Riddle us this. What is soft as a feather, comes from trees, and keeps you comfortable? Modal, of course! And no, we are not exaggerating. Modal really is a cloud in fabric form. Making fabrics from forests is kind of cool if you think about it. I mean, we are literally wearing trees.. in a way. But what exactly is modal, and is it really good for the environment?
From the forests to our closets, here is the story of the modal fabric.
What is Modal Fabric?
Made from the pulp of beech trees, modal is a second-generation rayon. Much like its predecessor, viscose, it is known as a semi-synthetic fabric because the raw material - cellulose - is natural, but it needs to go through a chemical process before it can be turned into a fiber.
Modal fabric is super soft and is commonly used to make underwear, t-shirts, dresses, sleepwear, and even luxurious bed sheets. It also finds great usage in baby clothes because of its breathability and comfort. The long fibers and tight weave provide enhanced durability which makes modal fabrics increasingly desirable in activewear as well. Given its versatility, modal is often used instead of cotton, or even mixed with it.
There is also a different variation known as Micromodal. The main difference between the two lies in the size of the fibers. Micromodal fibers are thinner and can be woven tightly to produce a fabric that has the same texture as that of silk. In fact, Micromodal is often considered to be softer than silk and is known as the cashmere of semi-synthetic fabrics. The finer fibers also give it more elasticity.
How is Modal Made?
The process of making modal is very similar to that of viscose. The only difference is that the production of modal requires lesser amounts of chemicals, so the generated toxic waste is generally lower.
- The production of modal fabric begins with harvesting beechwood trees. These fast-growing trees don’t require much water to grow, making them a natural and sustainable raw material.
- Once harvested, cellulose is extracted from the wood.
- The extracted cellulose is dissolved through a series of chemical processes involving carbon disulfide (CS2) and caustic soda (NaOH).
- A liquid solution is formed which is then put through a spinneret (a device with a series of holes that helps create fibers).
- The fibers are soaked in sulfuric acid and stretched to turn them into yarn,
- Now, the yarn can be woven or knit, and voila! The modal fabric is ready in all its soft glory. The fabric can now be used on its own or mixed with other materials such as cotton or spandex.
Modal Fabric: Pros and Cons
- Modal fabric is silky soft to the touch and is so comfortable that you will feel like you’re wearing a soft cloud. This explains its popularity in making undergarments, sleepwear, bedsheets, and baby clothes!
- Durable. Because of its long fibers and how tightly they are woven together, your modal garments are durable, and will stay with you for years to come!
- Flexible and breathable. Modal has a good amount of stretch without giving up on its breathability, making it a perfect fabric for activewear as well as everyday clothes.
- Water absorbent. On average, modal is 50% more absorbent than cotton. The tiny micropores inside the fabric absorb sweat, making it a good choice of clothing for summers.
- Resists shrinkage and pilling. This means that your garments will remain smooth and in shape, and won’t look worn out even after multiple wears and washes!
- Absorbs dye easily and stays color-fast. When washed in warm water, the colors won’t bleed, so your clothes will stay bright and colorful for a long period of time.
- Drapes well, which means it can be used to make stylish clothes as well as decorative items!
- Doesn’t crease. So minimal ironing for you, yay!
- Not suited for insulation. Breathability in modal comes at a cost, and the price you pay is its inability to keep you warm.
- Causes allergic reactions in some people. Since it is a semi-synthetic fabric, it can cause skin irritation or scratchiness for some people.
- Forests are in danger. Many manufacturers destroy forests in order to create modal fabric, so unless it is FSC/ PEFC certified, it is hard to trace if the raw material (wood) came from endangered or ancient forests.
- Toxic chemicals are used in manufacturing. While modal uses less chemicals than viscose, it still uses chemicals that cause a host of health problems to the people who make the clothes. Moreover, these chemicals also release toxic waste.
- Prone to discoloration. Modal has the tendency to turn yellow when exposed to heat.
- Chlorine bleach makes the fibers weak, so special care needs to be taken while washing modal garments. Oxygen bleach is recommended.
Is Modal Sustainable?
Modal can be sustainable, although not all modal fabrics are. This is because not all modal is created equal, or by the same company. It all comes down to the individual manufacturers to follow sustainable practices.
Although invented in Japan, most modal today is produced in China, where there are no proper government standards. While beechwood pulp is the most common raw material for modal, rainforest pulp is also used. According to the Rainforest Action Network, modal production is associated with rainforest destruction and land grabbing, leading to loss of biodiversity, contributing to climate change, and posing a threat to the indigenous people.
Over 120 million trees are felled each year and turned into fabrics, and this number is estimated to double by 2025. Moreover, only a very small percentage of the tree material harvested (cellulose) is used for production. The rest of it is discarded and simply goes to waste, which is not very sustainable when you think about it.
Another issue is the toxic chemicals used in converting cellulose to fibers. Carbon disulfide (CS2) is a neurotoxin and contaminates the environment through air and wastewater. It causes untold damage to the wildlife and people that come in contact with it, especially factory workers. WHO warns about the potential health risks associated with acute and chronic exposure. It includes a long list of serious conditions - cardiovascular diseases (stroke), respiratory failure, liver and kidney damage, hormonal and reproductive issues, mental health problems, skin rashes, blurred vision, etc.
Overall, modal is NOT inherently sustainable. It is up to the manufacturers to ensure sustainable production. You can use our clothing footprint calculator to see how modal compares with other common fabrics.
We have talked at length about how generic modal is not sustainable, although better options do exist. So, what are they?
TENCEL™ Modal is a trademark by the Austrian company Lenzing AG and is one of the best modal fabrics out there. TENCEL™ Modal is harvested from sustainably managed beech tree plantations in Austria or surrounding European countries. These forests are PEFC and FSC certified, which guarantees the responsible sourcing of the raw materials. TENCEL™ Modal is manufactured using a closed-loop system with the help of the environmentally friendly technology that Lenzing has developed. All the chemicals and water that are used in the production process are recovered rather than being released into the environment. TENCEL™ Modal fibers are certified carbon neutral by Natural Capital Partners. They are certified biodegradable and compostable under industrial, marine, and home solutions by TUV Austria Belgium NV, so they return fully back to nature. They also have the EU Ecolabel certification which is awarded to products that have a low environmental impact.
TENCEL™ Modal vs Modal
Often dubbed as a “miracle fiber”, lyocell represents the latest rayon technology and is by far the most sustainable option out there. It uses an organic solvent (amine-oxide) which is efficiently recycled (99%) and reused in a closed-loop, so no toxic waste leaves the factory. On top of that, Lenzing AG manufactures TENCEL™ Lyocell by the Best Available Technology (BAT) and also sources the raw materials from sustainably managed forests - PEFC and FSC certified.
Comparison With Other Fabrics
Modal vs Cotton
Often marketed as an alternative to cotton, modal is softer and 50% more absorbent than cotton. Both modal and cotton are used to make a variety of clothes. Both of them are biodegradable, but cotton is an entirely natural plant-based fabric while modal is semi-synthetic. Modal is usually more durable and resists shrinking, pilling, and creasing, while cotton does not. As a result, modal is a better choice when it comes to activewear.
Modal fabric is usually made into a tight weave, while cotton is available in a variety of weave types. Due to this, cotton is usually more breathable than modal. The thickness of cotton also varies, and it is warmer than modal, while modal is usually thin, and gets thinner with each wash. When you need insulation, a tight-knit cotton fabric may be better.
Being soft fabrics, both modal and cotton are popular choices for undergarments. However, because of its extra softness, modal (especially Micromodal) may be a better choice for underwear. After all, who doesn’t want satiny-soft underwear that hugs your skin gently?
Another advantage of modal underwear over cotton is that modal doesn’t lose its shape, and doesn’t trap perspiration or body odor. Cotton underwear, on the other hand, may retain dampness and body odor, making it uncomfortable to wear for long periods, especially in summers.
Finally, cotton tends to fade with each wash, while your modal garments will stay bright and colorful much longer!
Modal vs Viscose
Both modal and viscose belong to the rayon family and have very similar properties... Yet modal undergoes an extra stage in the processing to stretch it. This makes modal fibers stronger and lighter than viscose, making the fabric a better choice for activewear. Viscose is a delicate fabric that has a smooth texture - although it is not as soft as modal. Viscose requires higher maintenance too - it wrinkles easily and you should only hand wash or dry clean if you don't want to risk fabric damage.
Pick modal: When you want soft and durable garments that are low-maintenance
Pick viscose: When you are on a budget
Modal vs Polyester
Both modal and polyester find applications in activewear. They are both good at keeping shape, don’t wrinkle or shrink, and are durable - though polyester is more so. The differences lie in the fact that polyester doesn't absorb water and is not breathable. Neither is it anti-bacterial, which means that it can cause a bad odor, unlike modal.
Being a mass-produced synthetic fabric, polyester is way cheaper than modal. However, it is made from non-renewable resources (petroleum), is not biodegradable, and can release plastic microfibers during washing.
When choosing cold-weather or outdoor workout clothes, or activewear for high-intensity workouts, polyester may be a better choice as it is stronger, provides better insulation, and doesn't get soaked in sweat. Modal, on the other hand, maybe more suitable for lighter activities such as yoga which will allow you to appreciate its comfort and breathability.