Modal Fabric: Everything You Wanted to Know

We’re talking about modal fabric, and we’ve got the down-low on just what it is, how it’s made, what it’s used for, and everything else you never knew you wanted to know about this revolutionary and progressive textile.

More Than Just Looking Good

Fashion is more about just looking good in a well-tailored garment. Well, that’s a lot of it, obviously, but there are also other considerations when it comes to what you wear and how you wear it.

Qualities of a particular fabric such as its elasticity, its breathability, how it reacts when wet, and its texture and feel are just as important as how you look while wearing it, as are questions of whether it’s been manufactured using ecologically-responsible methods and harvested from sustainable sources.

If the qualities of the fabric your clothes are made from matter to you (and, to be frank, they should), then it’s important to understand them on a level deeper than just fit and form.

In this case, it’s time to explore the qualities and capabilities of a semi-synthetic textile that, while perhaps not a household name in the way that cotton, wool, or polyester has become, has been growing in popularity thanks to its unique features and its high levels of versatility. 

What, Exactly, is Modal Fabric?

First things first: we need to define what modal fabric is before any real discussion about it.

Originally developed in the 1950s in postwar Japan, modal fabric is considered a semi-synthetic.

The main ingredient in modal fabric is beech tree pulp, and the primary use for the fabric is for clothing such as sleepwear and underwear. Other uses for modal fabric include household items like towels and bedsheets.

You may have seen or heard modal fabric referred to as rayon. This is partly true; as a plant-based textile, rayon is made from cellulose, which is another word for wood pulp. This makes modal fabric a form of rayon, and in fact is sometimes referred to as modal rayon.

However, while all modal fabric can be considered rayon, not all rayon can be considered a modal fabric; only rayon made specifically from the wood pulp of the beech tree and processed using specific chemicals can be called modal fabric.

Other Differences Between Modal Fabric and Regular Rayon

The differences between modal fabric and traditional rayon run deeper than just where you source your wood pulp from and what chemicals you use in the process.

In fact, the qualities of modal fabric are quite different from your run-of-the-mill rayon. The raw materials for modal fabric are treated with specific chemicals, among them being sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfate, which respond differently than other types of wood cellulose when used to make traditional rayon.

How modal is made

The end result of these specific chemical reactions is the production of a yarn that can be spun into a textile that is both stronger and more stable, especially when wet.

Modal compared viscose
standard viscose (left), modal (middle), viscose tire cord (right) | image credit: researchgate.net

The increased durability that results from using beech tree pulp to create modal rayon is a major selling point of the fabric. However, it’s the other qualities of modal fabric, especially in comparison to traditional rayon, that make it preferable in many instances.

The feel of modal fabric is softer than rayon and is often compared favorably to cotton. Yet unlike cotton, modal fabric is much more resistant to pilling.

Also, another advantage to using modal fabric is that, unlike garments made with traditional rayon, those made from modal fabric can be tumble dried safely and without risk of damaging the textile’s fibers.

Modal Fabric versus Lenzing Modal: What’s the Difference?

Lenzing does more than just make branded Lyocell textiles. The brand also produces a specific type of modal fabric that is marketed under the name of Lenzing Modal.

Lenzing Modal

In order to pursue the most eco-friendly production methods possible, Lenzing uses beech trees that have been grown specifically using sustainable harvesting methods at a facility that then processes harvested beechwood pulp on-site.

The end-product is indistinguishable from modal fabric made using traditional methods, but the environmental footprint is that much smaller than it would be otherwise. Though, the production of modal fabric is already a much more eco-friendly option than other types of textile production already!

What Role Does Modal Fabric Play in Fashion?

Modal fabric occupies a unique space in the textile and fashion industries. Because of its characteristics, it was once thought to be a luxury textile in comparison to traditional rayon and certainly to cotton.

Due to its breathability and its moisture-wicking capabilities, it’s not suitable for use in cold-weather fashion but it excels when used in spring and summer wardrobes, keeping the wearer cool and comfortable.

The feeling of pure modal fabric or even modal fabric blends against the skin also reinforces comfort, thanks to its smooth, pleasurable texture and its shimmery, almost silken appearance.

Thanks to its versatility in blended textiles, you often see modal fabric in cotton blends. This is beneficial because it reduces cotton shrinkage and makes the garment more durable and flexible.

This makes modal fabric garments or those with modal-cotton blends especially popular for leisurewear. Its flexibility, when paired with spandex and Lycra materials, for example, makes it a favorite for sports clothing as well.

If you’re looking for athletic wear that looks good as it feels, or if you’re looking for breathable cotton undergarments perfect for keeping cool in the warmer months, you can’t go wrong with modal fabric blends.

Is Modal Fabric the Same as Lyocell?

If you’ve heard of modal fabric, you may have heard it discussed in the same breath with a fabric known as Lyocell.

While there are many similarities between the two, including being a type of rayon capable of being made from beech tree wood pulp, there are some distinct differences that set Lyocell apart from modal fabric. In fact, Lyocell can be made from beechwood pulp, eucalyptus, or a number of other types of plant material.

Lyocell, most often seen under Lenzing’s Tencel brand, is indeed classified as a rayon. However, its production methods make use of an organic solution to treat the raw materials instead of the chemicals routinely used to create modal fabric and other types of rayon.

In this way, Lyocell is actually marginally more eco-friendly than modal fabric in this manner.

However, it lacks some of the qualities of modal fabric if it’s not made specifically from beechwood pulp, which is the “secret ingredient” and the driving factor behind modal fabric’s impressive qualities.

So Is Modal Fabric a Green Textile?

Now that we’ve securely arrived in the 21st century and we’ve seen the results of heavy industry on our planet, many of us want to lead more environmentally-conscious lives.

This often extends to the types of clothes we wear and the textiles from which they’re made, and in this case there’s good news for anyone who wants to have a more environmentally-aware wardrobe: modal fabric compares favorably to other textiles.

It’s true that, as a plant-based textile, modal fabric requires harvesting beech trees to manufacture.

However, compared to the toll that growing and harvesting cotton has on the environment, the amount of water used to grow beech trees for harvest is anywhere between 10 to 20 times less than that used for growing cotton.

This, along with the fact that it’s completely biodegradable, makes modal fabric eminently more sustainable than cotton while possessing many of the same qualities of the fabric – even with still using chemicals to process it, unlike Lyocell for example.

How Do I Care for Modal Clothes Properly?

While clothes made from modal fabric are generally more durable and longer-lasting than those made from many other textiles, it’s important to care for modal clothes properly to extend their lifecycle.

In general, modal fabric, unlike traditional rayon, doesn’t need to be dry cleaned, as it weathers a washing machine and tumble-drier admirably thanks to its color-fastness and its ability to hold up while wet.

That being said, there are a few guidelines if you want to care for modal clothes. Pure modal does best when washed in cold water, though this may change if your garment is a modal blend with other textiles.

Also, avoid chlorine-based bleaches and use an oxygen-based one instead, as chlorine can weaken the fabric.

Finally, dry on low to medium heat for best results. Be sure to remove your modal clothes right away, or even while still slightly damp, and hang them up immediately to avoid wrinkling.

The Last Word

While it’s far from a household name, modal fabric and modal blends have been around for more than half a century, bringing breathability and comfort to everything from undergarments, sleepwear, athletic wear, and leisurewear to name but a few.

The following positive qualities place modal head-and-shoulders over most other types of rayon:

  • Durability
  • Flexibility
  • Color-fastness
  • Capability to weather a tumble dryer
  • More sustainable production than cotton

As you can expect, this unique textile has been helping to shape men’s and women’s fashion for a very long time.

The popularity of modal fabric is likely to endure far into the future, even in the face of newer iterations on the technology used to create modal fabric, such as Lyocell or any other developments.

If you’re looking for a cool, breathable fabric that’s easy to care for, looks good on you right off the rack and feels even better against your skin, you can’t go wrong by choosing a modal fabric blend!

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