Modal, The Soft And Lightweight Fabric From Wood: A 5-minute Guide

As sustainability is becoming more prevalent in fashion, brands are opting to use more environmentally responsible fabrics.

In this article, I describe all you need to know about the popular Modal fabric.

What is Modal fabric?

Modal fabric is a type of rayon that was invented in Japan in the 1950s. They engineered it to enhance the traditional process of producing rayon and come up with a softer and more resistant version of it. 

Therefore, Modal has structural properties that make it more resistant to shrinking and stretching when wet than traditional rayon; because of that, it’s also known as “high wet modulus rayon.”

Modal fabric is made from beech tree pulp, and given the chemicals used in its production, it’s often considered a semi-synthetic fabric. Depending on how it’s produced, Modal fabric can be more sustainable than its traditional counterparts. 

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As we will see later in this article, some types of Modal are biodegradable and compostable.

Its properties make Modal very suitable and superior to other fabrics for underwear, activewear, and some home pieces like bedsheets.

Modal fabric is made of beech trees wood pulp
Modal is a fabric made from beech trees wood pulp and some types are biodegradable and compostable.

How is Modal made?

The steps involved in producing Modal fabric are similar to those followed to make rayon or other types of viscose fabrics. Here’s a summary of what it involves. 

  1. Harvest beech trees, chip them, and extract the cellulose from their pulp.
  2. Make sheets from the cellulose and soak them into sodium hydroxide. 
  3. Break the sheets into smaller pieces and soak them in carbon disulfate. Soak the cellulose xanthate produced in the previous step in sodium hydroxide again.
  4. Put the subsequent liquid solution through a spinneret to create the fibers.
  5. Soak the fibers in sulfuric acid to form yarn.
  6. Wash, bleach, dry, and load the yarn onto spools.

Is Modal sustainable?

The production of Modal fabric is not inherently sustainable. Still, it can become sustainable depending on how the manufacturers handle the production process and what specific steps are optimized to be environmentally responsible. 

There are a few points to take into consideration when analyzing the sustainability of Modal:

Raw materials

As mentioned earlier, the raw material to produce Modal is wood from beech trees. It’s easy to conclude that the more fabric we make, the more deforestation we potentially cause to the planet. Some companies use certified trees planted explicitly for this purpose in places where no other agriculture is possible. Unfortunately, this is not always the case; in some countries, where regulation is laxer, the trees harvested might come from rainforests.

On the other hand, trees are a more sustainable raw material than, for example, cotton, which requires enormous amounts of water to grow, making Modal in itself a more sustainable fabric than traditional cotton fabric.

Chemicals and waste

You can see in the previous section how Modal is made and the number of harmful chemicals that are required to produce it. The process, of course, ends up contaminating the water and environment and harming the people who work to make the fabric a reality.

Bleaching and dyeing processes

The underlying problem with these two processes is highly related to the above because, to dye fabric, many toxic materials are used and released into the environment.

Bleaching and dyeing process of fabric
The chemicals used to process, bleach and dye the fabric are very damaging to the water, environment and the workers.

A sustainable option

Currently, Lenzing is producing one of the most sustainable Modal fibers under the branded name TENCEL™ Modal1. According to their website, “the fibers are extracted from naturally grown beech wood by an environmentally responsible integrated pulp-to-fiber process, which is self-sufficient in energy and recovers co-products from parts of the wood.” 

It’s worth mentioning that TENCEL™ Modal is sourced from sustainable forests in Austria and neighboring countries. The fully integrated pulp and fiber production at the Lenzing site in Austria make it possible to produce fibers in an eco-responsible way. TENCEL™ Modal fibers have earned the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) BioPreferred® designation.

Given Lenzing’s state-of-the-art process, TENCEL™ Modal fibers are biodegradable and compostable under industrial, home, soil, and marine conditions.

Lenzing also innovates the bleaching and dyeing processes by integrating them into their pulp to fiber production. 

Their Eco Clean2 technology process is more environmentally responsible than conventional bleaching, being completely chlorine-free.

Similarly, Eco Color3 technology offers an alternative to the Modal dyeing process. Textiles using this technology have been certified with the EU Ecolabel for textile products, a label of environmental excellence awarded to products meeting high ecological standards.

Modal properties

Modal fabric is an exquisite, soft fabric used as a substitute for silk or cotton. It’s very flexible, lightweight, and breathable. It has moisture regulating properties and hence can keep your skin dry and cool.

Because of the above properties, it’s perfect for its usage in underwear and activewear garments.

Modal is deemed luxurious considering its remarkable properties, and it’s often more expensive than viscose or cotton.

  • Long-lasting softness. The most notorious property of the modal fabric is its softness and gentleness to the skin. It also retains its softness even after several washes. 
  • Breathability. Modal is highly lightweight and breathable, making it perfect for activewear and wearing it during sporty activities.
  • Moisture regulating. Modal has better moisture-wicking properties than cotton, keeping your skin feeling pleasantly cool and not clinging to it. 
  • Shrink resistant. Modal fabric is enhanced to avoid shrinking, unlike other forms of rayon.
  • Biodegradable and compostable. If sourced from a certified brand such as TENCEL™, the modal is biodegradable and compostable; therefore, it can fully revert to nature.
Modal fabric used in underwear
Modal fabric is an excellent option to be used in underwear, activewear and bedsheets.

Modal compared to other fabrics

Modal compared to cotton and polyester

In this table, I describe the main differences between Modal and other mainstream fabrics, such as cotton and polyester, so you get an idea of how these fabrics compare to each other.

CharacteristicsModalCottonPolyester
SoftnessIt feels soft and smooth from the beginning and can retain softness after several washesIt feels crisp initially and then gets softer with use and washingSlightly coarse; it may not be suitable for sensitive skin
BreathabilityCool, breathable, and wicks away moistureCool and breathable but cannot wick away moistureNot breathable; it will trap moisture instead of wicking it away
DurabilityIt’s long-lasting and durableIt’s durable, but it requires more washes than other fabricsSuper long-lasting and durable
MaintenanceSomehow delicate, but it’s ordinarily machine-washable.Easy to handle and machine-washableIt does not require special care; machine-washable
Resistance to wrinklesYesNoYes
SustainabilityThere are sustainable choicesThere are sustainable choices, like organic cottonNot sustainable
PriceSlightly more expensive than other fabricsOn pair with other mainstream fabricsConsiderably cheaper than other fabrics

How to care for Modal

Modal is generally easy to care for, given that it can be machine-washed and it’s not very sensitive to temperature. As always, I recommend looking at the specific instructions in your garment label because it’s typical for Modal to be mixed with other fabrics that might require extra care.

  • Modal can be washed at any water temperature, even though cold water is ideal. 
  • It’s better to use oxygen-based bleach since chlorine bleach can weaken the fabric.
  • Select low or medium heat for drying and remove your items from the dryer promptly to about wrinkles.
Modal fabric is easy to care for and can be machine-washed.

Modal fabric FAQs

Is modal a natural fiber?

Modal comes from a natural raw material, wood pulp. However, some chemicals are used to convert the pulp to fiber, and that fiber is considered semi-synthetic. 

In the case of TENCEL™ Modal, the fibers are biodegradable and compostable.

Is modal made from bamboo?

Some particular types of Modal fabric are made from bamboo, but it’s more common for it to be made from beech tree wood pulp.

Is modal compostable?

Yes, if we talk about TENCEL™ Modal, the fabric is certified biodegradable and compostable under industrial, home, soil, and marine conditions.

Is modal good for summer?

Yes, Modal is one of the best fabrics for summer, given its fantastic properties. It’s lightweight, breathable, and optimized for moisture absorption keeping your skin dry and cool during the summer.

Is modal warm?

Unfortunately, Modal is not one of the best fabrics to keep you warm, so it’s not ideal to use it in winter climates. 

Is modal fabric quick-drying?

Modal does not dry as quickly as other fabrics like polyester or nylon. It has similar features to cotton in that sense; therefore, it is not an ideal option for travelers who need to wash on the go and dry their clothes fast.

Is modal waterproof?

Modal has excellent moisture-wicking properties, and it won’t retain as much water as cotton; however, it cannot be considered waterproof.

Is modal odor resistant?

Yes, given that modal cellulosic fibers have excellent moisture-wicking properties, they can help regulate your body temperature, handling sweat and odor better than other fabrics. That’s one of the reasons it’s widely used for sportswear.

Is modal good for practicing sports like hiking?

Yes, Modal is one of the best fabrics to wear to practice sports. It’s stretchy, lightweight, breathable, and optimized for moisture absorption keeping your skin dry and cool meanwhile you practice hiking.

Is modal good for tie-dye?

Yes, you can tie-dye Modal as long as you’re using fiber-reactive dye. As the fabric is enhanced to be more resistant when wet, it’s even better than traditional rayon for this purpose.

Is modal good for sublimation?

The only suitable fabrics for dye sublimation are polyester, nylon, and lycra. As a general rule, it’s suitable only for synthetic materials. Since modal is a natural (regenerated) fiber, it’s not a good option for sublimation printing. 

Final thoughts

Modal fabric is an excellent alternative to traditional rayon, given its enhanced properties and potential for becoming a sustainable material. Also, the fabric is currently one of the best for underwear and athletic clothing because of its properties.

Companies like Lenzing constantly innovate to produce more environmentally responsible yarns, making it possible for brands and consumers to have better choices. 

If you want to learn more about modern sustainable fabrics, check out my article about the trendy ECONYL fabric.