machine with either cold or warm water. But for optimum results in terms of good gestures for the planet, it’s best to use cold water.

If you’re using a dryer, make sure to use low to medium heat. Remove when they’re almost dry and hand up properly, so you don’t end up with a piece of wrinkly fabric.

Do We Recommend Modal At Puratium?

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Organic Cotton T-shirt By Organic Basics

Given all the information above, we wouldn’t always recommend modal, but we wouldn’t put it on the top of our no list either.

Modal, in itself, isn’t sustainable. Sure, companies can make the manufacturing process more eco friendly, but it doesn’t change the materials used.

While modal has potential, there are still plenty of other fabrics we can turn our attention to. Organic cotton, for example, is a great alternative to modal! It’s made using sustainable practices and doesn’t involve plenty of synthetic processing.

However, it is important not to mistake this with conventionally farmed cotton, which may exact a higher environmental toll. Plus, cotton plants are still thirsty crops, even if it is made organically. Since modal is usually made from beech trees, it doesn’t need as much water as cotton.

If your only option is modal, then just make sure you buy from a brand that uses reputable modal fabric, such as Lenzing modal.

Generally speaking, avoid brands using modal fabric manufactured in high-risk locations.

Final Thoughts

As illustrated in this article, modal is quite a complex fabric both in how it is made and how we perceive it. Our awareness of its actual impact is vital in choosing the best steps towards a sustainable fashion industry.

Overall, modal isn’t inherently sustainable. But if made right and taken care of well, it’s still a pretty decent choice of fabric.

If you’re vegan, for example, and want vegan alternatives to silk, then try out modal. Just remember to buy from brands that source is ethically and sustainably (Lenzing always tops this list).

And that’s pretty much it! We hope this guide sheds some light on your questions about what is modal fabric and its sustainability factor.

Resources:

  1. https://patents.google.com/patent/WO2014040098A1/en
  2. https://www.lenzing.com/sustainability/production/resources/wood-and-dissolving-wood-pulp
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