What Is Modal Fabric? Is It Eco-Friendly?

Eco fabrics come in all shapes and sizes and modal is considered to be one of the most sustainable fabrics on the market today, it's lightweight and breathable and is used in everything from clothing (pyjamas, undies, workout wear, t-shirts) to housewares (bedding, pillows, towels). But what is modal fabric exactly and is it eco-friendly?

Modal is actually a type of rayon that is made up of a combination of organic and synthetic materials, which makes it a "semi-synthetic" material. It's become THE fabric alternative to conventional cotton and viscose, especially in the athleisure wear category.

Modal has also become a go-to eco fabric for many ethical and sustainable fashion brands, but does it deserve all the love it's getting? Let's break it down.

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What is Modal Fabric?

Modal is a type of rayon made from high-quality cellulose derived from beech trees. It's very soft, lightweight, breathable, durable, flexible, and generally blended with other fibers like spandex and cotton.

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Before modal there was Viscose Rayon which was first introduced at the end of the 19th century, it was highly flammable, super expensive to manufacture, and very wasteful. In fact, Viscose was the first-ever human-made fiber that was coveted for its cotton and silk-like qualities and is still used widely today in many fast fashion brands. It takes a whole lot of really toxic chemicals to manufacture, many of which have very detrimental effects on factory workers and the environment.

In 1951, the Japanese invented Modal Rayon (also known as High Wet Modulus rayon), which created less waste in the manufacturing process and overall performed much better due to its lightweight, breathable qualities. It's used in athletic wear thanks to that as well as its moisture-wicking abilities. You'd think this and the fact that modal is made from trees makes it eco-friendly, well, there is a little more to the modal story. Today, modal is primarily made by an Austrian company, The Lenzing Group which produces various types of viscose fabrics including the Lenzing Brand which produces modal and lyocell. More on them a little later.

How is Modal Fabric Manufactured?

Modal is made from tree cellulose and chemicals. The process begins with the harvesting of beech trees, from there they are chipped and the cellulose is extracted from the pulp.

The cellulose is then made into sheets, which are soaked in a chemical called sodium hydroxide. Once the sheets are broken into small pieces they are soaked in another chemical carbon disulfate which produces sodium cellulose xanthate, which is then placed back in sodium hydroxide to soak again.

This creates a liquid solution which is then run through a spinneret (a device used to extrude a polymer solution or polymer melt to form fibers) which creates tiny, long fibers that are woven or knitted into modal.

The fabric is then washed and bleached and the resulting yarn is loaded onto spools. The extra processing makes it extra resilient and extra soft.

Sewport, a garment production platform notes that "far lesser concentrations of sodium hydroxide are used to create modal rayon than are used to create viscose rayon, which results in the production of less toxic waste."

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Is Modal Fabric Eco-friendly? It's complicated!

Well, it depends on who's making it and how it's made. Generic or standard modals made in China, Indonesia, and Pakistan are by no means sustainable or eco-friendly and in fact, the effects of harsh chemicals on factory workers and ecosystems are terrible. The workers are faced with all kinds of illnesses and the toxins that are used are normally disposed of in local rivers and waterways, polluting communities. The report "Dirty Fashion" highlights these issues in depth. I highly recommend you take a moment to read it.

Canopy, a Canadian NGO found that "increasingly, endangered forests are being used in the manufacture of dissolving pulp to produce fabrics such as rayon/viscose, modal and lyocell".

Their research found that over 150 million trees are logged each year to make cellulosic fabric and between 2013 and 2020 that number will double; to make matters even worse "dissolving-pulp (the base material for rayon/viscose) wastes approximately 70% of the tree and is a chemically intensive manufacturing process".

Unlike petrochemical-based fabrics, this type of modal does decompose entirely. On top of the chemicals used in production, harch chemicals dyes are also used when making modal clothing or textiles mostly because the fabric can hold plant dyes very well, another one of its benefits.

How can modal be more eco-friendly?

As mentioned earlier The Lenzing Group is the primary maker of the modal. Regarding the manufacturing of their fabrics, they say "Lenzing focuses on the circular economy. The Lenzing biorefinery concept ensures the nearly 100% use of the wood’s substance as a raw material for fibers, for valuable biorefinery products, and as a supplier of energy. Furthermore, chemicals are recovered by Lenzing thanks to closed-loop production processes."

Great, this is better than the standard modal which I mentioned earlier. Lenzing also states that they only "procure wood and pulp from certified sustainable sources", which is good, but it's important to note that they only make and manufacture around 50% of their supply of cellulose fibers, the rest is outsourced and even though they state that they have "strict procurement guidelines for pulp suppliers as we do when we purchase wood for our own pulp production", some of is it outsourced in Indonesia where we know the that Ancient & Endangered forests are at risk.

Canopy’s Hot Button Issue Report ranks the world’s top rayon-viscose producers on their progress in eliminating endangered forests from their supply.

This is a screenshot from Canopy's website regarding Lenzing.

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Canopy's Hot Button Report

In addition, Lenzing does not produce fabrics that are ready to wear. They manufacture and sell the yarn to companies that then turn it into fabrics. Manufacturing fabric from the yarn can be a detriment to the planet, lots of harmful chemicals and water are used and mostly disregarded due to a lack of government regulations in developing nations, where most clothing is manufactured.

When buying clothing made of modal, it's hard to really know where the modal actually comes from and who made it. We have to rely solely on the brand and hope that they are being transparent. Ethical brands will normally state that the modal comes from Lenzing, which is what you want to look for.

It's actually called TENCEL™ Modal. You've probably seen the word TENCEL before, it is commonly used to describe Lyocell, which is considered to be a more sustainable fabric because it uses an "organic solution" that replaces sodium hydroxide. It also uses a closed-loop system so no toxins are dumped when they make it. TENCEL™ Lyocell is made by Lenzing as well.

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The pulp and wood used by Lenzing to make TENCEL™ Modal are certified by The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme For The Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). These types are third-party certifications are important because they ensure that the wood is being harvested sustainably and the workers are being treated well and paid fairly.

Benefits of Modal Fabric

If you are looking for a fabric that is breathable, stretchy and doesn't shrink, pill or crease then modal is right for you. These are some of the main benefits of modal and why it's commonly used in activewear, bedsheets, undies, t-shirts, towels, and bathrobes.

Modal can be woven or knit; it's super-soft, hangs well, and has a very shiny finish. The fibers hold dye very well which is why you see such deep, vivid colors.

It takes way less water to produce modal and it's way better than cotton because it yields up to ten times as high.

Modal is very soft to the touch, gentle on the skin, and can be composted. Modal fibers can be blended with other fibers to significantly improve the softness and comfort of fabrics.

Modal vs. other types of fabrics

Modal vs. Viscose

Viscose is a plant-based fiber but because of the demand for fast fashion, it's manufactured in a way that uses a ton of energy, water, and chemicals, all of which have devastating impacts on the factory workers, their communities, and the environment too.

Modal is known to be stronger, lighter, and more breathable than viscose.

Modal vs. Cotton

Cotton is cheaper than modal. Cotton uses more water and chemicals in its growing and production. Modal is 50% more absorbent than cotton. Modal absorbs moisture more efficiently than cotton.

Modal vs. Lyocell

Lyocell is a form of rayon made from cellulose fiber from wood pulp or cotton linter. We know that Modal is also made from wood pulp but it uses a slightly different process to lyocell.

Lyocell is made using an organic solution that replaces the sodium hydroxide used in the modal.

How To Wash Modal Clothing?

The good news is Modal can be washed in the washing machine with warm water. But if you know me, you know I prefer cold, it uses way less energy. It can also be machine dried (use the gentle cycle), but I highly recommend air drying your clothes. I've got a whole guide on how to do it right.

Never use bleach on delicate fabrics, it breaks down the fibers and I always recommend using more natural, eco-friendly detergents for all your clothing. You can think of the care in the same way you would good linen. If you have lingerie or undies made from Modal, hand wash or use a mesh washing bag.

Modal is pretty crease-resistant, I recommend a steamer over an iron, although you can use both.

3 Ethical Canadian Brands That Use Sustainable Modal

Miik is a sustainable Canadian clothing brand that offers a range of really cute casual wear and must-have workwear. They custom mill all of their fabrics for sustainable sources. All of their clothing is produced right here in Canada. Their fabrics use non-toxic dyes and chemicals, and all of their manufacturers have implemented water recycling. 95% of their production materials are recovered to reduce energy use and minimize waste. All of their fabrics are OEKO-TEX® certified.

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Photo: Miik

Frank And Oak is another affordable Canadian brand that we love, offering everything from sustainable jeans to ethical winter jackets and more! They have cut all virgin plastic out of their supply chain by using only recycled polyester bags, removing excess shipment packaging, and maximizing our recycled raw materials. They've also developed Circular Denim™ stating on their website "With circularity in mind, we designed new denim made of post-consumer waste. Worn-out jeans that were destined for the landfill are collected and redirected to a fabric recycler where they are shredded and broken down over several steps until they’re reduced to fibers. Those salvaged fibers are then re-spun into new materials, reducing our footprint and giving your old jeans a new life.

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Photo: Frank and Oak

Encircled! Love this brand and founder so much. All of their clothing is made here in Canada. All of their fabrics are chosen to meet their high standards of sustainability. TENCEL™ Modal is one of them. You can take a tour of their factories on their website. They take every detail of sustainably into account and then make their clothes. If you are trying to build a minimalist wardrobe or looking for comfy ethical PJs or a cute eco-friendly T-shirt, I highly recommend you take a peek at Encircled.

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Photo: Encircled

Bottom line when it comes to What Is Modal Fabric?

Whenever you are opting to make the more sustainable choices, especially where fabrics are concerned you need to ask some important questions like:

  • What is it made of?
  • Where is it made? Does it come from a county where there are good laws in place to perfect people and the planet?
  • How is it made?
  • Are toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process?
  • What kind of waste comes from manufacturing?
  • Are there third-party certifications?
  • Is the brand being transparent and open to your question? Or are they being vague?

And when it comes to MODAL, you want to make sure you a spending your money on TENCEL™ Modal.

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