Cotton Vs Modal: What Is The Difference?

Only a few years ago, your options for fabric were pretty limited. Wool, cotton, silk, maybe a few other options, and that was it.

Today, you can find just about any type of textile that you could ever imagine in practically every shade imaginable.

Whether you are looking for a particular color or something with special characteristics, you will be able to find it.

With so many different fabric options for both crafters and fashionistas out there these days, it can be hard to keep track of what exactly each material is good for, even for materials that have been around for centuries.

Cotton Vs Modal: What Is The Difference

Take cotton, for example. This is a fabric that we have been using for thousands of years at this point, but many people still aren’t aware of why it has made for such a good clothing and fabric material.

And as new fabrics are developed and produced, many people have wondered how this old favorite compares to the new kids on the block.

To help clear up some confusion, we decided to take a closer look at the differences between cotton, and our other material of choice for today, modal.

In this article, we will discuss the history of the two different types of fabrics, explain their advantages and disadvantages, and give you tips when choosing which one is right for your project.

Cotton As A Fabric Material

Yes, this might seem superfluous at this point. Even if you aren’t very knowledgeable about fabrics, everyone is at least aware of cotton to some degree.

Still, it is worth establishing some basic facts about this material, before we move on to its newer competitor.

As we briefly mentioned in the introduction, cotton is one of the oldest materials humans have been using.

It has been used for thousands of years now, almost eight thousand years by some metrics, and it remains popular as a fabric for all kinds of products to this day.

It first appeared somewhere along the Silk Road in Southern Asia, in a place known as the Indus Valley. From there, it eventually spread throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa.

At that time, it wasn’t called cotton, but rather “linen,” “cotton” referring to the plant itself.

At the same time, other types of cotton were being grown across the Americas as well, by a variety of different cultures.

Cotton is the fluffy fiber that comes from the various species of cotton plants that grow around the world.

The fibers that come from different varieties of the plant can vary quite drastically depending on the environment where they are grown.

Some cotton fibers are long and straight, while others are short and curly.

While it may not always be the best fabric option in any specific metric, it is overall one of the best all-around fabrics that you can use in your projects.

It tends to be durable, comfortable, and easy to care for. Cotton is also relatively inexpensive, making it an attractive alternative to high-end fabrics like silk and wool.

Another reason why cotton remains popular is that it is capable of being dyed easily. Dyes work well on cotton, and they tend to last longer than they do on other fabrics.

Dyeing is often done by hand, though it can be automated, too. As long as the dye is applied evenly, you should be able to get a nice range of colors from your finished product.

Modal As A Fabric Material

Modal, as a much newer fabric material, is probably not as well-known to most people as its older counterpart is, and almost certainly is understood far less in terms of what it is good for.

With that in mind, a little introduction is probably needed.

As we’ve already mentioned a couple of times, modal is a very young type of fabric, especially when compared to cotton.

It was only developed in the 1950s in Japan and only rose to popularity in the late 20th century, and it still isn’t particularly common in everyday life.

However, it makes up quite a bit of the market share of modern fabrics, including clothing, craft supplies, and accessories.

What truly sets modal apart from cotton is how it is made.

Rather than being a completely natural fiber, modal is a semi-synthetic material, made from the pulp of beech trees to create a fabric, not unlike rayon, another plant-based fabric material.

Unlike rayon, however, modal is generally a much more durable material to work with.

What Are The Differences?

So, we have established some basic history and information about these two fabrics.

Now, it is time to compare these two fabrics, to see where one fares better in a certain way over another, as well as to see where these two plant materials are similar, and where they are worlds apart.

Origin

This is a field that we have already touched on. Cotton comes from a naturally growing plant that is found and grown around the world.

This means that the source of cotton can vary greatly based on geography.

India accounts for nearly half of the world’s production. This is one advantage that cotton has over modal, which comes from a tree.

While cotton plants and trees are plentiful in many parts of the world, creating them takes a great deal of effort. 

By contrast, modal is a semi-synthetic material that comes from wood pulp, as opposed to being naturally grown or made anywhere in the world.

Whilst it used to be made only in Japan, much of the production of modal has since been moved to China, where most of today’s produced modal come from.

Fabric Weight

The weight of a fabric refers to the amount of stuff that is contained within the weave of the fabric. This factor plays a significant role in determining the durability of the fabric.

While cotton is typically heavier than modal, sometimes there are exceptions to that rule.

In many cases, cotton is slightly lighter than modal, but the differences between them are so small that their weights are essentially equivalent.

Regardless, we’ll keep our focus here on comparing the types of fabric that are available to us today, rather than talking about weights.

Dyeability

Dyeability

One of the reasons why cotton remains popular today is because it is capable of being readily dyed, which means that if you want a color that you aren’t getting from the yarn you are using, you can simply dye it yourself.

Not only does this make it easier to match colors, but it helps to extend the lifespan of the dye, as well. As such, this is an important consideration when working with any kind of fabric.

Unlike cotton, modal doesn’t enjoy the same level of dyeing options. Since modal is a synthetic material, it tends to be able to hold onto dyes less effectively than other fibers, making it difficult to get bright and vibrant dyes out of your fabric.

That said, there are ways to dye it, and it certainly isn’t impossible to do so, but it requires a little more creativity than just throwing something into boiling water.

Softness

Cotton has always been prized for its softness across history when compared to other widely used materials, such as wool.

The reason that cotton is regarded as softer than wool is that it contains a lot of natural oils and proteins that help provide the desired softness.

Another major reason that people love cotton is its ability to stretch without breaking down. It also tends to feel warmer than leather, which is also a plus.

However, when it comes to softness, modal has cotton easily beat. There are very few fabrics that are considered to be ultra-soft, but some companies market modal as being amongst the softest on earth.

In general, people who prefer to wear silk tend to like the way modal feels, while those who want something that feels closer to felt find that cotton provides a softer touch.

Small wonder that modal is often sold as super-soft luxury clothing for items with a lot of skin contact, such as underwear and pajamas.

Breathability

When we are talking about breathability in fabric, we are mainly talking about how much air can pass through the fabric to the underside of it and below.

A fabric with high breathability will usually allow for heat and fresh air to flow through quickly, whereas one that has low breathability will generally keep heat and warm moist air under its fabric. 

Low breathability can be a useful trait to have in certain circumstances, but largely speaking, most people typically wear clothes made from more breathable fabrics in their day-to-day lives.

One of the reasons that modal fabric is incredibly soft is thanks to its ultra-tightly packed weave that gives the fabric a great surface contact area.

But there is a trade-off with this material because of this design.

Most modal products, whilst more breathable than some types of fabric, such as clothing and material that is made from 100% polyester, can still feel like it doesn’t allow for much airflow through its fabric, thanks to that tight weave.

By contrast, cotton is still widely considered to be one of the most breathable fabrics in the world.

Because cotton is naturally porous, it allows for the free flow of both hot and cool air through the fabric.

Also, cotton’s loose weave means that you won’t need to worry too much about adding extra layers if you’re going outside in cold weather.

While other fabrics are better at keeping you warm than cotton, none come close to offering the breathability that cotton does.

Bleaching

Bleaching your clothes is a process that is done to remove tougher stains that have become stuck in your fabric, as well as to help brighten the white colors that your fabric has.

However, this can also have the effect of removing colors and vigor from certain materials, as bleach is a harsh chemical for many materials and organic matter, including human skin.

It is why you should always take care when handling bleach.

So, how do these 2 fabrics stand up to bleaching?

Well, cotton certainly handles bleach relatively well, given its often delicate nature.

Some brands offer more protection against bleaches than others, though, so check the details on the label before you buy. 

For example, some popular denim labels state that they don’t require any pre-wash treatment, even if you decide to use bleach to get rid of stubborn marks or stains.

So, you could potentially damage your jeans by running them through the wash without first treating them with a stabilizer or a stain remover.

Modal is a different story. This type of fabric is not quite as easy to treat with bleach as it might seem, since applying any bleach to this surface will almost certainly remove any color that the modal fabric is currently holding.

You may find that your clothing starts looking dull and drab, even after it has only been exposed to the bleach once. For that reason, modal fabric is generally considered bad for bleaching.

If you want to try bleaching modal clothing anyway, then make sure to use some kind of stabilizing agent beforehand.

There are various things you can use, including starch (which works well) and fabric conditioner (again, which works well).

The key here is to avoid using anything that contains chlorine bleach since you will likely end up causing further harm to the fabric.

Thickness

Thickness is a simple measure referring to how thick a layer of this fabric tends to be. However, it also refers to how thick material will stay after repeated cleaning.

As many fabrics will slowly thin after many repeated washes, this is important to keep in mind.

Cotton, thanks to centuries of being used and adapted to many different purposes, is usually available in a wide range of thicknesses and sizes.

Even within a single brand, you’ll find a variety of cotton products, meaning that you can choose exactly what size you’d like to wear.

On the flip side, modal is a very thin fabric, which makes it difficult to produce in large quantities. So, expect to pay slightly more for thicker versions.

On the other hand, modal comes in just a few thicknesses, making it difficult to purchase larger pieces of the same fabric.

You must therefore choose among sizes and cuts that tend to vary greatly between stores.

Biodegradable

As we become more environmentally conscious with the clothes and fabrics that we throw away, biodegradability becomes increasingly important.

Very biodegradable clothes will leave behind very little trace of themselves in landfills, whilst also generally contributing less to the pollution of areas where these fabrics are discarded.

In this respect, both modal fabric and cotton are quite good when it comes to biodegradability. Both materials break down quickly, with most of their mass disappearing within months.

However, it’s worth noting that not all forms of modal are biodegradable, perhaps due to its partially synthetic nature, so check with the manufacturer regarding which versions should work best for your needs.

Warmth

Warmth

Warmth is a pretty self-explanatory category here. It simply refers to how well the fabric can hold on to heat.

In this regard, both modal and cotton are great at heat retention. The tightly-woven structure that most modal fabrics have makes them excellent at retaining heat.

This is one of the reasons that they are often used in the manufacturing of high-quality underwear and pajamas, amongst other things.

Cotton does this too, but it won’t hold heat better than modal because it doesn’t contain as many tightly woven fibers.

However, cotton is still great at retaining heat if you’re looking for something that’s going to help keep warm in colder weather.

As long as the fabrics are not treated with chemical treatments which would alter their ability to retain heat or moisture, they should perform similarly; however, the more tightly woven the fiber, the better it normally performs.

As long as the two fabrics are not treated with chemicals that would alter their ability to retain heat, they should perform similarly.

Moisture

Moisture is probably one of the least used categories in terms of clothing. Most people don’t worry about whether or not their clothing has enough moisture in it.

But, there are situations in which this can come into play. For example, if you’ve got a sweat problem, you might need some extra moisture.

In addition, you may need to keep your clothing dry, as the air will be less humid during the summer months. And that’s not even mentioning getting involved in water activities!

Both modal and cotton are fairly decent at keeping moisture out, although some forms of each do better than others.

Cotton is often recommended for keeping moisture out of clothing, particularly when trying to avoid problems such as mildew on linen items. 

Interestingly enough, for an at least partially synthetic fiber material, modal retains water surprisingly well. It performs better than many natural fibers such as wool, silk, or cashmere.

This is because modal contains what is called “water soluble” polymers. These polymers can bind with water molecules and make them easier to wash out.

Although modal does retain water slightly better than other types of fiber, it does not repel water like other synthetics like nylon, polyester, and spandex.

So, those who prefer a hydrophobic fabric may want to go with something else.

Durability

Durability is a big factor that people may consider when looking at which fabric they want to use for their clothing or other projects.

Your item must stand up to repeated use over time, as well as being tough enough to stand up to anything that might try and ruin it, such as pulling, stretching, tearing, and anything else that might otherwise spoil the fabric.

This doesn’t just apply to the tasks of everyday life either. Washing and cleaning can also affect your clothes over time, so it needs to be able to resist the damaging effects of thorough washes as well.

Modal fabric is surprisingly durable, given that it is usually sold as a luxury fabric. That said, most high-quality materials aren’t going to require any special treatment to maintain their durability.

You’ll get what you pay for, though; cheap modals are rarely made from very durable materials.

The main difference between modal and cotton is that modal tends to be more durable than cotton. Both can be worn comfortably for extended periods without wearing down and becoming unusable.

However, cotton will wear faster than modal. The reasons for this include its loosely woven construction.

Cotton needs to be washed regularly, whereas modal doesn’t need to be washed nearly as much.

Also, modal’s ability to hold onto its weave structure allows it to keep its shape and texture for much longer than cotton.

Finally, cotton absorbs water quite easily, which can lead to it becoming soft and wearing down more over time.

Because modal won’t absorb water very well, it’ll stay cleaner and last longer. Plus, it’s relatively easy to remove lint compared to cotton

Price

Lastly, we should talk about the price difference between these different materials.

Cotton, thanks to its widespread use, is incredibly easy and cheap to manufacture. As a result, buying cotton for yourself, whether for clothes or as a raw fabric to use for yourself, is incredibly cheap.

Modal, meanwhile, is pretty much the complete opposite of that.

Being such a new material, as well as having relatively little manufacturing when compared to cotton, is much more expensive to buy in most places.

There is a reason that it is usually sold as a luxury fabric, and the price range you normally find it at is one of them.

Fabric Care

The last thing to consider when choosing between cotton and modal is their care requirements.

If you’re going to regularly iron your clothes, then you won’t need to worry about much from either one, but if you plan on taking advantage of the washing machine, then you’ll need to know whether your chosen fabric takes better to detergents or dry cleaners.

So, let’s take a look at each option.

Cotton

Cotton isn’t usually recommended for home laundry machines unless your machine has a special “cotton” setting.

Instead, it’s usually recommended that you use regular standard detergent instead, or else opt for a commercial garment washer such as those made by Bosch.

Drys Cleaners

Dry cleaners are often better suited to dealing with synthetic fibers, so they aren’t always ideal for cotton.

However, there are several options available, including Laundress Dry-Cleaner Powder, which offers excellent results without leaving any residue.

Another great option is Woolite®, which allows you to launder all types of wool clothing with ease. These two brands work particularly well on silk.

Laundering Cotton

Although cotton doesn’t have any specific problems associated with it, it does tend to get dirty easier than other materials.

This means that you might have to do a bit extra to clean your cotton articles before wearing them again. Fortunately, this is easily done with the right detergents and methods.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Types Of Items Are Modal And Cotton Fabric Best For?

We have already touched on what each fabric is best for throughout this guide.

Generally speaking, Cotton is a very versatile material that can be used in pretty much every kind of clothing, from t-shirts to underwear, in denim clothes to bathrobes.

It is even used in items that are completely unrelated to clothing, such as in towels, coffee filters, camping equipment, and a variety of bed wear.

Modal is not as widely use, but still has plenty of uses in underwear and pajamas, as well as in luxury towel and bedsheet manufacture.

Is Modal Sustainable?

As we mentioned before, modal is made from treated beech wood pulp.

As a consequence of this, because it requires wood for its manufacturing process, there is a concern that modal production could be environmentally unsustainable, especially if companies are farming this would from wild forests.

Whilst several companies have made strides to make sure that the wood used for modal is from land that couldn’t be used for agricultural or wildlife purposes, this hasn’t stopped some manufacturers from using wood from rainforests for this exact purpose.

Think carefully on where your modal fabric may have been sourced from before you purchase it.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for an inexpensive way to make yourself and your wardrobe feel good, cotton probably makes sense. Its low cost, simple care, and versatility make it a great choice.

However, if you like high-quality items, or don’t mind spending a bit more money, then modal is worth considering. It provides you with a far superior product, at least when it comes to warmth and comfort.

But don’t let that put you off a good cotton pajama set that you have your eye on! There’s a reason we’ve been using it for thousands of years!

Amanda Brown

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