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Modal Fabric: What is Modal? Sustainability, Pros, and Cons

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. 

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, which 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. Due to its soft and breathable nature, clothing brands use it to make activewear, pajamas, bed sheets, and bath towels. This fabric is also often used as underwear fabric for its stretchy and soft feel.

Modal is a semi-synthetic fiber.

Modal is semi-synthetic because brands blend modal fibers with other organic and synthetic materials for added strength. Although derived from plants, the modal fabric manufacturing process involves soaking in chemicals to attain the cellulose fibers.

Several sustainable clothing brands use modal as an eco-friendly and sustainable alternative to viscose and cotton. However, modal is more expensive and considered a luxury fabric. 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. Industries use a manufacturing process to produce cellulose fiber. 

Producers harvest beech trees as the first stage of the manufacturing process of modal fabric. They break these trees 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 sodium hydroxide solution. After being broken down into crumbs, these sheets are immersed in carbon disulfide to create a viscose solution.

Spinning cellulose into fibers

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 passed through a spinneret. This process generates modal fibers 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 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, 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 that result in a more sustainable fabric.

History of Modal Fabric

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 linen and other silk alternatives. However, Lenzing Modal follows strict environmental standards and is more environmentally friendly. 

How Sustainable is Modal Fabric?

beech tree - the source of modal fabric
Sustainable modal fabric is sourced from beech trees grown and replaced. Photo Credit: Photo by Richard Loader on Unsplash.

People often question the sustainable and eco-friendly nature of modal fabric, but it’s worth examining. Although this fabric comes from plants, it still requires the use of chemicals and dyes in its processing.

Destroying forests is another challenge, especially when companies don’t consider sustainable forests in production. This raises questions about the sustainability of modal fabric and its environmental impact.

Modal fabric sustainability varies according to its manufacture

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, modal fabric uses about 10-20 times less water than conventional cotton. This is because beech trees need less water than cotton plants. Therefore, the carbon footprint is 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. Compared to traditionally dyed fabric, it uses only 50% less water. It also has about 40-60% lower environmental impacts than such fabrics1.

A variation of Lenzing Modal sprang up in 2012 to show its commitment and make a difference. 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. Alternatively, modal production typically occurs in China, Indonesia, Pakistan, and India. The lower-cost modal fabrics can come from areas where unsustainable harvesting persists, and worker conditions have been questioned.

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.

Modal Fabric Pros and Cons

Here, we examine modal fabric advantages and disadvantages:

Pros

  • Water-Absorbent: Modal fabric is water-absorbent and can withstand moisture. This makes it a good choice for clothes such as activewear and underwear. The fabric absorbs dye well, which helps ensure colorfast end garments.
  • Soft to Touch: One of the desirable properties of modal fabric is its silky texture and soft-to-touch qualities, similar to those of natural fibers. This means modal clothes feel kind to the skin.
  • Eco-Friendly: Modal fabric is an eco-friendly alternative to other rayon fibers like viscose. Fewer chemicals are 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 of extracting cellulose fibers,
  • 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 than viscose rayon. Even when used in a washing machine, it maintains its shape.
  • The Fabric is Breathable and Stretchy: Modal fabric is breathable and stretchy, making it suitable for everyday and sporting clothing.
  • Durable and Resistant to Pilling: Modal fabric is strong and can withstand wear and pressure. This form of rayon is also pill-resistant, which means modal resists wrinkles and has a smooth finish. 

Cons

  • Forest Destruction: Unless from Lenzing, the pulp used to make modal clothes is usually not guaranteed to come from renewable forests.
  • Harmful Chemicals: The modal production process involves applying carbon disulfide to cellulose. Carbon disulfide is a neurotoxin that enters the environment through the air and can cause medical issues. It is also present in contaminated water factories produced during rayon production.
  • Allergic Reaction: Some people have an allergic reaction when they wear modal fabric for the first time. These reactions include rashes, itching, and redness when using this textile.

Brands Using Modal

Several fashion industry brands have switched from viscose rayon fabrics to more sustainable options like modal as part of their sustainable efforts. 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. This allows the company to monitor the process of developing sustainable, soft, long-lasting, and high-quality fabrics. 

Shop Amour Vert

TomboyX

This gender-inclusive and ethical underwear brand incorporates 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, using 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. The company assures its customers that the clothes are toxic-free regarding gentleness on the skin. 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 sustainable sourcing materials for its products. Some materials it uses to make its clothes include Lenzing Modal, organic cotton, and recycled polyester. 

Shop Threads 4 Thought 

How to Care for Modal Fabric

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, which helps 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 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 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, including cotton/modal, for various uses and activities.

Unlike cotton, modal is more absorbent and dries faster. It is also less likely to cling to the skin when wet. This justifies why the sustainable fashion industry often uses it as a textile for sportswear and activewear, sometimes blended with other fibers. 

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, which positions it as more eco-friendly than cotton. However, modal textiles are more expensive than cotton. 

Modal vs Lyocell and Viscose Rayon

People often compare modal with other fabrics like lyocell and viscose - other rayon forms. 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, which 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, these fibers have noticeable differences. 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, making modal fabric less toxic than the processes used to create viscose rayon. 
  • TENCEL Modal, in particular, comes from sustainable forests. This makes modal fabric a better option than 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. Thus, the definition of modal fabric encompasses many qualities that make it a sustainable material choice.

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

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.

Fact Checked By:
Ben Hart, BSc.

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