Modal Fabric vs Cotton, What’s the Difference?

Modal Fabric vs Cotton

To find the difference and compare modal fabric to cotton we need to start with the basics, what it’s made of. Cotton fabric is made from natural fibres taken from the cotton plant whereas Modal fabric is a form of Rayon, a semi-synthetic fabric made from cellulose or in the case of Modal more specifically beech-tree pulp.

These two fabrics have similar properties, but Modal has a softer and silkier feel when compared to cotton. It’s often used as a more luxurious fabric.

Modal also lasts longer because it doesn’t shrink or wrinkle as much as cotton does when washed or tumble dried. It’s more durable and longer-lasting than cotton. This means that you won’t have to worry about your Modal clothes tearing or losing shape easily.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at these two fabrics.

What is Modal Material? 

Modal is a semi-synthetic fabric often used in activewear. It can be blended with stretch fibres such as Spandex and Elastine to create the extra stretch. It feels twice as soft as cotton even after repeated wash and dry cycles.

Standard modal fibres are biodegradable and compostable in industrial, home, soil and marine conditions. You’ll find many brands listing modal as sustainable fabric as it’s also partially made from natural cellulose fibres, but just because it contains natural fibres and is biodegradable doesn’t make it sustainable. You need to look at the chemicals used during the manufacturing process for the full picture.

Modal was created in the 1950s and is a type of rayon called high-wet-modulus rayon. In short, it’s a viscose rayon that is stretched as it’s made to align the molecules along the fibres, creating a more crystalline and orientated structure. This makes the fabric softer and more durable when wet with better elastic recovery than cotton, which means it keeps its shape for longer.

Similar to viscose rayon, modal is produced using cellulose fibre from wood pulp, but modal is specifically made from beech tree cellulose. And to turn the wood pulp into yarn, modal undergoes several chemical processes. For this reason, Modal is not as sustainable or natural as you may think.

Modal fabric is trademarked under the name TENCEL™ Modal and is made by Lenzing AG, the same company that makes TENCEL™ Lyocell. There are other companies that make modal but TENCEL™ is known to use more sustainable practices during their manufacturing processes.

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How is Modal Made?

Modal is made by spinning reconstructed beech tree cellulose and is generally seen as more eco friendly than cotton as beech trees require 10-20 times less water to grow than cotton. But the wood pulp is chemically treated.

When it comes to the production process it involves soaking the wood pulp in sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfate and at a later stage in sulfuric acid which is why modal is classified as semi-synthetic.

There are around seven steps to producing Modal, they are:

  1. The beech trees are harvested
  2. The trees are then chopped down into chips which are purified to extract the cellulose content
  3. Sheets of cellulose are then soaked in sodium hydroxide
  4. Next, the sheets are broken into pieces and soaked again, but this time in carbon disulphate, a substance known for causing skin irritations. This creates a new chemical called sodium cellulose xanthate
  5. Once this process is complete the cellulose xanthate is immersed in sodium hydroxide again, which turns it into s syrup-like solution that is put through a spinner to create the fibres used to make modal
  6. The fibres are then soaked in sulphuric acid, from where it’s stretched and formed into yarn. The yarn is again treated with bleach, then rinsed and dried
  7. The modal is treated as per the end-use criteria and then woven and blended with other types of yarn as needed.

How is Cotton Made?

Modal Fabric vs Cotton

Cotton is an all-natural fabric made from the white fluffy fibres on the cotton plant. These are seed pods that break open after flowering. Each seedpod contains between 10,000 – 20,000 small fibres that are around 28mm long. Cotton is prone to attack from around 30 species of insects, which can cause serious damage, for this reason, farmers often use pesticides to control the critters.

Cotton is generally picked between March and June. During the harvesting process, the entire plant is picked and the boll of the plant is then stripped – this is the white fluffy part of the plant.

Once the cotton is separated from the seeds it is compressed and stored, then moved to textile mills where it is cleaned and put through a machine that creates the long twisted rope/yarns ready for weaving or spinning. Cotton production does involve chemical processing and pesticide use during growing, that’s why opting for organic cotton helps to reduce chemical and pesticide contamination.

Modal Fabric vs Cotton Properties

Let’s take a look at the properties of cotton and modal.

PropertyCottonModal
DurabilityWill soften over time, become thin and fadeWithstands repeated washing and drying cycles without pilling, fading or wrinkling. Remains durable and is moderately abrasion-resistant
ComfortAbsorbant with low heat retentionMore absorbent than cotton but also has low heat retention
FeelA smooth, yet crisp texture with some speciality cotton types being very softVery soft, almost silky
BreathabilityCotton is very breathable and a great fabric for summerModal is less breathable than cotton
SustainabilityCotton is a natural and biodegradable fibre but it uses a lot of water and often pesticides during the production and growing process.Modal uses less water during the growing and production process but requires several chemicals to process. For a more sustainable form of modal, consider Lyocell as an alternative.

The Difference Between Cotton and Modal

Cotton and modal are two very different fabrics, although it is often used for the same types of clothing. Modal was originally developed as an alternative to cotton, which explains the similarities. But besides the raw ingredients and manufacturing processes, these fabrics have different properties.

Cotton Fabric

Durability

Durability describes how much fabric can withstand everyday wear along with washing and drying cycles. Modal is much more durable than cotton as it will retain its shape and colour longer than cotton.

Cotton dyes often fade over time, whereas modal is much more colourfast. Modal is also resistant to pilling.

Even though modal is more durable, cotton will also last a long time if treated and handled with care. You can expect good quality cotton sheets and clothing to last several years.

Softness

Modal has a silk-like feel and is much softer than cotton. You can say modal is more luxurious, although luxury cotton such as Pima and Egyptian can rank even softer.

Another factor that influences softness in cotton is how it’s blended with other fibres and how it’s constructed, as ringspun cotton is softer and cotton with longer staples are also softer. On the other hand, the softness of modal is quite consistent unless it’s micro modal, a much softer and finer fabric.

Moisture-wicking

Modal has great moisture-wicking properties, whereas cotton does not perform at the same level. It is more absorbent than cotton and can even balance moisture on both sides of the fabric, which means moisture can wick away into the air quite easily.

Breathability

Cotton comes out on top when considering breathability. It’s not exactly modal’s best feature, but modal is still more breathable than other synthetic fibres such as polyester. Both these fibres can be blended with other types of fibres to improve breathability.

Thermal retention

One of the few areas where cotton performs better is with thermal retention, although it’s not exactly a cold winter fabric of course. Cotton and modal are both more suitable as summer fabrics.

Modal vs Cotton Fabric Care

Fabric care will depend on the fibres that these fabrics are blended with so always make sure that you take a look at the garment label before washing. Let’s take a look at the care requirements for these two fabrics when it’s not blended.

Care Instructions100% Cotton100% Modal
WashingLukewarm or cold wash using a mild detergent. Towels on the other hand are ok to wash in warm water.Wash in cold water. 100% modal can be washed in most water temperatures although cold water is ideal. Unlike most rayons, you don’t need to dry clean modal
DryingAir dry in the shade to avoid wrinkling, fading and shrinking. Or tumble dry on low heat and remove from the dryer straight away.Dry on low to medium heat. Don’t forget to take it out of the dryer straight away to avoid wrinkles
Stain removalUse an oxygen-based bleach if neededUse an oxygen-based bleach if needed
IroningUse a low or medium-hot iron and press cloth to protect the fabric from scorching.Use a low or medium-hot iron and press cloth to protect the fabric from scorching.

Is Modal Better than Cotton?

Modal may be a semi-synthetic fabric but it has a range of amazing properties to consider.

Modal fabrics are 50% more absorbent than cotton, it is moisture-wicking, breathable and resistant to shrinkage or stretching out of shape. It has a much softer hand feel than cotton fabrics and can be blended with natural fibres such as wool for added warmth without sacrificing performance.

Modal is more colourfast and durable than cotton and uses less water to produce, but watch out for the chemicals used in the production process as this is where Modal becomes problematic. For a more eco-friendly equivalent read more about TENCEL™ Lyocell below or go for organic cotton instead.

Modal vs Micromodal

Micromodal is a type of rayon, known for its softness and shrinking resistance. It has brilliant moisture-wicking properties making it a great choice for underwear and sportswear.

Similar to other types of rayon, Micromodal is also made of cellulose i.e. wood pulp.

The main difference between Micromodal and Modal is the size of the fibres that are produced. Micromodal is super thin and can be woven very tightly into a fabric with a very similar texture to real silk. But there are still environmental concerns around the production process as it uses the same types of chemicals to produce other forms of rayon, which means the eco-friendly claims are oversold.

Modal is a significant improvement to viscose rayon, which is plagued by a wasteful production process. Even though the modal production process is similar to that of viscose rayon it cuts out several time-consuming and wasteful steps.

Uses, Modal vs Cotton

Cotton and Modal are widely used for products such as athletic wear, underwear, shirts and t-shirts. It’s commonly blended with other fibres to change the properties of the material for example it can be blended with spandex or elastane to make it more stretchy. Both modal and cotton fabrics are also used for home furnishings, bedding and towels.

Let’s take a look at the different types of uses for both fabrics.

Modal tshirt

T-Shirts

When it comes to producing t-shirts you can find many Modal and Cotton t-shirts on the market. However, modal t-shirts usually lean towards a more luxury feel as it’s a lot softer, less likely to shrink or fade and is more durable. Some luxury sustainable brands will use Lyocell as their fabric of choice, but these will come with a heavier price tag than that of cotton.

If you’re looking for a t-shirt that will last longer and is more sustainable then we recommend going for Lyocell, but if the price is an issue then cotton could be a better option.

To give you an idea of the difference, take a look at this Organic Cotton t-shirt and this Modal t-shirt for comparison.

Pajamas

Using cotton to make Pajamas is an age-old practice, it has a crisp smooth texture that feels good on your skin while keeping you cool during the night. However, Modal also make great Pajamas because it’s soft, breathable and super comfortable, drapes well and has a satiny feel. Both these fabrics have their place in the Pajama drawer.

Even though both types of material make great Pajamas, the cost and environmental credentials might be a determining factor in the end.

Have a look at this Organic Cotton option or this Modal option for comparison.

Underwear & Socks

Thanks to its silky and smooth texture Modal fabric makes excellent underwear and lingerie. You can find modal underwear in both high-end and mid-market stores up and down the country.

Even though cotton underwear is still an old-time favourite, Modal has become very popular. Have a look at this set of cotton underwear and this modal version to see the difference.

When it comes to socks, cotton is still the go-to choice for many people. However, Modal makes good looking business or formal socks thanks to the smooth texture of the yarn. It’s also breathable, moisture-wicking and comfortable. Still, wondering which one is best? See this modal pair and this cotton pair for comparison.

Sheets

Most of us tend to buy cotton when it comes to bedsheets, and so did our grandparents before us. You can find luxury modal sheets, but good quality cotton such as Egyptian cotton is still the favourite. When you’re buying cotton sheets, look out for products labelled as made from long-staple or extra-long-staple (ELS) organic cotton. ELS organic Egyptian cotton is the ultimate goal if you’re buying Egyptian cotton sheets as Egyptian cotton may not always be ELS, it can be labelled Egyptian even if it’s lower-grade cotton grown in Egypt.

Towels

Modal fabric is very absorbent and is slowly gaining popularity. Cotton, however, is still the most popular option when it comes to towels. Cotton towels will, unfortunately, fade over time, whereas modal will hold colour rather than fade. Modal is also more resistant to withstand repeated washing and drying cycles.

If you’re after the best of both then you can pick a cotton-modal blend, but these aren’t the most common find in the towel aisle so you’ll need to do a bit of digging.

Sustainability of Modal vs Cotton

The fashion industry has come under scrutiny over the last few years, rightfully so. Many of the growing, textile production, dying and labour practices are harmful to both the environment and people. Both Modal and Cotton have a substantial environmental impact.

Deforestation

Modal Fabric Beech Tree

Unfortunately, viscose rayon and modal made by some manufacturers can still come from endangered forests. Forest-based fabrics comprise roughly 5% of global apparel production. Many brands are paying closer attention to their environmental impact throughout their supply chain, but a lot more can be done to make sure that endangered forests are protected from exploitation. TENCEL™ Modal produced by Lenzing AG does follow sustainable sourcing practices.

Chemicals and Pesticides

Although Modal is less problematic when it comes to pesticide use the overall production process uses a cocktail of chemicals including sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfate and sulfuric acid to turn wood pulp into yarn.

When it comes to pesticide use, regular cotton is the most problematic as it uses a lot of chemicals to keep pests at bay. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture around 84 million pounds of pesticides were applied to the 14.4 million acres of cotton grown in the USA during the year 2000. Even though organic cotton can be a less harmful option when it comes to pesticide use, only around 0.1 % of the cotton produced worldwide is organic.

Water Use

It is true Modal needs a lot less water to produce than cotton. On average it takes 8,000 litres per kg of cotton produced in the USA. Cotton produced in India tells a very different story as 1kg of cotton produced here consumes 22,500 litres of water. Water use doesn’t end after the cotton has been harvested, the production and drying process is also very water-intensive. Some companies are working to reduce water use during production, but more should be done to conserve water within the industry.

Lyocell a more Sustainable form of Modal

When it comes to sustainability there is a type of Rayon available that has a smaller environmental impact. Lyocell is a form of Rayon but it uses a more organic solution that replaces sodium hydroxide. The pulp comes from various sustainably managed trees and the chemicals used during the production process is recycled and used again so the risk of environmental contamination is significantly lower.

The fibres for Lyocell is extracted from sustainably grown wood using a closed-loop system. It’s produced by the same company as TENCEL™ Modal and is trademarked under the name TENCEL™ Lyocell. The fabric has a high tenacity profile, is very efficient in managing moisture and is gentle on your skin.

TENCEL™ Lyocell comes in a range of options that include denim, underwear, activewear, interiors and footwear.

It’s easy to forget about the process that raw materials undergo to become textiles and ultimately garments, but if you’d like to make truly sustainable choices you need to think about the whole process from raw material to the finished product.

What makes it harder, is most companies aren’t transparent about the fabric, it normally just lists the composition of fabric e.g. polyester and cotton blend and if you’re not familiar with the ins and outs of the production process of each material it can become an impossible task. That’s why internet shopping is sometimes easier as reading the product description is easier than scrutinising the label of each product in-store. You can also use the search function to identify issues faster.

Closing Thoughts

Both cotton and modal has their pros and cons, there is no doubt in that department. Without considering the environmental impact we’d lean towards Modal as a good all-around fabric. It’s more durable, colourfast and comfortable than cotton but if you add sustainability as an evaluation criterion the choice becomes trickier.

For cotton, where it’s grown will mean big differences in water use. Water aside organic cotton is always a better choice.

If we look a little further then we’d strongly recommend considering TENCEL™ Lyocell and even Modal above other types of modal and regular cotton as it has all the great qualities modal can offer but it’s produced with sustainability and the environment in mind. But if these aren’t an option, then there is always organic cotton.

Don’t forget that the carbon footprint of a product reduces over time so take care of your clothing, buy good quality classic styles to make sure you can wear it for many seasons. And of course say no to fast fashion, however hard it may be.

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