Log inSign Up

What is Modal Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • September 22, 2019 • 9 min read

Fabric name Modal fabric
Fabric also known as High-wet-modulus rayon, HWM rayon
Fabric composition Cellulose from trees and synthetic ingredients
Fabric possible thread count variations 150-300
Fabric breathabilityn Very breathable
Moisture-wicking abilities High
Heat retention abilities Low
Stretchability (give) High
Prone to pilling/bubbling Low
Country where fabric was first produced Japan
Biggest exporting/producing country today China
Recommended washing temperatures Cold
Commonly used in Sportswear, underwear, T-shirts, bed sheets

made from soft as can be modal fabric and generously sized scarvesMade from soft as can be modal fabric and generously sized scarves

What Is Modal Fabric?

Modal fabric, which is also known as HWM rayon, is a type of rayon that is commonly used in consumer textiles. This fabric is considered to be semi-synthetic since it is made from a combination of organic and synthetic materials. The base material for modal rayon is cellulose from hardwood trees like birch and oak, but this raw tree material goes through a complex manufacturing process before it is rendered into a weavable fiber.

This version of rayon represents a significant evolution in the history of this fabric. The original forms of rayon that were developed toward the end of the 19th century were expensive to produce, and many of them were flammable. With the development of viscose rayon in the early 20th century, the majority of the cost and safety concerns regarding rayon were solved, but the process of making viscose rayon is unnecessarily complicated, and it produces a large amount of waste.

Modal rayon was first developed in 1951 in Japan, and in many ways, this type of rayon is nearly identical to viscose rayon. However, a simpler process is used to make modal rayon that doesn't produce as much waste, and many consumers note a significant difference in the feel of modal rayon as compared to viscose rayon.

mixed design modal fabric v neck neckline contrast panels long sleeveMixed design Modal fabric V-neck neckline Contrast panels Long sleeve

For instance, modal rayon is generally perceived to be more lightweight than viscose rayon, and it is also more breathable, which has prompted this fabric's popularity in sportswear. This type of rayon is also a popular fabric for bed sheets due to its high moisture wicking profile. Modal rayon is available in thread counts as high as 300, which means that it can be considered a luxury bed sheet material. As compared to cotton, modal rayon is highly resistant to pilling, which is when individual textile fibers tangle and form knots that disfigure fabric and reduce its structural integrity.

Modal rayon's main competitor in the consumer marketplace is lyocell, which is a fully organic form of rayon. Due to the development of modal fabric, the production of viscose rayon around the world has all but stopped; this type of fabric is generally cheaper to produce than viscose, and the decreased number of steps that are required to produce it makes the environmental impact of this fabric less pronounced.

Consumers and textile manufacturers should be advised that modal rayon is not an inherently sustainable or environmentally-friendly material. While the manufacture of this product has the potential to be sustainable under certain circumstances, it is up individual manufacturers to follow the manufacturing processes that will result in environmentally-friendly fabrics.

How Is Modal Fabric Made?

how is modal fabric made

The process of making modal fabric is highly similar to the process used to make viscose rayon. Essentially, modal fabric is an update of viscose rayon that eliminates some of the most wasteful or harmful aspects of the viscose production process. Most consumers and manufacturers also agree that modal rayon is a structurally superior product to viscose rayon.

The modal fabric production process begins with the harvesting of trees to be rendered into cellulose. These trees are broken down into chips that are approximately the size of postage stamps, and they are transferred to the manufacturing floor. These chips are then purified to extract their cellulose content, and the leftover tree products are discarded.

Next, this extracted cellulose is formed into sheets, and these sheets are then immersed or "steeped" in vats of sodium hydroxide, which is also called caustic soda. It's important to note 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.

striking light green embroidered modal fabric kurtiStriking Light Green Embroidered Modal Fabric Kurti

After steeping is complete, the sheets are broken down into crumbs. Unlike the case in the production of viscose rayon, these crumbs are not aged, and they are instead directly immersed in carbon disulfide, which transforms the white crumbs into an orange substance called sodium cellulose xanthate. It is at this point that the tree-derived cellulose can no longer be considered a purely organic substance.

This cellulose xanthate is then immersed in caustic soda once more to create a syrupy solution. The modal fabric production process again bypasses the aging process that usually occurs at this point, and this syrupy substance is immediately forced through a spinneret to create fibers.

These fibers are then immersed in sulfuric acid, stretched, and formed into yarn. The resulting yarn is then washed, bleached, rinsed, dried, and loaded onto spools. At this point, the modal yarn is ready to be subjected to pre-shrinking, fire resistance, wrinkle resistance, or a number of other treatments that may be applied before it is woven into a fabric.

How Is Modal Fabric Used?

how is modal fabric used

This type of rayon is most commonly used as an alternative to silk or cotton. Rayon was originally developed as an alternative to silk; early forms of this substance were called "artificial silk," and they were highly popular in scarves and nightwear before their flammability was discovered.

More technically developed forms of rayon, such as modal rayon, are still commonly used as alternatives to silk. However, it is more common to find modal rayon blended with silk than it is to see scarves and similar products that are made entirely from rayon.

glistening orange embroidered modal fabric kurtiGlistening Orange Embroidered Modal Fabric Kurti

Due to its softness, thinness, and breathability, modal rayon is highly popular in sportswear. For instance, it's common to see this fabric used for yoga pants, bike shorts, and even swimwear. Modal rayon wicks sweat effectively, it is easy to clean, and it is also surprisingly durable and long-lasting.

Since modal rayon isn't highly absorbent, it isn't commonly used in household textiles like bath towels and towels. Due to its silky texture, however, it is a common choice for other forms of household textiles, such as bed sheets, that are kept close to the skin for prolonged periods of time.

Where Is Modal Fabric Produced?

modal fabric in the world

The primary producer of modal fabric worldwide is Lenzing AG , which is a textile giant that has been making rayon fabrics for decades. Lenzing AG is based in Europe, but it has factories all over the world; some of Lenzing's biggest modal fabric factories, for instance, are in China.

A variety of other companies also make modal rayon, and most of these companies are based in China. While modal rayon produced in this country is usually cheaper than similar fabrics made in other locations, the government of Communist China is notoriously lax in its environmental and workplace safety standards. By working with Chinese companies, therefore, the likelihood of contributing to environmental degradation and worker harm is greatly increased.

Other countries where this fabric is produced include India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Germany, Austria, and the United Kingdom. To a limited degree, modal fabric is also still made in Japan, and this textile is also produced in small quantities in the United States.

How Much Does Modal Fabric Cost?

Modal fabric is generally slightly more expensive than viscose rayon; it is on par with the cost of lyocell, which is roughly equal to the cost of cotton. This fabric is significantly cheaper than silk, but it is often slightly more expensive than purely synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester.

The price of modal fabric depends greatly on the manufacturing processes that are used and where the fabric was produced. While it might cost more to purchase modal rayon that was made in developed countries, for instance, it's also more likely that rayon made in these countries was produced in a sustainable and worker-friendly manner.

In addition, disreputable manufacturers may cut corners in the production process to keep costs low, but doing so may result in a product that is poor in quality or harmful to the environment. Therefore, cheaper isn't always better when it comes to modal fabric.

What Different Types of Modal Fabric Are There?

different types of modal fabric

There is only one type of modal rayon, but this fabric is highly similar to other forms of rayon, which makes it necessary to delineate it from other textiles in the rayon family. Some examples of types of rayon that are similar to modal include:

dress is made from a soft and smooth modal fabricDress is made from a soft and smooth modal fabric

  • Viscose rayon: This type of rayon was the first form of this cellulose-based textile to enter into worldwide mass production. Before the invention of viscose rayon, this fabric was expensive to produce, but the invention of the viscose process made it easy for factories around the world to recreate this fabric based on simple formulas.

    Viscose rayon is highly similar to modal rayon, and it should be considered a predecessor to modal fabric. The process of creating viscose rayon is highly complicated, and it involves more chemical treatment processes. Therefore, viscose rayon should be considered more harmful to the environment and workers than modal rayon. While many factories continue to make viscose rayon, others have updated their processes to manufacture more advanced forms of this semi-synthetic fabric.

  • Lyocell: This rayon derivative is another updated form of this fabric that has a number of unique benefits. Lyocell is the only form of rayon that can be considered to be purely organic; since the cellulose used to make this fabric isn't chemically altered during the production process, it is made from pure tree fibers.

    The process of producing lyocell uses a closed-loop solvent system, which means that no solvent is wasted or dumped into the ecosystem. On the other hand, even the modal rayon production process uses a solvent system that introduces chemical waste into the environment. Almost all of the world's lyocell is made by an Austrian international corporation called Lenzing AG.

How Does Modal Fabric Impact the Environment?

The process of manufacturing modal fabric is slightly more environmentally friendly than the viscose rayon production process. This increased environmental benefit is mainly provided by the lesser concentrations of caustic soda that are used to dissolve and purify the cellulose that is used to make this fabric.

However, the modal fabric manufacturing process still uses the step called "xanthation," which involves the application of carbon disulfide to cellulose during production. Carbon disulfide is an infamous neurotoxin, and it is introduced into the environment through the air and through the contaminated water that is produced during the rayon manufacturing process.

Upon entering the ecosystem, carbon disulfide can harm the animal life in the vicinity of the factory or the waste station, and it can also cause serious medical problems in human beings. The individuals who are most exposed to the carbon disulfide emitted during the rayon production process are the workers who produce this fabric; these workers may experience liver damage, kidney damage, blindness, psychosis, coma, or even death upon exposure to this toxic chemical.

lularoe unicorn rose irma 2xl! modal fabricLularoe Unicorn Rose Irma 2xl! Modal Fabric

In recent years, rayon manufacturers have taken steps to reduce the impact of carbon disulfide on workers and the environment. For instance, chemical scrubbers may be installed in factories, and some companies may also use absorption machines to trap carbon disulfide before it comes into contact with workers or the surrounding ecosystem.

Depending on the cultivation and harvesting processes that are used, acquiring cellulose to use for rayon may or may not be an environmentally sustainable process. Many rayon manufacturers only use cellulose from trees that have been grown on land that is not suitable for any other agricultural purposes, and certain types of wood, such as bamboo, are more environmentally sustainable than others.

However, there's no getting around the fact that the vast majority of tree material harvested for use in rayon is wasted. Only the cellulose from trees is used to make this fabric, and the rest of the tree material is discarded.

Modal Certifications Available

modal fabric certifications

Since modal fabric is semi-synthetic, it is impossible to have this fabric certified as organic. However, Lenzing is one of the biggest producers of modal fabric around the world, and this company only derives its cellulose from sustainably harvested forests that are certified by the PEFC . Therefore, consumers and textile manufacturers who use modal fabric made by this company can rest assured that the trees used to make this textile were harvested in a sustainable manner.

Share

About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.