What is Modal Fabric and is it TRULY Sustainable?

It seems like everyone in the sustainable fashion world is talking about modal these days. If you haven't heard, it's a semi-synthetic fabric that's marketed as an environmentally friendly alternative to cotton.

But what is the real truth about Modal? Is it really better for the environment, or is this just more fashion industry greenwashing?

Today I'm going to answer all your questions about modal. We'll examine the manufacturing process, how modal compares to other fabrics, whether it is a truly sustainable and organic solution, the health benefits, and how to care for modal garments.

What Exactly is Modal Fabric?

Modal Fabric Definition: A type of rayon, a semi-synthetic fabric made from the wood pulp of beech trees, originally produced in Japan.

It is also known as "high wet modulus rayon" which isn't particularly catchy! So it's no surprise they went with modal rayon, or just modal.

Modal fabric has the same durability as cotton, but it's lighter yet breathable like silk, wrinkle-resistant like polyester, and extremely soft like viscose rayon. It consists mostly of cellulose and lignin and has a very high absorbency.

You can find modal fibers blended with cotton or other materials to create special qualities in the fabric, such as stretchiness or colorfastness for washability.

Modal fabrics are made from beech wood chip

How is Modal Fabric Manufactured?

Modal fabric is made from cellulose fibers extracted from wood pulp. The manufacturing process is a little complicated. To create modal rayon, before the material can be turned into fabric, it is treated with various chemicals to make it soft and absorbent.

Most modal fabric originates from beech trees. Chipped wood pulp is combined with chemicals to extract cellulose fibers. These are then treated further, stretched and dyed before being turned into yarns and eventually the soft fabric known as modal.

Viscose rayon and modal fabrics share a similar production process but they are different in their own ways. In the production process of modal, it is stretched longer and dyed before being put into a spinneret to be spun into yarns.

This special treatment makes modal stronger and more durable than viscose. It also makes it shrink resistant and easier to shape when wet.

Why is Modal Fabric so Expensive

Modal feels much softer and more luxurious than cotton or viscose rayon. However, the production process involved in modal manufacturing means it does cost more than other semi-synthetic fabrics.

Is Modal Fabric Sustainable?

Some types of fabrics are thought to be more eco-friendly than others. Modal is one example. But what exactly makes modal fabric sustainable?

The cotton plant uses enormous amounts of water during its growing process, which has impacted the environment. Cotton consumes a high percentage of the world's pesticides and herbicides, which can contaminate water supplies. In addition, cotton is not a very durable fabric and typically cannot be worn more than once without washing.

In an effort to make a fabric with many of the benefits of cotton but with less impact on the environment, there has been research into how modal fabric can be made from sustainable sources that don't have a negative impact on the environment.

Modal fabric is made from beech trees, which are a sustainable source of material because they don't require much water, they are fast-growing and let light through to the ground below, allowing other plants to grow under them.

The Lenzing company, an Austrian business that makes modal fabric, has adopted methods of making the fabric that are more environmentally friendly than some other methods. Because they use a spin-dyeing process on modal fabrics, there is no water wasted in processing and very little dye used. By reducing the amount of dye used, less energy is required to treat the dyed fabric.

Is Modal Biodegradable?

As you know by now, Modal fabric is made from plants, so technically yes it is biodegradable.

However, the modal production process does involve a number of chemicals which can be toxic.

The type and quantity of chemicals used depends on the individual manufacturer. In general, Lenzing modal (also known as TENCEL modal) is considered to be the most environmentally friendly.

Is Modal Healthy to Wear?

There are some health benefits to wearing Modal, but some potential drawbacks as well.

Modal Fabric Health Benefits

Modal fabric is a type of rayon, which is manufactured from the wood pulp of beech trees. Modal fabric has many health benefits because it is so soft and smooth against the skin. It absorbs moisture and keeps your body cool and dry when you exercise or work in a warm environment. The material is also very breathable, allowing perspiration to evaporate quickly.

Aside from these benefits, modal fabric is also hypoallergenic and can help prevent skin irritation. The smooth surface of the material blocks airborne allergens that may irritate sensitive skin. However, certain people are allergic to rayon or they experience an allergic reaction when wearing this fabric for the first time.

Modal Fabric Health Risks

Some people are allergic to modal fabric, and may experience an allergic reaction when they wear modal fabric for the first time. Itching, redness, and rashes are the most common symptoms.

If you already know that modal fabric is a problem for your skin, it is best to avoid wearing modal clothing.

In addition, the smooth surface of modal fabric does have some drawbacks. When you sweat, the moisture is quickly absorbed by this material and it can take a long time to dry out. The best way to eliminate this problem is to increase airflow on your skin by removing layers of clothing or opening the vent on your car during a hot summer day.

Where to Buy Sustainable Modal

Modal is used by various eco-friendly clothing brands, and is becoming increasingly popular throughout the textile and apparel industry.

You can buy a variety of modal clothes, including t-shirts, shirts, pants, dresses, socks, underwear, pyjamas, bed sheets and more.

Be aware though that there are different textile manufacturers making modal, and not all follow the same manufacturing processes. That's why we recommend you shop at one of the best eco-friendly clothing brands to minimise the environmental impact of your clothing.

Here are a few of my favourite sustainable brands that stock product lines made from modal:

Check out their ranges to get some great ideas of how modal can be used in affordable, sustainable fashion.

Modal Fabric Properties

So now we know a little about what modal fabric is, but how does it compare to other textiles? Is it really the eco-friendly alternative it's purported to be?

Modal vs Cotton

Modal is considered to be a more environmentally friendly and sustainable alternative to both conventional and organic cotton. Modal production uses significantly less water, which is one of the main environmental issues with cotton production. Traditional cotton also uses pesticides.

Cotton is a natural fabric and is cheaper to buy, but modal is lighter, more durable, more absorbent, and (providing it's Lenzing modal and not made in China) more eco-friendly too.

Modal vs Viscose Rayon

The modal production process is very similar to the one used to create viscose rayon. However, the production of viscose rayon uses more chemicals, therefore modal is the more eco-friendly option of the two.

Modal vs Nylon

Nylon is a fully synthectic fabric, whereas modal is semi-synthetic. Nylon is not biodegradable (although it can be recycled) and is made from polymer, a type of plastic.

Therefore, modal is a far more eco-friendly choice than nylon.

Both modal and nylon are soft, light fabrics that are commonly used in sportswear and underwear. However, modal is more absorbent.

Caring for Modal Fabrics

How to Wash Modal Fabric

Washing modal fabrics is extremely easy. When you have to wash your modal dress shirt or any other type of clothing made from this fabric, just follow these simple steps.

You don’t need to use harsh detergents or bleach on garments made of modal. This fabric doesn't shrink and doesn't require special treatment.

To wash semi-synthetic modal fabrics, use lukewarm water and place the clothes in the washing machine. For best results, and to save electricity and water, choose a lower temperature for your machine's cycle.

You should use a mild, eco-friendly detergent, and also avoid using fabric softener to preserve the quality of your garment. You can add a couple of tennis balls, or follow our other tips for drying clothes naturally without softener.

Also, it is best to wash modal fabrics separately from other types of clothing if you want them to remain as good as new for a longer time.

You can line dry your garments or use a clothes hanger indoors. Do not tumble dry, it's bad for the modal fibers as well as for the environment.

How to Iron Modal Fabric

Most spun dyed modal fabric will not need to be ironed. In the unlikely event that you end up with creases, you should iron on the lowest heat. A hot iron can melt modal fibers, so proceed with care.

Does Modal Shrink?

Modal fibers are very unlikely to shrink. Especially if you follow the care instructions above and wash in cold water.

Wearing Modal

woman wearing summer dress made from modal

How Does Modal Feel?

Modal fabric has a soft, slightly brushed surface on one side and is smooth on the other.

This fabric feels great next to the skin because it is so gentle with a beautiful drape and shine.

The best way to experience this luxurious feeling is to run your hands over a piece of Modal or try on some Modal clothing.

Is Modal Good for Summer?

Modal is a good choice for hot summer days. It is a very breathable fabric, which makes it ideal for warm weather or for sports and athletic wear.

Is Modal Good for Underwear?

Modal is great for light and comfortable underwear (as long as you're not allergic of course). But it doesn't retain heat well, so is not good for thermal or winter underwear.

The Final Word

Modal is commonly considered to be one of the most sustainable fabrics available today, but it is not without its drawbacks.

Modal production requires the use of trees, which need to be replaced once harvested. It uses fewer harmful chemicals than other fabrics, but it does still use some - including sodium hydroxide. Not all modal fibers are made equally, so you are relying on the textile producer to ensure that the manufacturing process is done in the most eco-friendly way.

Assuming this is the case, modal has many uses as a strong, breathable material that doesn't stretch or crease, and that holds dye easily.

Although some people are unfortunately allergic, the majority will find it to be very pleasant to wear, especially in summer time.

Arabella Ruiz is a senior researcher at The Roundup. She lives in San Antonio, Texas and has been interested in the environment from an early age. Arabella loves to campaign for environmental causes and fundraise for charities that aim to preserve wildlife habitat, protect endangered species or help people with climate change problems.
Arabella Ruiz
Arabella Ruiz is a senior researcher at The Roundup. She lives in San Antonio, Texas and has been interested in the environment from an early age. Arabella loves to campaign for environmental causes and fundraise for charities that aim to preserve wildlife habitat, protect endangered species or help people with climate change problems.

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