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If you’ve ever examined the tags on your clothing, you’ve probably seen the word “modal” listed. But unlike natural fibers like cotton or wool, you may not be sure what modal actually is. Is it natural? How eco-friendly is modal fabric? And what is modal made of? We’re here to answer these questions, and more.
Modal is a semi-synthetic fabric that is favored for its softness. It’s a type of rayon, a synthetic silk that was invented in the late 19th century. Modal itself was invented in the 1950s. Nowadays you may hear the term “Lenzing modal fabric.” Lenzing is the name of an Austrian company that produces modal and a similar fabric, tencel.
Modal is often combined with other materials (like cotton and spandex) to make it stronger, softer, or stretchier, and it’s used to make items like underwear, pajamas, and activewear, as well as bed sheets.
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Fabric Qualities of Modal
Modal is very soft, making it an ideal fabric for clothing that’s worn close to the skin. It also tends to drape well, so is good for casual dresses, skirts, and blouses.
Modal is breathable and about 50% more absorbent than cotton, which makes it a good fabric for activewear.
Is modal stretchy? Alone, modal is quite flexible, but when combined with spandex it becomes even stretchier.
Modal tends to be more durable than a lot of other similar semi-synthetic or natural fabrics, such as viscose, silk, or cotton. This means it’s suitable for clothing that must withstand a bit of stress (think, activewear) and it can be washed in a washing machine without too much special attention.
So, what is modal made of? Modal is a regenerated, or semi-synthetic, fabric, meaning it uses a natural raw material (beech wood pulp) and treats it with a variety of chemicals. Cellulose is extracted from the raw beech tree pulp and made into sheets by soaking in particular chemicals. These sheets are broken down into smaller pieces through various chemical processes and eventually turned into yarn that is spun into fabric. Modal can be bleached, colored, and printed with patterns, or combined with other types of yarn to make mixed fabrics with different qualities.
Modal is favored by many fashion designers as an eco-friendly fabric option. It does have sustainability plus points: the beech trees that are the raw material for modal fabric require less water to grow than cotton or some other trees that are used to make rayon and viscose. This means that much less water is used and wasted in the production of modal. Also, modal tends to be more expensive than these other semi-synthetic fabrics, so it’s less likely to be turned into disposable “fast fashion,” which is a major environmental concern globally.
However, the chemicals used to make modal are toxic, so modal isn’t totally environmentally friendly.
Modal is generally more durable than its other semi-synthetic counterparts and a relatively low-maintenance fabric, but how you care for items made from modal should partly depend on the type of garment. It is often used to make lingerie and loungewear or pajamas, which are soft and delicate. Put these in a delicates bag if you wash them in the washing machine. For other items, follow the care instructions on the label to help the fabric stay in a good condition for longer.
Rayon is a semi-synthetic fabric invented in France in the 1880s as a cheaper alternative to silk. Viscose is a type of rayon, as is modal. While rayon and viscose can be made from a variety of different wood pulps or bamboo, modal is only made from the pulp of beech trees. Modal is similar in texture and appearance to rayon and viscose, but it’s generally more durable, softer, and more expensive, and thus is considered a more luxurious alternative to these other fibers.
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