When Nature Meets Technology

Mike Abbott, director of global research and development, explains that increased comfort is the main reason HanesBrands is using Modal in its apparel. Modal fabric blends are also 50 percent more absorbent than cotton alone, more breathable and feel lighter, even though the fabric is more sturdy.

Check the label of your softest clothing and you might find “Modal” is part of the fabric blend. What is it? How is it made? Why is it used? Mike Abbott, director of research and development for HanesBrands, has the answers.

ATS: Let’s cut to the chase – why are Modal-blend fabrics becoming so popular? What are the benefits?

MA: First, it is important to note that – similar to Xerox, Kleenex and Jacuzzi – Modal is a brand name owned by The Lenzing Group, which produces the plant-based, manufactured fiber that Hanes purchases.

Increased comfort is the main reason we use Modal fabric blends. For example, our Modal-cotton blend used for undershirts and underwear, is incredibly soft, 50 percent more absorbent than cotton alone, more breathable and feels lighter, even though the fabric is more sturdy. T-shirts made with Modal-cotton blends also offer a really good drape.

It is interesting to note, however, that only about 20 percent of viscose “consumption” is in the apparel industry – and Modal is a small portion of the 20 percent. HanesBrands is one of the largest apparel manufacturer to use Modal.

ATS: It sounds like Modal offers many benefits. Why not produce apparel with 100-percent Modal fabric?

MA: Although Modal does bring many benefits to a fabric blend, a 100-percent Modal fabric would not perform nearly as well. In particular, creasing/wrinkling would be a huge issue for consumers.

ATS: So, what is Modal?

MA: Modal is a specific type of viscose, made with a specific process. Viscose starts as a woody substance, typically from bamboo and other grasses, pine and beech trees. Modal is predominately made from beech trees. It is interesting to note that viscose fiber can be manufactured into Modal, Tencel and or other fibers, depending on the process used.

ATS: So, does that mean Modal is a natural fiber?

MA: Actually, Modal falls in between the natural and synthetic categorizations. There are three basic fiber categories – natural, manufactured and synthetic. Natural fibers include cotton, wool, silk and flax, for example. What distinguishes a manufactured fiber, such as Modal, from a synthetic one is whether or not the fiber is derived from a naturally occurring material. And, unlike natural fibers, manufactured fibers require processing to become a finished product.

ATS: How is Modal made?

MA: This is where nature meets technology. Without getting too technical, here is the best way to describe the method. Similar to the papermaking process, wood pulp is steeped in liquid and converted to cellulose. After a process that includes filtering, washing and spinning, the fibers are stretched, cut and bleached. Fibers are then dried and pressed into bales. At that point, the fibers can be spun into yarn.

ATS: That sounds like a lot of processing. What is the impact on the environment?

MA: Some processes are executed better than others. HanesBrands is committed to environmental stewardship, and we look for that same commitment in our partners. That is one of the reasons we purchase our Modal fiber from The Lenzing Group, which has an award-winning corporate social responsibility program. The company conducts verified sustainable forestry, uses non-toxic solvents, operates a closed-loop solvent recovery system, recycles the water used in the process and sells process byproducts for use in other industry, among other things.