Modal vs Cotton: A Holistic Comparison

Prized for their versatility, modal and cotton are frequently compared to each other across different characteristics.

Similar yet very different fabrics, they are often used for intimates like undies and for household items like bedsheets because of their softness and breathability.

And in this article, we will uncover the main differences between modal and cotton and determine which one of the fabrics comes out on top.

As always, we will be doing the entire analysis through our nuanced lens of sustainability. While fabric properties are undoubtedly important, rating fabric based on whether they’re eco friendly or not is one of our top priorities.

Is Modal Fabric The Same As Cotton?

Modal fabric
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First and foremost, let’s clear up that modal and cotton are not the same fabrics. Modal is not a more premium version of cotton as commonly believed.

There are instances where you can substitute them for each other, though.

It all depends on what you’re looking for in fabric. If you want something comfortable and budget isn’t an issue, then both modal and cotton are suitable substitutes for each other. But if you’re looking for something particularly warm and more cost-effective, then cotton is the clear winner.

As we discuss the differences between cotton fabrics and modal materials, you’ll get to see more clearly which one you prefer according to your standards.

What Is Cotton?

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Commonly referred to as the most popular textile used globally (there’s no official count on this, though), cotton is familiar to all of us.

Cotton, as a fabric, dates back to 5000 BC [1] and has since had a very complex and complicated history. Today, however, cotton remains a popular fabric known for its multitude of uses.

Cotton is a natural fabric suitable for vegans. It’s fully biodegradable, and its production does not involve complex processing. Even so, it isn’t exactly the most sustainable fabric—something that we’ll get into more in a bit.

How Is Cotton Made?

Cotton production starts with the harvest. Once this is done, the cotton is then cleaned—with the leaves and seeds removed. It is during this step that all other impurities must be removed from the cotton.

The cotton is then transferred to a processing facility and carded. Carding is the process wherein the raw cotton gets turned into long fibers for yarn spinning.

Once the yearn is ready, the cotton in its pure form can be dyed. Some types of cotton come raw and undyed, and these tend to be more sustainable due to the lack of chemicals used.

After dyeing comes the weaving. Cotton can come in a wide variety of styles. You can find it in a tight weave or a loose weave, depending on what the fabric will be used for. The type of weave is also a factor in breathability and durability.

Cotton Properties

Cotton is pretty versatile as a fabric. It’s used in various clothing and household goods such as t-shirts, denim jeans, bathrobes, blankets, and plenty more. Its widespread application and popularity are due, in part, to its versatility.

First, cotton is a type of very comfortable fabric. It is breathable and is pretty absorbent, so it’s great for a wide range of applications. Moreover, high-quality cotton can be durable, ensuring your clothes last more than just one season.

However, cotton also has its cons, which will present themselves more clearly when it is compared with modal.

What is Modal?

Modal vs cotton
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On the other hand, modal is a well-known silk alternative that came up within the last century. Modal is actually a type of rayon fabric, which you can read more about here.

This fabric is made from beech trees chemically processed to achieve modal fibers. Modal, like cotton, is used for a lot of different clothes and household items.

You will find modal sheets, modal socks, modal underwear, and even modal athletic wear. There really isn’t a shortage of how modal can be used in the clothing industry.

What Makes Modal A Semi-synthetic Fabric?

Cotton plant, beech trees—both are plants, right? So why do we consider modal material semi-synthetic?

It all boils down to the production process. Although modal technically comes from natural fibers, there’s no way we can consider it as such.

The manufacturing process to make modal clothing is way too chemical-intensive to ever be called natural. It involves a lot of toxic and harmful chemicals (e.g., sulfuric acid, carbon disulfide) that take away from the meaning of natural.

How Is Modal Made?

To dig deeper into why we think modal is semi-synthetic, let’s talk about how it’s made.

Modal starts off as wood chips from beech trees. First, the wood pulp is dissolved in chemicals (sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfide) to create sodium cellulose xanthate. This cellulose is then further soaked in chemicals so it can be run through a spinneret.

The end goal of the chemical process is to transform the wood into something that can be molded into long strands for yarn. This process is actually very similar to that of making viscose rayon, which is modal’s predecessor.

Once it’s turned into yarn, modal can then be woven into a fabric and assembled as desired. Often, modal will be mixed with other fabrics like cotton or stretchy materials like spandex to make it a more durable material and to enhance its properties.

Modal Properties

It is true that modal shares similar properties with cotton. It’s also a soft, breathable material, albeit of a different kind. Modal is a silky kind of soft and is incredibly well-known for its excellent drape. Hence, it’s used so often in clothing.

Modal is also pretty elastic and has excellent absorbency, which is why you’ll see it used for swimwear or sports clothing. Some forms of modal even wick moisture away if you aren’t a fan of absorbent cloths.

On top of that, modal, unlike other types of rayon, is relatively easy to care for. As a high wet modulus (HMW) rayon, its shape remains stable when washed and does not shrink. It also holds color pretty well and does not pill.

Modal vs Cotton

drapery material
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Photo by MUILLU on Unsplash

Now that we’ve gotten to know these two fabrics on a deeper level, it’s time to compare modal vs cotton on a closer level.

Which Fabric Is More Sustainable?

Here at Puratium, a fabric’s sustainability is crucial to us. And in the modal vs cotton conversation, environmental consciousness should be one of the primary drivers for our decisions.

It’s pretty challenging to quantify which one of the two is more sustainable because both of these breathable fabrics come with significant environmental costs.

Conventionally produced cotton is a natural material, but that doesn’t mean it’s all green and pretty. Cultivating cotton requires a ton of water and then even some more during processing and industrial washing.

On top of that, cotton production requires a lot of artificial pesticides and fertilizers. So although it is a soft, biodegradable fabric, it isn’t very sustainable.

In fact, cotton production ranks in the top 3 drivers for pesticide use in the US [2].

Remember, cotton is produced on such a vast scale that its effects on the environment tend to be very noticeable. With such a high global demand for cotton, we need to be careful about where we choose to buy our cotton sheets, cotton shirts, and denim.

We highly encourage buying organic cotton instead since they undergo fewer chemical treatments and save water. An organic cotton shirt saves up to 2000 gallons of water compared to a shirt made conventionally [3].

Modal, on the other hand, exacts a different type of environmental toll. As covered in the previous section, making modal requires a lot of chemicals that aren’t at all safe for the environment.

The excess from production could leech into nearby water systems if not dealt with appropriately. Fortunately, some manufacturers are doing quite well in this department.

Lenzing modal, in particular, is made with recycled solvents and sustainably sourced beech tree pulp (among other types of wood).

If you want to know more about modal and sustainability, check out our guide here.

At the end of the day, plenty of factors go into which fabric is more sustainable. If you choose cotton, make sure to buy either organic or recycled cotton as these tend to be more eco friendly.

However, if you choose modal fabric, make sure to buy from brands using reputable manufacturers like Lenzing since they generate less toxic waste.

Is Cotton Underwear More Breathable Than Modal?

Next up is breathability, which is a pretty important characteristic for many of the products modal and cotton are used for.

Cotton is prized for its breathability, and so is modal, to an extent. However, the general consensus is that 100% cotton is still more breathable than pure modal.

In most cases, synthetic fibers tend to be less breathable than other fibers made from plants. Modal, although not technically synthetic, may also have this property.

The reasoning is that modal fabric is usually made into a tight weave, while cotton is typically woven loosely. However, this isn’t always the case.

Cotton doesn’t always have a looser weave and can lack breathability at times. At the same time, modal can also be done in different weave types, encompassing different levels of breathability and durability.

But if we are talking about modal fabric and cotton as they are typically made, a pair of cotton undies are going to be more breathable than modal underwear most of the time.

Is Modal More Durable Than Cotton?

Again, this one requires more than just a black and white answer. The consensus is that modal is more durable than cotton because of its finer knit, which is true!

Most modal fabric will end up being stronger and more long-lasting than your average cotton pajamas. Modal doesn’t pile and stays stable even after numerous washes. Cotton, on the other hand, tends to pill at the surface, and the colors tend to fade with washing.

However, cotton can be made in so many types and weights. After all, comfy cotton t-shirts are far less durable than a set of high-quality cotton denim jeans, which can last virtually a lifetime if you take care of it well.

In other words, cotton durability is complex to quantity into just a single definition since it can vary on a case-to-case basis.

However, if you are comparing modal sheets to cotton bed sheets, then it’s very likely that modal fabric will be more durable. If you are purchasing a piece of clothing mainly on the basis of durability, modal is the safer choice.

Modal vs Cotton: Absorbency

Cotton is a pretty absorbent fabric and can absorb up to 24-27 times its weight [4]. However, modal fabric is still more absorbent than cotton.

Modal garments are very well known for being absorbent, and the fabric can hold up to 50% more water than cotton. The fact that modal can hold this much water is quite unique for a semi-man-made fabric.

Despite this, modal also has moisture-wicking properties! This might seem a bit contradictory to its absorbent nature, but some types of modal (e.g., micro modal) are specifically made for the purpose of regulating moisture.

These types of modal fabric are often used in sports clothes since they can keep the body cool and don’t trap perspiration during intense physical activities. It is the microscopic fibers in the cellulose fibers that are responsible for regulating the absorption and wicking of moisture from the fabric.

Meanwhile, cotton does not have these moisture regulating properties, so it is a bit deficient for activewear. If you want a fabric that will not cling to your skin when you sweat, then choose modal. If this isn’t an issue for you, then cotton may work just fine.

Is Modal Softer Than Cotton?

Typically, yes. Modal fabrics, despite and due to being processed by chemicals, feel soft, silky, and luxurious to the touch. It is actually the manufacturing process that gives the fabric such a luxurious and soft feel, fit for the high-end fashion industry.

This doesn’t mean cotton isn’t soft, though! Actually, with proper cotton laundry care, cotton gets softer over time. This is why your favorite cotton t-shirts slowly become more and more comfortable with each wash.

But cotton getting softer with washing isn’t a good sign of wash durability, which other people might specifically look for in a fabric.

If you are particular about a fabric’s texture, then modal may be a better choice since it has a silky texture, making it great for intimates and bedsheets.

To summarize, yes, modal tends to be softer than cotton (but not always). And just like all the other differences between the two, this isn’t a set pro or con. It really just depends on what you’re looking for in a fabric.

Which One Is More Expensive?

Alright, now that we’ve covered many of their differences, let’s talk about which one is more expensive for a given item. Cotton? Modal? Price is important to all of us whenever we’re shopping for clothing or house essentials.

In most cases, cotton is cheaper than modal, which is also why it’s used more often. Modal is more of a luxury fabric with a higher price tag than conventional clothes.

However, there are also certain types of cotton (e.g., Egyptian cotton, Pima cotton) that might also be a tad bit expensive.

If you’re on a budget and can’t afford to splurge on Lenzing modal, we highly suggest purchasing organic or recycled cotton instead. But if budget is not an issue, then modal or Pima cotton are both great options.

Which One Would We Recommend?

woman looking out the window
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Image by 99mimimi from Pixabay

As expressed in the discussions, there are plenty of notable differences between cotton and modal. And there’s no one of the two that we would recommend to everyone all of the time.

Although the two fabrics do have some similarities, which one you prefer is mainly on a case-to-case basis. If you want a more luxurious textile, then go for modal. But if you want a simple t-shirt for lounging around, then go for cotton.

While we prefer organic cotton because of its natural fibers, there are some instances when modal is the better choice function-wise.

Both of these fabrics have their pros and cons; there’s no doubt about that. When choosing which one is the best fabric for you, always remember to take a more holistic view of your purchase and assess your overall impact.

Final Thoughts

Most of the differences in modal vs cotton are up to preference. But something that is incredibly important to us is sustainability. Always make sure to choose fabrics that leave the least environmental impact.

Lastly, make sure to always choose brands that produce their clothing ethically and stay away from fast fashion—slow fashion is a far better alternative.


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