Modal fabric might not be on the lips of every fashion lover, but it’s been growing popular in the sustainable fashion world.
Created in 1951, modal fabric has long been heralded as the best of sustainable fashion. Despite this, some wonder if all this positive publicity is warranted. After all, nothing on this planet is wholly perfect.
So, is modal truly eco-friendly, or is this another example of greenwashing? Let’s find out.
Interested in learning more about eco-friendly fabrics? Check out our article on whether or not bamboo is sustainable.
What is Modal Fabric?
Modal fabric is made from harvested beech trees. The material, though, isn’t stiff or rough. It’s quite the opposite. Modal fabric has a soft and smooth texture. Modal fabric is primarily manufactured by one company, Lenzing AG.
The beech trees are first turned into wood chips to extract cellulose from the pulp to make the fibers. Then, the extracted cellulose is soaked in sodium hydroxide. This is a similar method to the one used to make viscose rayon. However, modal fabric requires significantly less sodium hydroxide. This difference is one of the significant modal fabric pros.
Next, the cellulose sheets are broken up and soaked in carbon disulfate to form sodium cellulose xanthate. It’s then dipped into sodium hydroxide again and pushed through a spinneret. The fibers formed are soaked in sulphuric acid to make yarn. Voila! You have modal fabric.
The fabric isn’t considered all-natural like wool, as it’s made through a chemical process, but it’s not entirely synthetic either. It’s made from trees, making it a semi-synthetic fabric. This merging of natural resources with synthetic production is the source of both modal fabric pros and cons.
What Is Modal Fabric Used For?
Out of all the modal fabric benefits, the main ones are:
- It feels comfortable on your skin.
- It’s soft, flexible, light, and breathable.
- The fabric is durable and stretches without falling apart.
This is why modal is perfect for activewear like yoga clothes and gym clothes. Modal fabric is very versatile. It doesn’t crease or shrink and drapes well on people, which means it’s great for t-shirts, underwear, dresses, and pajamas.
Initially, the fabric was once considered artificial silk though it was discarded for being too flammable. Since then, advances have been made to make the material less flammable, which means it can be used as an alternative to silk again.
Modal Fabric Pros and Cons
Is modal fiber worth all the hype, or is it a case of greenwashing? Let’s look at the modal fabric pros and cons and see for ourselves.
Modal Fabric Pros
First, let’s take a look at some of the reasons fashionistas love modal fabric:
The beech trees used to make modal fabric are more sustainable than cotton. Beechwood has a higher carbon sequestration and smaller carbon footprint than cotton, as the trees are more widely available locally. Also, the number of beech trees harvested is lower than the number of trees planted. It doesn’t end there. The yield of modal per acre is 10 times higher than cotton. Finally, Lenzing sources its wood from sustainable forests.
Beech trees require 20 times less water than cotton. During production, Lenzing uses less water than the production of other textiles and recycles the water. You don’t need to use whitening chemicals or fabric softeners when washing modal garments. You can have a smaller wash cycle. Essentially, you save on water and energy when you do your laundry. This is why modal is considered one of the most eco-friendly textiles out there.
Beech trees require 20 times less water than cotton
When it comes to sustainability, most eco-friendly fabrics are biodegradable. Modal clothes decompose naturally in six to 24 months. Modal materials made by Lenzing are compostable and therefore don’t harm the environment.
Modal fabric can absorb moisture very well. Modal fabric is the best choice if you live in a hot area, exercise, sweat a lot, or hate clammy clothes. The fabric will keep you dry and comfortable. Modal is up to 50% more absorbent than cotton. This’s why it’s also more hygienic, as fewer bacteria grow on it.
Soft and smooth texture
Modal has a natural softness. It’s smooth and just feels great on your skin. It’s often compared to silk and satin, which is why it’s used as an eco-friendly alternative.
Breathable and light
Modal is great for sweat-inducing activities thanks to its lightweight and breathability properties. The thermoregulatory nature of the fabric makes it great for summer days, as the material won’t feel heavy, wet, or sticky. It’s also great for layering in winter.
Improves other fabrics
You’ll often see modal blended with other materials. Thanks to its high absorbent rate, it’s used in hygiene-related products like medical items and period underwear. It’s blended with cotton to reduce shrinking over time and add strength. Modal’s flexibility and strength are also utilized when combined with spandex and lycra.
Modal isn’t the most durable fabric out there, but what it can do is impressive. The modal can withstand damage under most circumstances thanks to its long fabrics and tight weave. This is why it’s popular in the sustainable kidswear and activewear sectors. The material is strong, doesn’t rip easily, the prints and colors remain vibrant longer than cotton, and is pill- and wrinkle-resistant. Modal fabric can last you years—much longer than cotton.
Iron only when necessary
If your modal fabric ever creases due to how it’s woven and constructed, you can iron it. Iron on the other side of the material to make it shine. Also, use a pressing cloth between the fabric and the iron so it doesn’t burn. If you hate ironing, take heart from the fact that it won’t happen often.
Dyes very well
Modal is very absorbent, meaning it takes very well to dyes. It holds the dyes just as well. You shouldn’t wash model fabric clothing with clothes of different colors—not because it will bleed—but because it can absorb any dye released during the wash cycle. On the eco-friendly side, spin-dyed modal fabrics are more efficient and use less energy and water than traditionally dyed fabrics.
Modal Fabric Cons?
Now let’s take a look at a few disadvantages of modal fabric.
Greenwashing is the act of marketing an organization’s products to make them sound more eco-friendly than they actually are. Lenzing might be the leading producer, but other companies also make modal fabric. While Lenzing’s credentials are credible thanks to its transparency and certifications, the same cannot be said for the different companies—some of whom manufacture in countries like China and Indonesia. Rainforest Action Network has even accused some manufacturers of destroying forests to make modal. It’s challenging to be entirely sure of a product’s sustainable and eco-friendly nature unless it’s made by Lenzing.
Made with chemicals
This fabric isn’t 100% natural despite being made from trees. It’s made using several chemicals in an energy-intensive process. Lenzing recycles its chemicals, but other companies allow them to leech into the environment.
Needs special care
Modal requires more care than other rayon textiles. For example, you can’t use chlorine bleach as it will weaken the fibers, or use the dryer unless it’s on a low heat setting. You might need to dry clean the item unless you use 100% modal fibers. Otherwise, the item might end up damaged.
Modal fabric is not hypoallergic. It’s not rare for someone to have redness, rashes, itchy skin, and even severe symptoms like blisters, swollen glands, and headaches. This might be due to the chemicals used to manufacture the fabric. If you’re allergic to trees, sap, and pollen, you might want to first see if you’ll react to it.
Modal fabric is more expensive than cotton and viscose. This is due to the manufacturing process requiring more energy than natural fibers. The price won’t burn a hole in your pocket, but it might not be as accessible to lower-income earners as cotton.
Yes, modal is durable, but it’s not perfect. Pilling, stretching, and creasing can happen, especially when the material’s structure has been altered. That’s why it’s recommended to handwash modal clothing. The fabric is strong, but it’s still delicate enough that machine machines and rough handling can eventually lead to damage.
Reaction to heat
Some modal materials can turn yellow when exposed to temperatures higher than regular body heat and sunlight. This is regardless of the dyes used on the item. The good thing is that if you catch it, you can reverse the discoloration. However, it can’t be recovered if the product is heated for a long time.
Is Modal Fabric Eco-Friendly & Sustainable?
When discussing modal fabric pros and cons, the biggest question is whether it’s eco-friendly and sustainable.
The fabric is made with toxic chemicals and uses much energy compared to natural fibers. However, the Lenzing modal, the primary modal fabric, is made with sustainably sourced beech trees. This puts it ahead of synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon.
The trees use significantly less water than cotton. This is important because it takes 10,000 liters to make just one kilogram of cotton. 250 billion tons of water is used every year to produce cotton globally. Water scarcity is a significant environmental issue, so fabrics that use less water with a higher yield are essential to environmental conservation.
Using chemicals to produce the fibers is no doubt a detraction. Still, Lenzing reuses the chemicals in a closed-loop system. This means the amount of toxic chemicals in the environment is significantly reduced. Meanwhile, when you think about how much fertilizers and pesticides are used in producing plant-based fibers, it’s clear that Lenzing modal fabrics have a smaller environmental impact.
Finally, thanks to the natural features of modal fabrics, it’s sustainable even in the home as it requires less water and energy to clean.
Modal Fabric Verdict: Do The Pros Outweigh The Cons?
We’ve reviewed the modal fabric’s pros and cons, but which side has more weight? The disadvantages of modal fabric are not easily dismissible. But despite that, we believe modal fabric does more good than harm to the environment.
Beechwood is generally sourced from sustainable forests which are not overharvested. While not 100% sustainable, the production of modal fabric uses less water, has a smaller carbon footprint, and releases fewer toxins than natural fabrics like cotton.
As a fabric, its primary task is looking and feeling good, which modal does quite well. The fabric’s soft and smooth texture feels great on your skin. It’s breathable, absorbent, and light, adding to modal clothes’ comfy feeling. The material is strong, wrinkle-resistant, pill-resistant, and shrink-resistant, and it stretches without tearing easily. In a word, it’s durable. Its durability is an excellent long-term investment.
Sustainability isn’t just about production and sourcing. It’s about ensuring that there’s less waste being generated. Modal fabric not only saves on water and energy in your home but also ensures that you’re not constantly replacing your wardrobe. This is the point of slow fashion.
Overall, we would recommend this fabric to eco-friendly fashion lovers.
Looking for more eco-friendly fashion items? Check out these 12 best organic cotton sweatpants to up your lounge game this year.
Modal Fabric FAQs
Is Modal Fabric Breathable?
Yes, modal fabric is very breathable
Is Modal Fabric Stretchy?
Yes, modal fabric is stretchy, and it will retain its shape.
What Does Modal Fabric Feel Like?
Modal fabric feels similar to silk and satin. It’s soft and smooth.
Does Modal Wrinkle?
Modal is quite wrinkle-resistant.
- Abhishek C, et al. (2018). Modal Wet Processing – A Novel Approach. https://nopr.niscpr.res.in/handle/123456789/43994
- Li Shen, et al. (2010). Life Cycle Assessment of Man Made Cellulose Fibers. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/50925966_Life_Cycle_Assessment_of_man-made_cellulose_fibres#pf2
- Rachel Bick, et al. (2018). The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion. https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12940-018-0433-7
Stella - Writer
Stella is a writer and mother from Thika, Kenya.
Her love for nature and the beautiful Kenyan outdoors has inspired Stella to consciously make an effort to lead a more sustainable, eco-friendly lifestyle.