Never heard of modal fabric? It's the semi-synthetic fabric also known as high wet modulus rayon. It's made from wood or, more specifically, the wood of beech trees.
It was first created in Japan in 1951 but today most modal fabric is produced by the Austrian company Lenzing. It has a reputation for being a sustainable alternative to other semi-synthetic fabrics and organic fabrics, but is it really?
Modal fabric was originally developed to imitate the feel of cotton. Modal is a type of rayon that is considered an upgrade to viscose rayon. It is known for its silky texture and durability.
Modal is considered a semi-natural and semi-synthetic fabric, because although it is a plant-based material (it can be made from bamboo or beech trees), it still requires chemicals to convert the wood pulp to modal fibers and yarn.
Because of its moisture-management properties, modal fabric is mainly used for activewear, undergarments and sometimes bed sheets.
How Is Modal Fabric Manufactured?
The manufacturing process for modal fabric is more eco-friendly when compared to the production process for other rayon fabrics, but it is similar.
Here's a breakdown of the production process:
Beech trees are harvested and then mulched into small chips.
The wood chips are purified to extract their cellulose fibers.
The cellulose fibers are formed into sheets that are soaked in a solution of sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide.
The fiber sheets are broken down and are forced through a spinneret to create fibers.
These modal fibers are woven together to make modal fabric.
Is Modal Fabric Sustainable?
Even though modal fabric is sourced using plants, the production process still uses dyes and chemicals. For instance, exposure to carbon disulfide is known to be hazardous, especially in the workplace. Studies also have shown adverse health effects to animals that have long-term inhalation exposure.
In 1977, Lenzing began using an eco-friendly bleaching method for its cellulosic fibers. The process is less toxic, reuses the chemicals and sources beech trees from forests that are FSC or PEFC accredited. Lenzing trademarked its modal fabric as TENCEL Modal®.
Modal can also be given the green light as a more eco-friendly alternative to other fabrics, however, especially if it is made from sustainably sourced wood. This means the textile manufacturers must use trees planted explicitly for modal fabric, and it's even better if they're on land not suitable for any other agricultural growth. But because modal fabric has become so popular, not all companies use trees planted specifically for this purpose.
But when compared to cotton, the modal fabric manufacturing process uses between 10 and 20 times less water because beech trees need less water than cotton.
Modal Fabric Pros and Cons
As we mentioned, modal is a type of rayon that has a super-soft, silky texture. Modal fibers also are extremely flexible and lightweight, so the fabric is ideal for clothes that fit close to the skin.
Modal resists wrinkles and shrinkage, and can regulate moisture and minimize odor. Modal is long-lasting and the fabric resists pilling, fading and creasing.
Modal isn't perfect, though. As we mentioned, the production process does use toxic chemicals, and there's no guarantee the trees harvested are from sustainable forests.
One con is that modal fabrics can be more expensive than their comparable counterparts, namely cotton. Modal fabric does have a reputation for staying softer longer than cotton and wicking away moisture more effectively, but it is not considered as breathable.
How to Care for Modal Fabrics
Although modal fabric is a soft material, it can be washed and dried in the machine, but always pay attention to the manufacturer's care guidelines on the label. Some experts say it can be cleansed at any temperature, but cold water on the gentle cycle is the optimal choice.
Use a mild detergent and an oxygen-based bleach, as chlorine bleach can be too harsh. More delicate clothing can be laundered in a mesh bag for added protection.
Dry using low or medium heat and remove items from the dryer with just a little dampness to help eliminate wrinkles.
Now That's Interesting
Viscose rayon and modal rayon have similar manufacturing processes, but they are very different. Modal rayon is stronger and more durable than viscose rayon, and the modal production process doesn't require as many chemicals as needed to create viscose rayon. This makes modal fabric a more eco-friendly alternative than viscose rayon.
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