Modal Fabric

Modal Fabric & Sustainability

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. There’s no denying, however, that modal fabric is more durable than traditional rayon. This article serves as a fabric guide for modal. 

What is Modal Fabric

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.

Compared to viscose, modal is more durable, breathable, and environmentally friendly. Due to its soft and breathable nature, clothing brands use it to make activewear, pajamas, and undies. 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. Compared with fabrics like cotton and viscose, it is more expensive and therefore considered luxurious. Several clothing brands use modal as an eco-friendly and sustainable alternative to the likes of viscose and cotton. Later in this article, we’ll look at some clothing brands that use this fabric in their products. 

How is Modal Fabric Manufactured?

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 chips and extract cellulose from the tree or wood pulp. They then form cellulose into sheets.

Afterward, the manufacturers soak the sheets into 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 select also use modal fabric as an alternative to cotton or silk. Compared to viscose rayon, the process to acquire 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. 

History of Modal Fabric

We can trace the origins of the modal fabric to Japan, 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. However, Lenzing Modal follows strict environmental standards and is, therefore, more environmentally friendly. 

How Sustainable is Modal Fabric

Sustainable modal fabric is sourced from been tress grown and replaced. Photo Credit: Photo by Richard Loader on Unsplash

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. In comparison with cotton, for instance, 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. Other rayon manufacturers are also beginning to be more conscious of their processes. 

Modal Fabric Pros and Cons

Here, we examine the pros and cons of this fabric:

Pros

  • Water-Absorbent: Modal fabric is water absorbent. This makes it a good choice for clothes such as activewear and underwear. 
  • Soft to Touch: One of the desirable modal fabric properties is it soft to touch. This means modal clothes feel kind on the skin.
  • Eco-Friendly: Modal fabric is an eco-friendly option compared to other rayon fibers like viscose. There are fewer chemicals used to make it, and it comes from regenerative plants. When Modal is produced with the environment in mind, less toxic waste results from the process to extract cellulose fibres,
  • Biodegradable: Modal fabric is biodegradable. This means it can decompose, thereby avoiding landfill pollution.
  • Less Likely to Shrink: Modal fabric is less likely to shrink when washed compared to the way viscose rayon will. Even when you use a washing machine, it’s able to maintain its shape.
  • The Fabric is Breathable and Stretchy: Modal fabric is breathable and stretchy. These properties make it suitable for everyday clothing as well as sporting clothes.
  • Durable and Resistant to Pilling: Modal fabric is strong and can withstand wear and pressure. This form of rayon is also pill-resistant. This means the fabric has a smooth finish. 

Cons

  • Forest Destruction: Unless from Lenzing, there’s usually no guarantee that the pulp used to make modal clothes come from renewable forests.
  • Harmful Chemicals: The production process of the modal fabric involves applying carbon disulfide to cellulose. Carbon disulfide is a neurotoxin. It makes its way into the environment through the air and can cause medical issues. It is also present in contaminated water that factories produce during the rayon production process.
  • Allergic Reaction: Some people have an allergic reaction when they wear modal fabric for the first time. Some of these reactions include rashes, itching, and redness when using this textile.

Brands Using Modal 

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: 

Amour Vert

Amour Vert uses TENCEL Modal Fabric
Photo Credit: Amour Vert

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. 

Shop Amour Vert

TomboyX

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 line of eco-friendly clothing 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.

Shop Tomboyx

Casagin

Casagin creates comfortable and super soft undies, loungewear, swimwear, and sportswear. The brand uses TENCEL Modal for many of its pieces. When it comes to gentleness on the skin, the company assures its customers that the clothes are toxic-free. The dyes and dyeing process takes place in Italy according to strict guidelines. 

Shop Casagin

Threads 4 Thought

This lifestyle clothing business creates basics and workout wear for women, men, and kids. One of Threads 4 Thought’s sustainability initiatives is sourcing sustainable materials for its products. Some of the materials it uses to make its clothes include Lenzing Modal, organic cotton, and recycled polyester. 

Shop Threads 4 Thought 

How to Care for Modal

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: 

Water Temperature

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.

Use Wash Bags for Delicate Items

When machine-washing delicate items like lingerie and underwear, use wash bags. This helps to protect these products.

Drying

Although air drying is most ideal, you can use a dryer on low to medium heat. 

Oxygen-Based Bleach

Chlorine bleach can weaken the modal fabric. If you need to bleach your clothes, use an oxygen-based bleach.  

Modal vs. Cotton 

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 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 it’s 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. 

Modal vs Lyocell and Viscose Rayon 

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.  

Modal vs. Lyocell

  • TENCEL Lyocell is more eco-friendly than modal. This is mainly because the process used to create modal rayon uses an organic solution. When we compare this to sodium hydroxide that many manufacturers use in making modal, it is clear that lyocell is less toxic.
  • We’ve already established that we derive modal from beech trees. On the other hand, we can get lyocell from both the beech tree and eucalyptus. 

Modal vs. Viscose

  • Even though viscose and modal have similar production methods, there are noticeable differences in these fibers. Compared with viscose rayon, modal fabric is more durable and stronger. This, however, does not hinder its breathable and light nature. 
  • Modal production requires fewer concentrations of chemicals to make it. This makes modal fabric less toxic than the processes used to create viscose rayon. 
  • TENCEL Modal, in particular, comes from sustainable forests. This makes the modal fabric a better option compared with viscose rayon. 

Conclusion

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.

1

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

2

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  

3

Shen, L., & Patel, M. K. (2010). Life Cycle Assessment of Man-Made Cellulose Fibres. Lenzinger Berichte, 88, 1-59

Jennifer is a content writer with an educational background in Public Relations and Advertising. From her desk in Lagos, Nigeria, she helps businesses around the world reach and connect with their audiences.
Photo by karolina gac on Unsplash
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