Modal fabric is a textile made of semi-synthetic polymers often used in the fashion industry to make affordable clothing. It's a type of rayon, a regenerated cellulosic fiber, like viscose, acetate, cupro, and lyocell.
Many people don't know the truth about modal, how it's made, its advantages, and its impacts. Apparel brands market modal as an eco-friendly material but modal isn't always the best for your skin and the planet.
Modal fabric has a luxurious appearance and soft hand feel. Modal fibers are generally produced using filaments of cellulose made of wood pulp extracted from trees.
Although it's made from a natural and renewable raw material, wood pulp, modal fabrics are a semi-synthetic or chemical fiber textile. The main advantage of modal compared to natural fibers is its very low cost.
Here is everything you need to know about modal fabrics, their uses, manufacturing, properties, downsides, environmental impact, and sustainable alternatives.
What is modal?
Modal is a man-made cellulosic fiber similar to viscose rayon. It's considered a semi-synthetic material and is very cheap to produce.
Modal production involves solubilizing high-quality cellulose extracted from plants or wood.
Modal is the second generation of man-made cellulosic fibers. It's a modified version of viscose with higher tenacity. It's stronger when wet, more durable, and flexible.
But modal is more expensive than viscose rayon or cotton. It's manufacturing process also uses more energy than processing natural fibers.
Modal was first discovered in 1951 in Japan. However, the first commercial sale of modal fabrics occurred in 1964 by an Austrian company called Lenzing AG.
Today, Lenzing is one of the most well-known manufacturers of Modal.
But many other manufacturers make their modal versions in Europe, as well as in many East-Asian countries like India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Japan, and China.
Common trade names for modal include Lenzing Modal, China Modal, Formatex, MicroModal, and Modal Micro Air.
Modal fabric uses
Modal fabrics are regularly used in fashion to produce clothing and accessories because they are smooth, sheen, and affordable. They resemble luxurious silk.
In the textile and apparel industry, modal fabrics make knitwear, evening dresses, formal shirts, sportswear, hats, suits, blouses, coats, sweaters, pajamas, and undergarments.
Modal is also used in furniture, upholstery, drapes, bed sheets, curtains, carpets, bathrobes, towels, and home decor, like other soft and luxurious fabrics.
Man-made cellulosic fibers like modal, acetate, viscose, cupro, or lyocell are slowly replacing petroleum-based synthetic fibers such as nylon, acrylic, and polyester.
The market for modal fabrics is expected to slightly rise in the coming years, as new apparel and home furnishing applications develop, especially in China.
Although modal can be used alone, it's often blended with other types of fibers such as nylon, cotton, wool, silk, and more to lower raw material costs.
Many fashion brands around the world choose modal fabrics to create affordable clothes. Modal is used in cheaply produced garments as the primary fiber content or a substantial part of the fiber composition.
Every year, 6.7 million tons of man-made cellulosic fibers are produced globally, according to Lenzing. They account for 6.2% of all fiber production worldwide.
Viscose rayon is the most widely used semi-synthetic fabric. It has around 79% market share with 5.3 million tons produced in 2018, as reported by the Textile Exchange.
How are modal fabrics produced?
Modal is manufactured by deconstructing wood pulp into a purified fluffy white cellulose using sodium hydroxide or caustic soda, carbon disulfide, an acid catalyst, such as sulfuric acid, and more.
The resulting cellulosic solution is extruded by spinning. Spinnerets transform the viscous solution into filaments that are finally spun into modal fibers.
A lot of chemicals and water are needed to condition wood pulp, treat and dissolve cellulose fibers, and wash the regenerated fibers.
Spinning is a manufacturing process used to create polymer fibers like modal fibers. It's a specific form of extrusion that employs a spinneret to produce multiple continuous filaments. The various types of spinning are wet, dry, dry jet-wet, melt, gel, and electrospinning.
Wet spinning is the oldest type of spinning. Polymers that need to be dissolved in a solvent to be spun often use this manufacturing process. Modal fiber is usually produced via wet spinning, like many other synthetic fibers, such as nylon and acrylic.
Dry spinning has much lower productivity than wet spinning. The solution is extruded through controlled nozzles with extremely small pore diameters ranging from 30 to 50 micrometers. The solvent is then evaporated in warm air to form long filaments of cellulose.
Dry spinning is being abandoned for most synthetic fibers. It's used only for expensive specialty fibers, such as spandex, that cannot be spun by any other process.
During the wet spinning extrusion process, the polymer is dissolved and extruded through several thousand holes into a large spin bath, washing rolls, and drying rolls. After being purified and extended to make long filaments, the modal fiber is ready to be spun into threads.
Making extended filaments is an important step in modal fiber production. Fiber extension is a crucial process to make commercial textiles. It creates modal fibers many times longer than their original length, which increases production efficiency and lowers the overall cost.
Once spun into yarn, modal fibers are shipped to textile manufacturers who weave them into various fabrics to create apparel and other applications.
Modal fabric properties
Modal is a unique material with unique properties. Modal fabrics look and feel like luxurious silk as they are comfortable, soft, and lightweight.
Modal fibers are very pleasant to the touch. They are waster absorbent and dry quickly. And they are also resistant to moths and mildew.
Modal fabrics drape and hang well. They have good resistance to wrinkling and pilling, multiple sheens, and color options.
Modal is a great material for everyday clothing as well as sportswear since it's breathable and durable.
However, modal fabrics don't resist high temperatures. They have low thermal stability and will lose longevity when exposed directly to UV and sunlight.
Modal fabric advantages and disadvantages
Here are some of the best advantages of modal fabrics:
- High comfort and softness
- A luxurious look and hand feel
- Good pilling resistance
- Good wrinkle resistance
- Good elasticity
- Good tensile strength
- Good resilience
- Good durability
- Moth and fungus resistance
- Easy to wash
The main drawbacks of using semi-synthetic modal fibers are:
- Low heat resistance
- Low thermal stability
- Low abrasion resistance
- Low chemical protection
- Low resistance to UV and sunlight
- Negative environmental impact
Modal fabrics certifications
Many of the best certification standards for textiles apply to modal fabrics. Modal is a semi-synthetic fabric and considered a renewable textile product.
Standards for textiles are important to ensure that each piece of clothing has been produced in sustainable processes under environmentally friendly and socially responsible working conditions.
They guarantee that fabrics have been manufactured with the least possible impact on people, the environment, the animals, and with responsible use of resources.
Fashion brands and retailers often source sustainable modal fabrics from manufacturers carrying some of the following certifications:
Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex
The Oeko-Tex certification is one of the world's best-known labels for textiles tested for harmful substances. It certifies high product safety and is widely used in the global apparel and footwear industry.
The Oeko-Tex certification guarantees that products are harmless to the human environment. It takes into account many regulated and non-regulated substances, which may be harmful to human health.
The Oeko-Tex certification also ensures in some cases that textile products have been manufactured in sustainable processes under environmentally friendly and socially responsible working conditions.
Oeko-Tex is a widely recognized textile standard around the globe. It's a great label ensuring the safety of fabrics, clothing, garments, accessories, and more.
If a textile product bears the Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex certification, customers can be sure that all components, zips, studs, threads, labels, prints, buttons, and other accessories have been tested for harmful substances.
All textile articles in every stage of processing can be certified Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex. The certification applies to every single component and ingredient before the final article.
Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex takes into account many regulated and non-regulated substances potentially harmful to human health. The test criteria are globally standardized.
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
Textile production is often responsible for massive deforestation, destruction of ecosystems, and carbon emissions.
Sustainable forest management is necessary to improve the eco-friendliness of man-made cellulosic fibers.
Founded in 1993, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international member-led organization that sets the FSC standards for responsible forest management and chain of custody.
The FSC is currently working with key players in the industry to achieve complete certified textile supply chains to allow FSC labels on apparel.
FSC forest management certification confirms that the forest is being managed in a way that benefits the lives of local people and workers and preserves biological diversity while ensuring it sustains economic viability.
Any forest operation must adhere to ten principles before it can receive FSC forest management certification. These principles have been developed to be relevant to all kinds of forest ecosystems and applicable worldwide.
They ensure the monitoring of forest management environmental and social impacts, as well as high conservation values to community relations and workers’ rights.
Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)
PEFC international standards are another certification for sustainable forest management. Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization providing third-party certification.
FSC forest management certification is often too expensive for small forest owners. They choose the PEFC certification system as it differs in the way inspections are carried.
PEFC aims to save forests for the future and protect them against destruction. The organization is composed of various stakeholders, including industry associations, trade unions, nature, and environmental organizations.
FSC is the more common certification, but both are reputable and very similar. Some forests carry both FSC and PEFC forest management certifications.
The EU Ecolabel (EC Regulation n. 66/2010) is a reference for consumers who want to help reduce pollution by buying more environmentally friendly products.
It's a trademark of the European Union that certifies environmental quality and ecological performance. The standard is awarded to products and services that have a lower environmental impact than comparable products.
The EU Ecolabel makes it easier for consumers to choose high-quality, environmentally friendly, and healthier products. It certifies that the product has a low impact on the environment throughout its entire lifespan.
How to care for modal fabrics
Taking good care of your clothes is one of the best ways to live more sustainably and ensure that they last longer. Give special attention to modal fabrics, as they are delicate and easily melt.
Extend the life of your clothes and the time you can wear them by taking good care of them and avoiding common mistakes. You can limit pressure on natural resources, reduces waste, pollution, and emissions.
Before washing modal fabrics, read the care instructions that can be found on the care tag. This way, you can easily determine if the modal fabric is washable.
The washing instructions may vary depending on the fabric’s blend. Pure modal fabrics generally need to be hand washed. Cleanse and rinse modal fibers in cold water.
Semi-synthetic modal fabrics made with blends of modal with other fibers are usually easier to wash. They can be washed in the washing machine on the cool wash setting.
To save water, energy, and preserve the quality of your garment, it's best to wash clothes made of modal in cold temperatures. It saves energy and prevents fabrics from melting.
You can place modal fabrics in the washing machine but with a temperature lower than 40 degrees Celcius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
Don't use any chlorine-based or strong detergent and use a gentle cycle to avoid high spin speeds. Make sure the washing speed doesn't exceed 600 revolutions per minute. Otherwise, modal fabrics may become very creased.
To avoid dye bleeding, make sure to soak the fabric for the least amount of time.
The more sustainable way of drying your clothes is to hang them to dry.
Do not dry modal fabrics in a tumble drier. They have very low thermal resistance and will melt under high temperatures.
Place them on a line in fresh air rather than using a dryer. It preserves the quality of your garments and saves an enormous amount of energy, carbon emissions, and money.
You can also lay the fabric down on a towel for a while, then flip it over. Or you can hang it up on a hanger to help it dry naturally.
Iron your clothes only when it's necessary. If you decide to iron modal fabrics or modal blends, select the lowest temperature possible to prevent any damage.
Iron the fabric through a damp cloth if possible. Modal fibers can easily melt and too much ironing will eventually damage the fabric.
Modal doesn't resist chemicals very well. Keep chemical-based glues, perfume, and nail polish remover, and alcohol-based solvents far away from clothes made of modal textiles.
Don't use acetone or organic solvents to remove stains either. They will dissolve modal fibers and cause irreversible damage to the garment.
Are modal fabrics sustainable?
Like viscose rayon, modal production involves toxic solvents. In Europe and the United States, environmental regulations have made modal production more expensive than it used to be.
The global non-profit organization Canopy reports that modal fiber production is associated with massive deforestation and isn't eco-friendly in many cases.
Lenzing Modal is arguably the most sustainable. But many modal fibers on the market are less transparent. The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) Out of Fashion campaign is actively working to stop rainforest destruction and human rights abuses.
Many modal fabrics come from logging in tropical rainforest areas. Every year, 120 million trees are logged for fabrics including rayon, viscose, modal, and other trademarked textiles.
If the trend continues, deforestation due to man-made cellulosic fiber production could double by 2025, as stated in Canopy's Hot Button Report.
Even if cellulose comes from natural renewable materials unlike petroleum-based fibers, modal production can be very polluting and wasteful.
Modal production in poorly regulated facilities not only damages the nearby environment but also endangers workers' health. Acids and other toxic chemicals can easily leak into waterways and pollute water sources.
Manufacturing fabrics from plants or wood requires heavy processing. A lot of modal fabrics are created with chemically-intensive processes harmful to people and the environment.
Modal production requires a lot of energy, water, and toxic chemicals, such as sodium hydroxide or caustic soda, carbon disulfide, sulfuric acid, and more.
Unless chemicals are handled carefully, workers can be seriously harmed by most chemicals used in modal manufacturing.
They are highly corrosive substances that severely burn the skin and eyes. They irritate the nose and throat, harm the nervous system, and cause severe lung damage at high concentrations.
Through skin contact, ingestion, or inhalation, these highly dangerous substances can lead to dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, nausea, and headaches.
Modal production can be highly polluting and harm the environment. Modal fibers also contribute to microfiber pollution that escapes through our plumbing and sewage systems.
A study published in 2011 by the American Chemical Society reveals that man-made cellulosic fibers account for an important share of microfiber pollution.
Microfibers facilitate the transfer of pollutants, monomers, and additives to organisms with uncertain consequences for their health.
The water expelled from our washing machines transports these fibers to rivers, lakes, and oceans. The amount of microfibers entering the world's oceans is increasing at an alarming rate.
Because of the various processing stages during modal production, modal fibers can take between a few weeks to a few years to biodegrade depending on the environmental conditions.
Cellulose biodegrades quickly under six weeks with optimal soil moisture of -33 kPa and soil temperature of approximately 25 ºC, as pointed out by recent research.
However, researchers also report that the more fabrics are treated, the slower they decompose. And a lot of semi-synthetic fabrics like modal receive heavy treatments to make them softer, stronger, and elastic.
A sustainable alternative to modal fiber
Making modal fiber in highly regulated and sustainable production facilities could improve its eco-friendliness.
The modal process developed by Austrian manufacturer Lenzing involves high recovery rates of chemicals. It reduces wastewater and air emissions significantly.
A better alternative to modal fabric is lyocell. Tencel, a very popular brand of lyocell, is an environmentally friendly cellulosic fiber produced sustainably.
Seacell by Smartfiber is another Lyocell brand worth mentioning. It reduces the environmental impact of textiles by using sustainable dried seaweed.
Tencel lyocell is made of cellulose from wood pulp like modal. It's a semi-synthetic fiber made from renewable materials. Lyocell isn't natural but its impact on the environment is very low compared to other synthetic fibers.
Closed-loop processes can almost fully recover and reuse all water and chemicals used during the manufacturing of lyocell.
An innovative process can transform wood pulp into lyocell filaments to create garments. It can make large-scale textile production more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Lyocell is the third generation of cellulosic fibers after modal and viscose rayon. It's even more eco-friendly than modal because lyocell production doesn't require sodium hydroxide used in modal manufacturing.
The main ingredients used in lyocell fabrication are N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMMO) and water. NMMO, also commonly called amine oxide, is considered non-toxic and is easily regenerated.
Lyocell is extremely soft, breathable, lightweight, durable, anti-bacterial, and remains odor-free much longer than cotton.
Lyocell is arguably the most eco-friendly cellulosic fiber. It's usually made from beech trees, pine trees, or eucalyptus. But it can also be produced out of bamboo, soy, seaweed, or coconut.
Ethical clothing brands using lyocell
Many sustainable fashion brands now use lyocell in their new collections.
They design, manufacture, and market high-quality clothing made of environmentally friendly materials such as Tencel lyocell.
But sustainable fashion isn't only about material sourcing. It's also important that brands and retailers guarantee substantially fair, ecological, and resource-efficient manufacturing conditions.
Here are some sustainable fashion brands that produce eco-friendly clothing from Tencel lyocell:
- Patagonia, an industry leader in ethical and sustainable active and outerwear.
- Thought, a clothing brand making classic shirts and dresses from natural and sustainable fabrics.
- prAna, an outdoor brand that creates clothing for positive change, to inspire new generations to thrive and stay active.
- Reformation, a fashion label making sustainable women's clothing and accessories.
- Everlane, a transparent brand offering modern and beautiful essentials, at the best factories, without traditional markups.
- People Tree (UK), a fair trade fashion pioneer, and online garment retailer making clothes from environmentally-friendly materials.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.