Shopping for clothing or fabric entails several considerations. Other than what is more fashionable or appealing to the eye, there’s the feel, durability, washability, breathability, and sustainability of fabrics to compare.
This is where the choice gets confusing, especially if you don’t know much about a particular fabric. Modal, for example, has been getting a lot of attention recently. It is of good quality, is silky smooth, has a soft luxurious feel, is absorbent, and is also durable.
To understand modal fabric better, we compare it to another popular fabric you are probably already familiar with, —polyester.
So, what’s the difference between modal vs polyester? While modal fabric is semisynthetic, mostly sourced from beech tree pulp, polyester is synthetic. Modal is biodegradable, softer, more absorbent, breathable, and stretchier. However, polyester is more durable and readily available.
Read on as we explore the various aspects of modal vs. polyester.
Is Modal The Same As Polyester?
Modal is not the same as polyester. Modal is a semisynthetic, regenerated, or what others call a biobased fiber. It is not wholly synthetic like polyester that is entirely a product of plastic (PET).
Its primary raw material is sourced from the pulp of beech trees. Nonetheless, it is not classified as a natural fiber either. What makes modal not quite a natural fiber is its production. The processes and treatments involve heavy chemical use.
How Modal Is Made
The production of modal is nearly similar to that of viscose or rayon. Without getting too technical with chemistry jargon, here’s an overview of how modal is made.
- Beech trees are harvested and broken down into chips where cellulose is extracted.
- The cellulose is mixed with sodium hydroxide to become wet crumbs.
- The wet crumbs are washed in carbon disulfide tland the reaction results in sodium cellulose xanthate.
- The xanthate goes through a second soak in sodium hydroxide to soften it for spinning and finally a rinse in sulphuric acid to get yarn
- Yarn is bleached, washed, and dried, ready for weaving.
How Polyester Is Made
Polyester, on the other hand, is made from thermoplastics by melt spinning, a much cheaper manufacturing process. It is 100% synthetic in nature.
- Polyester begins with a reaction between ethylene glycol and dimethyl terephthalate to create the monomer ethylene terephthalate.
- The monomer is again reacted with dimethyl phthalate to form long chain of thermoplastic polymers.
- These polymers are molten, extruded into long filaments, cooled, and cut into chips.
- The chips are molten into a liquid and extruded through a spinneret. This is a nozzle with multiple microscopic pores, so it comes out as long threads that are instantly supercooled and spun to yarn.
- Yarn is woven into fabric though further treatment may be necessary to give the Polyester desirable properties.
The major difference is that modal is made from a plant base (cellulose of beech trees) plus chemicals while polyester is all chemicals from scratch.
The Differences Between Modal and Polyester
Having compared the raw materials and processes used when making modal and polyester, let’s move over to the quality of the fabrics.
Modal is among the softest fabrics you can come across on clothing. If you’ve ever experienced how soft pure cotton feels, modal is a notch higher.
Its incredibly silky smooth texture and beautiful drape have secured it a spot among the luxury fabrics like silk.
Polyester is typically not a soft or silky fabric. Its texture is varied depending on the thread thickness, treatment, and fiber blends, if any. It can be coarse to reasonably soft.
Modal is highly absorbent yet performs excellently at wicking moisture away. It is even 50% more absorbent than cotton.
Polyester, like many other synthetic fibers, underperforms in moisture absorption. But polyester is excellent at moisture wicking too.
So how does a manmade fabric like modal do it? A modal weave contains thousands of microscopic pores that can soak up moisture quickly and let it escape into the air.
Modal is relatively breathable, but there are far better breathable fabrics out there. Still, it scores more than 100% polyester in breathability.
The low breathability is due to the synthetic component of both fabrics, especially for Polyester being entirely plastic. It is common for polyester to be blended with cotton to improve breathability.
Also, modals’ silky texture results from a tight weave which unfortunately doesn’t permit as much airflow as fabrics with the grid weave.
Polyester fibers are not elastic at all. Consequently, polyester fabric is not stretchy and stays true to fit.
Any give is an inherent quality of the construction, such as knit or crimped polyester. It could also be from a blend with spandex, elastane, or other stretchy fibers.
Contrarily, modal is naturally a stretchy fabric. It is not as elastic as spandex but has significant stretch. The best part is, unlike its sister fabric rayon that loses shape when wet, modal retains its original shape when stretched by bouncing back.
The strength of fabric determines its durability, and polyester emerges the clear-cut winner here. However, modal is not too far behind in strength.
The synthetic bit of modal gives it the same great qualities as polyester. They both have exceptional mechanical strength, which makes them resistant to ripping.
Their tough fibers hold up to rigorous washing for a long time. Also, both fabrics don’t pill; thus, modal clothing retains its slick beauty for many years.
Because polyester and modal go through a similar chemical dying process, they are both colorfast fabrics. They don’t run or bleed. They are also resistant to creasing as well as mold and mildew.
Modal has come to be known as the biodegradable “synthetic” alternative. It is softer, smoother, more absorbent, and durable than polyester, yet is not entirely natural.
Despite the tons of chemicals used in its production, modal is surprisingly an eco-friendly and sustainable option than polyester.
In fabrics, polyester ranks high in environmental degradation due to the production and disposal of PET, a non-biodegradable substance that is already a global menace.
Polyester take an eternity to decompose in landfills. Its production also causes massive environmental pollution through toxic waste; Not to mention serious health concerns on humans, animals, and marine life.
The chemicals used in modal production supposedly discharge less toxic waste to the environment. Modal production also consumes significantly less amount of water compared to the processing of cotton and other natural fibers.
Furthermore, the raw material (beech wood tree) is a regenerative species. All these factors combined make modal the greener option.
Lenzing AG, an Austria-based company, is the original and largest producer of modal. It has strict measures in place that ensure the best manufacturing practices.
Only modal sourced from them is certified as sustainable and eco-friendly. Unfortunately, there are a few producers from China, Indonesia, and other East Asian countries whose production standards are not regulated.
They may not meet the requirements for sustainable eco-friendly and biodegradable modal by emitting toxic waste and deforestation. Therefore, unless from Lenzing, it is not always a guarantee that modal is sustainable and eco-friendly.
We’ve already explored the various similarities and differences between modal and polyester that make one fabric best suited for one thing than another.
Let’s highlight the pros and cons of each fabric and what they are ideal for.
Pros and Cons of Modal
Pros of modal:
- It has a soft feel on the skin
- It has a silky smooth texture
- Has a lustrous sheen
- It drapes beautifully
- It is highly absorbent
- It is durable
- Has moisture wicking abilities
- Relatively breathable
- Eco-friendly and biodegradable
Cons of modal:
- Triggers allergic reactions on some people
- Has poor body heat retention
- Can be costly for the average person
Given its soft and comfy texture and attractive sheen and drape, modal is used for all types of luxury wear by most of the big fashion brands. It is considered a luxury fabric hence the price.
It is mainly known for intimate and underwear. Its excellent moisture-wicking properties also make it a popular choice for pajamas, pillowcases, and bedsheets, especially for hot sleepers.
This micro modal blended with spandex is a great fabric to use for making clothing from dresses to sportswear.
Modal is ideal for athletic gear as well as summer clothing because it is lightweight in nature and dries quickly, keeping the body cool. It is not a good choice for cold-weather attire though.
Unfortunately, some individuals report the development of itching and rashes after wearing modal. That means it is not for everyone, especially if you have sensitive skin.
Pros and Cons of Polyester
Pros of polyester:
- It is very strong and highly durable
- It is resistant to shrinking, stretching, pilling, molding, creasing, staining, and chemicals.
- It’s hypoallergenic
- Is excellent at retaining body heat
- Has moisture-wicking properties
- Is inexpensive
- Very versatile and ubiquitous
Cons of polyester:
- It is not breathable
- It is not sustainable or eco-friendly
- Must be blended with other fibers to improve absorbency, breathability, and softness.
Polyester is not a fine fabric like modal yet is super versatile. Polyester as a fiber has, in fact, unlimited uses, including non-apparel items.
The preferential and vast application of polyester than modal and other fabrics is due to its excellent strength, durability, chemical resistance, stain resistance, and inexpensive cost.
Polyester is used to make various things from socks to hats, bags, bedding, upholstery, curtains, and many other types of interior furnishings.
It is a go-to for sportswear, given its ability to wick away moisture and dry quickly. Polyester is also good for warm clothing like jackets, coats, and blankets since it retains a lot of body heat.
However, polyester is often preferred as a combination with cotton, rayon, spandex, and other fabrics when used to make clothing. Polyester on its own is non-absorbent and not breathable, hence uncomfortable on skin.
A poly-blend feels cozier than 100% polyester. It may be more absorbent, breathable, and even stretchy, depending on the added fibers. This poly-spandex blend is a great choice for stretchy sports clothing.
That’s all the information we could equip you with to help make better attire choices. Hopefully, the next time you have a modal vs. polyester situation, you’ll know which one to pick and why.
Up Next: Polyester Flammability – How Does It Stand Up To Heat?