Modal fabric 101: What is modal, is it sustainable and where to buy it

Modal fabric

What is modal fabric?

Modal fabric is a type of rayon, which is a semi-synthetic fabric made from plant fibres – mostly from birch tree fibre, but occasionally from bamboo or eucalyptus fibre.

Modal is typically used to make underwear, tights and leggings, activewear and pajamas.

Watch the video below for a quick introduction to modal fabric.

Modal fabric properties

  • Modal fabric is a soft, smooth, lightweight fabric.
  • It can be knitted or woven.
  • It doesn’t need ironing as it won’t crush or wrinkle.
  • Modal dyes well and retains colour.
  • Modal has minimal shrinkage after washing.

What does modal fabric feel like?

Modal fabric feels soft, light and silky and is beautiful to wear against your skin.

Is modal breathable?

Yes, modal fabric is breathable which is why is it often used in sportswear and underwear.

Modal vs tencel vs viscose

Modal is often used interchangably with tencel and viscose. Technically, they are different fabrics, although they are all manufactured from wood pulp which is why they are often lumped together.

Viscose was the first generation of rayon and modal is the second generation, invented in the 1950s. Modal is often used in sportswear and underwear as it’s more breathable than viscose.

Atelier Brunette Viscose Fabric
Above: Atelier Brunette Viscose Fabric

Tencel is Lenzing’s brand name for lyocell. It is the third generation of rayon and due to more advanced production techniques, is generally considered to be slightly more sustainable than modal or viscose.

Merchant and Mills tencel fabric
Merchant and Mills tencel fabric

Modal and tencel are similar in that they are both soft, comfortable, breathable and absorb moisture. Tencel is a heavier fabric than modal and usually has a beautiful drape. It can be used for outerwear such as pants, tops, dresses and jackets.

If you want to nerd-out on the differences between the types of rayon, watch the video below for an excellent explanation.

Modal fabric vs polyester

The key differences between modal and polyester are:

  • Modal is considerably more breathable than polyester.
  • Modal is much softer than polyester.
  • Polyester is stronger than modal.
  • Polyester is generally easier to find, especially by the metre.
  • Polyester is a fully synthetic fabric, whereas modal is semi-synthetic.

Modal fabric vs cotton

The differences between cotton and modal fabric are:

  • Modal is usually softer and silkier than cotton which is typically crisper.
  • Cotton is warmer and more breathable than modal.
  • Modal is more absorbant than cotton with excellent moisture control.
  • Both modal and cotton are fairly durable, it depends on the weight of the fabric and how they are woven.
  • Modal will shrink less than cotton.
  • Cotton will fade over time whereas modal can be washed many times without fading or pilling.

Modal sustainability

There are two key factors when considering modal’s sustainability: how sustainable is the source fibre and how toxic are the production methods?

Modal source fibres

The sustanability of modal fabric varies based on how the wood fibre is harvested.

Because the wood pulp is considered a renewable crop, modal is carbon neutral if it is taken from a responsibly managed source. It may be produced from sustainably managed beech tree planations, but it may also be harvested from old growth forests. So, it really depends on the integrity of the particular supply chain.

The largest manufacturer of modal fibres is Lenzing, an Austrian company. If your modal fabric is produced by Lenzing, you can be sure it is sustainable. They source wood fibres that are controlled or certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and/or the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

Is modal fabric toxic?

Whether modal is toxic to the environment or not depends entirely on the production methods used in manufacturing.

A number of chemicals are used in the manufacturing process, however manufacturers increasingly use a closed loop process. This means the chemicals are captured, reused and not released into the environment.

When you’re buying modal fabric, look out for the Oeko Tex Standard 100 certification. This sets standards for the use of chemicals in production and incorporates a testing regime to certify that the textiles contain negligable levels of several hundred individual chemicals.

When modal meets these standards, it is biodegradable and can be recycled.

How to care for modal fabric

You can generally machine wash most modal, unless it’s particularly delicate (eg a special set of underwear). In this case you might want to hand wash it.

To wash modal t-shirts and dresses, I typically machine wash on a delicate cycle using a wash bag. This stops it catching on other garments in the same load with zippers or hooks and eyes.

As for everyday modal undies though – in the wash they go with everything else. No special treatment for them!

Will modal fabric shrink?

Modal fabric won’t usually shrink at all. But if you do see slight shrinkage, it will be less than viscose rayon and significantly less than cotton.

Where to buy modal fabric in Australia

Lush Fabrics

Lush Fabrics is one of the best places to buy solid coloured modal fabric in Australia. They have an extensive range of modal jersey in every colour you can imagine.

This range of modal is perfect for t-shirts, pajamas, underwear and drapey dresses. It’s also quite affordable at $18-20 per metre.

Above: Modal fabric jersey knits from Lush Fabrics

Wattle Hill Fabrics

Wattle Hill Fabrics stocks a great range of quirky European knit ranges such as PaaPii Design, Lillestoff, Elvelyckan Design and Tygdrommar. Many of these are GOTS or Oeko-Tex certified.

Wattle Hill’s modal range is blended with cotton to make a French Terry (loop-back sweatshirting). This pairs the warmth and weight of French Terry with the softness and drape of modal – a winning combination!

Above: Modal French Terry from Wattle Hill Fabrics

Capsule Fabrics

Capsule Fabrics stocks a nicely curated range of solid coloured, natural fabrics in understated, contemporary colours.

They only have a small range of modal, but in the same category they have some gorgeous tencel too, so they are definitely worth checking out.

Above: Lenzing modal jersey and tencel from Capsule Fabrics

Audrey’s Fabrics

Audrey’s stocks a range of printed modal jersey fabrics, from kitch to cute. The tie dye range below is interesting and I haven’t seen this one elsewhere.

Above: Tie-dye modal jersey from Audrey’s Fabrics

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Modal fabric

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