Modal fabric has become a pretty popular name in fashion and clothing production. Manufacturers use this semi-synthetic fabric in activewear, underwear, t-shirts, and household items such as bedsheets and towels.
Among other rayon fabric types, particularly when compared to viscose, companies often choose modal for its sustainable properties. Lyocell is another option that’s even more eco-friendly.
Although modal is an environmentally-friendly semi-synthetic fabric alternative to viscose and cotton, there are controversies around its level of sustainability. However, there’s no denying that modal fabric is more durable than traditional rayon. This article serves as a fabric guide for modal.
Modal is a semi-synthetic fiber and bio-based textile made from beech tree pulp. This fabric is a type of rayon (made from regenerated cellulose); although it is an upgrade to regular viscose rayon. Modal is a high wet modulus rayon. This type of rayon is stronger when wet.
Modal is more durable, breathable, and environmentally friendly than viscose. As such modal offers many of the benefits of viscose fabric and more. Due to its soft and breathable nature, clothing brands use it to make activewear, pajamas, and undergarments. This fabric is also often used to make bed sheets and bath towels.
Modal is semi-synthetic because brands blend modal fibers with other organic and synthetic materials for added strength. Although it is derived from plants, the manufacturing process involves soaking in chemicals to attain valuable textiles.
Several sustainable clothing brands use modal as an eco-friendly and sustainable alternative to viscose and cotton. Compared with fabrics like cotton and viscose, it is more expensive and considered luxurious. Later in this article, we’ll look at some clothing brands that use this fabric in their products.
The process of acquiring and manufacturing modal is more eco-friendly compared to viscose rayon fabrics. Modal is a type of rayon, so its production requirements are similar to viscose rayon. The process involves spinning reconstituted beech trees into cellulose3 fibers. To produce cellulose fiber, industries use a manufacturing process.
Producers harvest beech trees as the first stage of the manufacturing process of modal fabric. They break these trees down into wood chips and extract cellulose from the tree or wood pulp. They then form cellulose into sheets.
Afterward, the manufacturers soak the sheets in a liquid solution of sodium hydroxide. At this point, these sheets are immersed in carbon disulfide after being broken down into crumbs.
This process of soaking in carbon disulfide creates sodium cellulose xanthate. Cellulose xanthate is immersed in sodium hydroxide again to create a syrup-like liquid that is passed through a spinneret. This process generates modal fibers that are immersed in sulfuric acid, stretched, and developed into yarns.
After the manufacturers acquire the yarn, they wash, bleach, rinse and dry it. They then load the yarn onto spools, subject it to treatments and then knit or weave it into the useful fabric. This produces and forms the modal fabric used to make clothes. Clothing companies can then acquire the end fabric product to create modal clothing.
Brands and textile manufacturers also select modal fabric as an alternative to cotton or silk. Compared to viscose rayon, the process of acquiring this bio-based textile requires fewer chemicals. This fabric is also biodegradable, making it an eco-friendly option for clothing.
Regarding producers, Lenzing AG, an Austrian company, is one of the largest modal fabric producers. This textile giant is based in Europe but has factories in nations like China. Lenzing AG branded its version of modal as “TENCEL Modal” (also known as Lenzing Modal). The industry knows TENCEL for its high environmental standards and eco-friendly processes.
We can trace the origins of the modal fabric to Japan in 1951. Modal is part of a second-generation regenerated cellulosic fiber obtained from beech tree wood pulp. Manufacturers developed it as an alternative to silk fabric.
Afterward, Lenzing AG started selling its branded version in 1964. The company is now a leading expert in modal manufacturing. In 1977, Lenzing AG began to use an eco-friendly bleaching system for pulp for their cellulosic fibers2. The fabric company commercialized its own modal under the trademark Lenzing Modal.
Other brand names of modal fabric include Formatex and China Modal. Micromodal is a lighter-weight version similar to silk and linen. However, Lenzing Modal follows strict environmental standards and is, therefore, more environmentally friendly.
People often question the sustainable and eco-friendly nature of the modal fabric, but it’s worth examining. On examination, although this fabric comes from plants, it still requires the use of chemicals and dyes in its processing.
Destroying forests is also another challenge, especially when companies don’t consider sustainable forests in the production process. These raise questions about how sustainable modal fabric really is and what is its environmental impact.
Generally, the eco-friendly level of modal fabric largely depends on each company and its processes. We can factor in manufacturing processes like the source of the pulp, chemical types, and how manufacturers treat water waste.
For instance, in comparison with cotton, modal fabric uses about 10-20 times less water. This is because beech trees need less water than cotton plants. The carbon footprint is, therefore, less than that of cotton.
A study revealed that the cradle-to-gate manufacturing of spun-dyed modal fabric has a 60% lower carbon footprint and 50% lower energy use. It also uses only 50% water compared to traditionally-dyed fabric. Additionally, it has about 40-60% lower environmental impacts compared to such fabrics1.
To show its commitment and make a difference, a variation of Lenzing Modal sprang up in 2012. The company presented Modal Color. Unlike other semi-synthetic fabrics, this variation has eco-friendly advantages in how the dying process occurs, and the manufacturing process is carbon neutral. Other rayon manufacturers are also beginning to be more conscious of their processes.
Many companies produce modal in Europe, and the US only produces a small amount. Elsewhere, modal production typically takes place in countries like China, Indonesia, Pakistan, and India. The lower-cost modal fabrics can come from areas where unsustainable harvesting persists, and worker conditions have been called into question.
Unfortunately, many of these supply chains are difficult to trace, and the best sustainable option is choosing brands with full transparency across their supply and manufacturing.
Here, we examine the pros and cons of this fabric:
As part of their sustainable efforts, a number of fashion industry brands have made the switch from viscose rayon to more sustainable fabrics like modal. Here is a selection of companies using modal:
This women’s sustainable fashion company uses TENCEL Modal in some of its pieces. Amour Vert partners with mills rather than buying already-made fabric. The purpose of this is to monitor the process of developing fabrics that are sustainable, soft, long-lasting, and of high quality.
This gender-inclusive and ethical underwear brand incorporate the use of TENCEL Modal. This fabric is soft, breathable, and durable, making it ideal for under clothing. TomboyX’s eco-friendly clothing line includes bras, bikinis, period wear, boy shorts, boxer briefs, and trunks. The brand is committed to sustainable practices, hence, its use of TENCEL Modal fabric.
Casagin creates comfortable and super soft undies, loungewear, swimwear, and sportswear. The brand uses TENCEL Modal for many of its pieces. The company assures its customers that the clothes are toxic-free when it comes to gentleness on the skin. The dyes and dyeing process takes place in Italy according to strict guidelines.
This lifestyle clothing business creates basics and workout wear for women, men, and kids. One of Threads 4 Thought’s sustainability initiatives is sustainable sourcing materials for its products. Some of the materials it uses to make its clothes include Lenzing Modal, organic cotton, and recycled polyester.
It is crucial to care for modal clothes properly. This will extend the life cycle of the items. Here are some ways to care for your pieces:
You can wash pure modal clothes in a washing machine at various temperatures. However, the best and most sustainable practice is to use cold water. This helps to prevent shrinkage.
When machine-washing delicate items like lingerie and underwear, use wash bags. This helps to protect these products.
Although air drying is ideal, you can use a dryer on low to medium heat.
Chlorine bleach can weaken the modal fabric. If you need to bleach your clothes, use oxygen-based bleach.
Many clothing brands now adopt modal as a substitute for cotton in some products. Depending on the purpose of a garment, manufacturers often combine this fabric with other textiles. These fabric blends produce clothes, including cotton/modal, for various uses and activities.
Unlike cotton, modal is more absorbent and dries at a faster rate. It is also less likely to cling to the skin when wet. This justifies why sustainable clothing brands often use it as a textile, sometimes blended with other fibers, for sportswear and activewear.
Lenzing Modal is an eco-friendly substitute for cotton. The water consumption of cotton production is very high.
To produce 1kg of cotton in India, manufacturers require 22,500 liters of water. However, producers use less water in the production process to make modal. This positions it as more eco-friendly than cotton. However, modal textile is more expensive than cotton.
People often compare modal with lyocell and viscose - other forms of rayon. Considering that they are all rayon variations, the manufacturing processes are similar. However, they still have differences.
When choosing any fabric, it’s important to consider the transparency of the manufacturers. Various facilities generate modal fabrics.
Of course, plant-based materials are inherently sustainable. However, not all of them follow strict environmental standards in their production process.
Generally, the qualities and sustainability factors used to create fibers for modal fabric, especially TENCEL Modal, cannot be denied. Thus the modal fabric definition encompasses a great deal of the qualities that make it a sustainable material choice.
Terinte N, et al. Environmental Assessment of Coloured Fabrics and Opportunities for Value Creation: Spin-Dyeing Versus Conventional Dyeing of Modal Fabrics. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 72, 2014, pp. 127-138, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.02.002
Moses, J, & Gnanapriya K. A Study on Modal Fabric Using Formic Acid Treatment for K/S, Sem and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy. Orient Journal of Chemistry, Vol. 32, 2016, pp. 1099-1110, http://dx.doi.org/10.13005/ojc/320235
Shen, L., & Patel, M. K. (2010). Life Cycle Assessment of Man-Made Cellulose Fibres. Lenzinger Berichte, 88, 1-59
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.