Modal vs. Cotton Fabric: How they Differ

Modal and cotton fabrics are some of the most versatile fabrics in the market and are prized for their softness and luxurious feel. However, there is a common misconception that cotton and modal fabrics are the same, with the modal fabric being just higher quality cotton.

The difference between modal and cotton fabrics has a lot of significance. Modal and cotton are mostly used to produce underwear; these products require exceedingly soft fabrics. Since one of these fabrics is softer and more comfortable, knowing their difference is very necessary.

What are Modal Fabrics?

Modal Fabric

Modal fabrics are bio-based, semi-synthetic fabrics made from the pulp of beech trees. The pulp is converted into fabrics in a tedious, complicated process that involves chemical treatment and other textile manufacturing procedures. 

Some have been critical of modal fabrics because the production process resembles that used for making viscose, a non-environmental-friendly procedure. However, the process of producing modal fabric is less harmful to the environment and produces far less toxic waste than the production of rayon fabric and other synthetic fabrics.

Modal fabric is a thin, soft fabric with a silky look and feel, and it is a little stretchy and more breathable than most synthetic fabrics. The fabric is also incredibly absorbent and possesses special dye-fast properties that prevent it from bleeding color and fading even under hot temperatures. Modal is easy to care for as it is durable, wrinkle-resistant, and doesn’t pull easily.

What is Cotton Fabric?

Cotton Fabric

Cotton is a natural fabric derived from the fibers of the cotton plant. These fibers usually emerge in fluffy, round formation seeds once the seed is matured. After harvesting, the cotton fibers undergo a series of steps where the fiber is separated from impurities, carded, and finally woven or knitted into fabric. The process is environmentally friendly and not as toxic as modal fabric production.

Cotton fabric is an extremely popular and versatile fabric, and it is breathable, soft, and hypoallergenic. Special cotton types, such as Extra Long Staples like Pima and Egyptian cotton, are very soft, luxurious, and durable. They are absorbent and can soak up to 20% of their weight.

Differences Between Cotton and Modal Fabric

Modal and Cotton Fabrics
L-Cotton Fabric; R-Modal Fabric

The modal fabric was originally produced as a cotton alternative and has even been mistaken for cotton on several occasions. However, there are several striking differences between both fabrics. Here are just a few:

Texture and Softness

Modal and cotton fabrics are soft and comfortable; however, modal fabrics are usually softer and silkier than regular cotton. Unlike cotton, the soft texture of modal fabrics does not vary a lot; a reason for this consistency is the precise chemical process that turns wood into pulp. While weaving may alter sheen and texture, it may not vary much.

On the other hand, fabric texture varies widely, depending on the staple used in producing the cotton fabric. Long staple cotton like Pima, Supima, and Egyptian cotton has a softer texture than even modal fabric. However, short-staple cotton usually produces a less soft fabric which modal fabrics beat. As such, the modal fabric is better used in underwear and other materials in direct contact with the skin.

Durability

One of the attractions of modal and cotton fabrics is their incredible durability. Modal fabric is a strong fabric made from tough fibers that would last a long period without breaking down. In Modal fabrics’ special dyeing process, the materials are usually colorfast and fade very slowly, a property that makes it last a long time.

Cotton is also a durable fabric with a fairly long span. However, it isn’t as durable as modal fabrics, and cotton tends to grow softer with time and deteriorate. Additionally, dyed cotton is not as colorfast as modal cotton and tends to fade as you wash them regularly. They are also prone to pilling over time.

Breathability

Both fabrics are highly breathable. Modal fabric is considered one of the most breathable semi-synthetic fabrics in the market. However, its tight weaving and semi-synthetic originals make it feel plasticky to the skin under hot conditions.

Contrarily, cotton beats nearly all fabrics in the area of breathability. For one thing, natural fabrics are more breathable than synthetic fabrics, and cotton is one of the most breathable natural fabrics on the market.

Moisture-wicking Properties and Absorbency

Moisture-wicking fabrics tend to remove moisture or sweat from the body; this makes wicking fabrics more comfortable during vigorous activities. Modal fabrics have moisture-wicking properties despite being more absorbent than cotton. Cotton, on its own, doesn’t have moisture-wicking properties and is less absorbent than modal fabrics.

Warmth and Cozy Feeling

Some fabrics tend to entrap heat and insulate the wearer against chilly temperatures. While neither modal nor cotton fabrics are exactly winter clothes, they tend to offer some warmth, and cotton offers more warmth than modal fabric, and its thicker weaves trap more heat than modals. Although both fabrics don’t make good winter clothes, they make good winter underthings like undergarments, bedding, etc.

Uses of Modal and Cotton Fabrics

Modal and cotton fabrics are versatile fabrics with many applications in the textile industry. These fabrics are used to produce:

  • Clothing such as T-shirts, athletic wear, and underwear.
  • Household items like towels, curtains, and bedding.
  • Sleepwear such as pajamas, socks, etc.

Modal underwear and sleepwear have a far softer feel that many prefer, although they tend to cost more. Cotton remains popular in household items such as towels.

Care and Maintenance of Cotton and Modal Fabrics

Modal and cotton are durable fabrics that are relatively easy to care for. However, it is still necessary to take some precautions when caring for them.

Caring For Modal Fabrics

Here are a few guidelines to take note of when caring for modal fabrics:

  • Wash modal fabrics in cold water. Unlike other semi-synthetic fabrics, you don’t have to dry clean them.
  • Avoid using chlorine bleach as it weakens the fabric. Instead, use an oxygen-based bleach.
  • You can dry modal fabric in a dryer, but ensure it is set to a low heat setting. Remove the fabric once the cycle is over or when it’s damp.

Caring for Cotton Fabrics

Here are some precautions to take when caring for cotton fabric:

  • Wash cotton in cool or slightly warm water (not higher than 30°C). Use a mild detergent and set the washer to a delicate setting.
  • Although you can use a dryer, it is preferable to air dry cotton whenever possible.
  • Iron cotton clothes while still damp, or use a steam iron.
  • Always store in a cool, dry area away from direct sunlight.

Modal vs. Cotton: Which is Better?

Modal and cotton both have admirable qualities that make them highly sought after. Modal cotton is softer than regular cotton and is also more durable. Additionally, modal cotton possesses moisture-wicking Properties that cotton doesn’t have, making it ideal for activewear.

On the other hand, cotton has more breathability and is more comfortable to wear, especially in warm weather. Cotton also retains more warmth in cold weather than modal.

However, whether you buy cotton or modal will be down to your preference and the products. For example, modal fabrics’ softness makes them ideal for bed sheets, while cotton’s breathability makes them perfect summer clothes. Also, modal fabrics will cost you more than cotton in most cases.

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