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Cotton vs Modal: What is the Difference?

When you go shopping for underwear and t-shirts, you probably like to focus on selecting clothes that look good, but for such highly personal items, you also want something that feels soft and luxurious against your skin! Cotton and modal are two of the most popular choices for intimate clothing. Before making an informed choice, you probably want to know the pros and cons of cotton vs modal.

The difference between cotton and modal fabric is that modal is softer and silkier, while cotton is warmer and more breathable. The two fabrics also have different origins, as cotton is a natural fabric produced from the woolly bolls of the cotton plant and modal is a man-made fabric created from the pulp of beech trees. Both fabrics are popular choices for clothing, especially shirts and underwear.

In this article, you’ll learn how modal fabric is made and the pros and cons of this material. You’ll also find out how it compares to cotton and a couple of other popular materials.

Cotton vs Modal

What is Modal Material?

modal vs cottonModal fabric is made from beech trees. You may see it called bio-based, semi-synthetic, or just synthetic because turning the pulp into fabric involves chemical treatments and an intense factory manufacturing process. Its manufacturing process closely resembles the method used to create viscose rayon, which is another semi-synthetic fabric that uses natural products and a man-made process to create a material.

Modal originated in Japan in the 1950s as an experiment to create a cheaper replacement for silk. By the 1960s, a company called Lenzing further developed their version of the material, Lenzing Modal, as an absorbent and soft replacement for cotton. Lenzing Modal still produces a popular fabric in Austria today known for its eco-friendly standards.

Over time, several companies also invented more sustainable manufacturing methods for this wood-based material. In fact, under some circumstances, modal provides a much more eco-friendly, sustainable clothing option than natural fabrics like cotton, which consume a lot of water during growth and production.

Let’s take a quick look at how this material is made to give you a better idea of what it’s like.

First, lots of beech tree chips get converted into cellulose through a chemical process. This hardens into large mats that then soak in sodium hydroxide.

The soaking turns the cellulose into vats full of wet crumbs. This product gets a second rinse in something called carbon disulfide to create sodium cellulose xanthate. One final soak in sodium hydroxide makes the cellulose product soft enough to spin into fibers on large spinnerets.

One final wash in sulfuric acid turns the fibers into yarn. Before weaving the yarn into cloth, it undergoes one more round of bleaching, washing, and drying.

Believe it or not, this intense process gets lauded for using fewer harmful chemicals and creating less toxic waste than most other synthetic fabrics!

After all that, what is this fabric like? If you didn’t know for a fact that it started life as part of a beech tree, you wouldn’t believe it!

Modal fabric looks thin and silky and drapes well. It feels soft and a little stretchy.

It’s 50% more absorbent than cotton and also more breathable than many synthetics like polyester. It also has special dye-fast properties that prevent it from bleeding color. This means you can throw it into hot water without worrying about fading!

This material requires very simple care, as it is wrinkle-resistant and fully washable. It also lasts a long time and does not deteriorate or pill easily.

Cotton vs Modal: Comparison Chart

Before you dive into the nitty-gritty of cotton vs modal, take a quick look at this overview. It will give you a general idea of the key features you can expect from each type of material.

 CottonModal
SoftnessHas a crisp, smooth texture, though specialty types of cotton can be really softVery, very soft.
BreathabilityOne of the most breathable fabrics of all time.Not as breathable as cotton.
DurabilitySoftens with wear and fades over timeRemains highly durable and can withstand lots of washing without fading, wrinkling, or pilling.
CostAs a natural material, it can cost more than a fabric like polyester.Typically costs more than cotton or other man-made materials.
SustainabilityFully biodegradable but its growth and manufacturing is not eco-friendlyBiodegradable and uses more sustainable production practices than most man-made fabrics

Differences Between Cotton and Modal

Differences Between Cotton and Modal

Though it originated as a replacement for cotton, modal and cotton have quite a few different features. They also come from different plants and undergo remarkably different manufacturing processes.

In short, they’re not at all the same fabric! You will often see the same type of product made with both fabrics, though.

Here’s a brief comparison of the key features you can expect to see from both materials.

Softness

Modal fabric is softer and silkier than regular 100% cotton, though luxury types of cotton such as Pima and Egyptian may rank as even softer.

Many factors can impact the texture of cotton, such as whether or not it is ringspun and if it has long or short staples.

The softness of modal, on the other hand, doesn’t vary a lot. The chemical processes that turn wood chips into fibers to spin into yarns make this fabric very soft across the board. That said, different weaving structures may slightly alter the sheen or texture of individual products.

If you check the labels in your undergarments, you may find that some of your softest and most favorite items feature a high percentage of modal fibers! The softness of this fabric makes it ideal for any garment that rests against your skin.

Durability

Durability describes how long a type of fabric can hold up to use as well as care and cleaning, and modal wins as the more durable fabric hands-down. As a man-made fabric, it is extra-durable and has tough fibers that last a long time without breaking down.

Modal fabric also stays color-fast because of the chemical process used during dyeing. Unlike cotton, it will not fade as you wash it repeatedly. Plus, its smooth surface resists pilling, so it looks nice for a long time!

With proper care, cotton has a fairly long lifespan as well. It isn’t super durable, though, because it does deteriorate and grow softer every time you wash it. But you can expect cotton bedding to last about three years and nice cotton t-shirts to last about one year if you wear them a lot.

The more you use and wash cotton, the faster it fades. You may have noticed that your favorite t-shirts tend to fade and lose their appeal over time. Cotton is also prone to pilling over time.

Moisture-wicking

Zeagoo Women Open Back T Shirt Long Sleeve Backless Modal Tees Active Workout Racerback Tops Blouse (Black, Small)Modal fabric provides excellent moisture-wicking abilities, while cotton does not. Despite this, cotton absorbs liquid well, soaking it up with its loose weave and porous fibers.

Surprisingly, though, modal is even more absorbent than cotton, unlike many man-made fabrics! It contains thousands of invisible micropores that can soak up moisture at a rapid rate.

On top of this, it can balance the moisture on both sides of the fabric, allowing liquid to wick away and evaporate into the air. Cotton lacks this ability; it stays damp for a long time after absorbing moisture.

Because of this, you may like modal fabric better for workout gear or for bedding if you suffer from night sweats! No one likes clammy fabric clinging to them in uncomfortable places.

Breathability

Cotton is far more breathable than modal. It may seem like cotton has lost out in all the previous categories, but in this area, cotton wins over almost all other fabrics!

Typically, natural fabrics are more breathable than synthetic fabrics, and you will notice this for sure with cotton.

Modal offers more breathability than some fabrics such as 100% polyester. That said, its semi-synthetic status leaves it just a bit more plasticky than the natural fibers of cotton. It also has a tight weave to create its silky surface, allowing less airflow than the typical loose grid-style weave of cotton.

You will often find both materials as blends that combine several different types of fiber to create a more breathable material, as well.

Warmth

Cotton wins the warmth contest, too! In all honesty, neither material features highly in winter clothing categories since these fabrics work better for cooling items like running shirts, undergarments, and bedding.

That said, cotton usually has a thicker weave and traps more body heat in its porous weave than modal.

If you’re shopping for winter underthings, you might want to consider cotton for this reason.

Sustainability

It’s difficult to say whether cotton or modal is the most sustainable. Both fabrics use production practices that can weigh for and against them as you decide which is more eco-friendly.

Without diving too deeply into environmental science, modal justifiably gets recognized for its advanced textile manufacturing practices. It uses fewer toxic chemicals than viscose or polyester. It also requires about ten times less water than cotton for manufacturing and dyeing.

Plus, because it is so durable, it also lasts a long time, causing less waste. Despite its man-made origins, it can achieve full biodegradability, depending on its manufacturing processes.

On the downside, it can cause deforestation when unethical companies use rainforest trees instead of properly harvested beech trees to make it. Obviously, that version of production is not eco-friendly!

As a natural and totally biodegradable fabric, you probably think of cotton as more environmentally friendly than a man-made fabric! Unfortunately, cotton uses tons of water during its manufacturing process. The process fills all that water with dangerous dyes and chemicals, which then go back into the environment.

So, neither fabric offers perfect sustainability. Your best bet for supporting environmentally-friendly textile practices is to research the company making your favorite brands. Find out how they source their fabric and how they make the garments they sell.

Cost

Cotton manufacturing costs a lot because of its growing time and the way it is harvested. It also involves massive amounts of water. That said, the complex textile manufacturing required to create modal costs a bit more!

Because of this, you will typically see modal garments priced a bit higher than a similar cotton item, though this depends on brands and the style of an item as well.

This isn’t a giant price gap, though. For example, you might find a normal set of 100% cotton bedding for $40 and an average set of modal sheets for $45.

You also want to consider replacement cost, though. Modal lasts longer than cotton because cotton is prone to fading and pilling after lots of use. Because of this, you will have to replace cotton items more regularly.

Modal vs Cotton: Common Uses

You will commonly find both cotton and modal used in many products like t-shirts, athletic wear, and underwear. These fabrics also make great household items like towels and bedding. You can even find the best of both worlds in a blend of cotton and modal for household items!

But how do you know which material makes the best bedding, towels, or t-shirts?

Let’s do a quick comparison to help you decide!

Clothes

modal fabric vs cottonRetailers use a lot of modal and cotton in clothing like athletic wear and t-shirts. If you like luxury or fashion garments, you can also find a type of modal called Lyocell highlighted in many of those pricier garments!

In general, modal garments offer more softness and a greater sense of luxury than cotton garments.

If you work out regularly, you may also find that investing in modal athletic wear could save you money in the long term because they will last a long time. On the other hand, for affordable clothes, you probably want to go with cotton.

Take a look at this cotton t-shirt and this modal undershirt to give you an idea of comparable cost and features!

Underwear

modal vs cotton underwearModal takes the cake in the land of lingerie. High-end retailers sell undergarments made entirely of this opulent fabric. Every day retailers also sell trendy modal underwear for both men and women.

This is where the ultimate suppleness of modal stands out. You can’t go wrong with a satiny and lightweight set of undergarments!

That said, cotton underwear remains popular because of its comfy breathability. Who doesn’t have a favorite pair of cotton granny panties?

Check out this set of modal underwear and this set of cotton underwear to see a great example of the benefits you can expect from each type!

Pajamas

what material is modalModal makes a softer and more comfortable set of pajamas than cotton, though you will have to pay a bit more for it!

Cotton’s natural fibers have always been famous for sleepwear because the crisp, smooth texture feels great on your skin and the loosely woven cloth keeps you cool at night. That said, modal offers pretty decent breathability and even more satiny smoothness!

Plus, it has a draped, satiny feel to it that outshines the prosaic flat weave of most kinds of cotton.

Take a look at these fun modal pajamas and this lovely set of cotton pajamas!

Sheets

is modal breathableModal sheets cost more and are considered higher-end than most cotton bedding. The only exception is that specialty cotton like Egyptian or Pima cotton costs even more and provides even better sheets.

Honestly, though, each fabric feels quite different, so your taste will play a strong role here. You may enjoy the coolness of woven cotton even if it lacks a bit of the lux quality of modal.

Or you might love sleeping on faux-silk, in which case, shell out a few more bucks and get yourself a classy set of modal sheets!

If you’re shopping for sheets, compare this modal set with this 100% cotton set to get an idea of what’s on the market today.

Towels

micromodal vs cottonModal is gaining popularity in the bath towel market because of its high absorbency. That said, cotton remains the most popular fabric for use in towels of all kinds.

Modal’s big advantage is that it won’t fade or wear out over time. You probably find yourself washing your towels quite often, so a type of cloth that doesn’t wear out could save you a lot of money!

To get the best of both worlds, you can consider purchasing cotton and modal blend towels that combine fibers of both materials. These will feature the fluffiness of cotton’s natural fibers and the absorbency of modal!

You may never have seen a modal towel before, so take a look at this one! Or, if you prefer to search for a classic style of towel, you might want to consider this cotton variety.

Socks

is modal softYou can find stylish modal socks for sale, but cotton rules as the long-standing best fabric for socks. You need max airflow for your feet, especially in the summer!

Modal socks look good with loafers and business suits, though. You may also like these classier socks to pair with ankle boots in the winter months.

Wondering where to find modal socks? Check out this Amazon link! you can also find nice classic cotton socks like these on Amazon.

Modal vs Micromodal

In recent years, textile manufacturers developed an even softer version of modal fabric, called micro modal. This newer fabric follows almost all of the same production steps as the original fabric.

Its main difference is that its fibers are spun out more finely. This creates almost invisible thinner threads.

Crafting a piece of fabric with thinner threads requires many more threads per square inch. This ultimately builds a luxurious, soft material.

Micro modal knits use over-under loops of yarn instead of a grid pattern. This fabric offers additional softness without adding any extra thickness to the material. This makes the micro version a favorite for luxury undergarments!

Is Modal Better Than Cotton?

Modal is better than cotton in some areas like softness and durability. But it does cost more and it is less breathable than cotton. Ultimately, you should choose a fabric based on your preferences and your needs. If you want silky-soft apparel, go for modal!

On the other hand, you may want to select cotton items that will provide more breathability you love cool airflow through your bedsheets or t-shirt.

Have you ever purchased modal clothing? What did you like best about it? Leave a comment below to let us know!