Rayon fabric, modal fabric, lyocell fabric, and Cupro are made of cellulosic fibers. Cellulosic fibers are created with a natural polymer called cellulose, which is a structural component found in all plants. The cellulose used to make these fibers is often sourced from wood pulp and occasionally from bamboo. Cellulose is an extremely abundant natural polymer. Cotton fiber is 90% cellulose, wood can be 40-50% cellulose, and hemp is about 57% cellulose.
The cellulose is rendered soluble by a chemical process, and then spun into fiber. The fiber is then knit or woven into fabric.
So are modal, rayon, lyocell, and Cupro natural fabrics or synthetic fabrics? Are they environmentally friendly? Let’s take a look.
Rayon, modal, lyocell, and Cupro fall under the group known as semi-synthetic fibers. They are man made through a chemical process that treats the natural raw material of cellulose. Rayon was developed first, modal was developed as an answer to rayon’s weaknesses, and then lyocell was manufactured to further improve upon rayon and modal fabrics. Now, let’s look at their basic properties and improvements.
what is rayon fabric?
Rayon fabric was first created in 1855 and known as ‘artificial silk‘. It is an extremely versatile fabric and can imitate cotton, wool, silk, and linen in texture and feel. Rayon fabric is soft, breathable, easily dyed, and known in the garment world to be a comfortable wear. It does not pill easily.
what is viscose or viscose rayon?
Rayon is sometimes referred to as viscose, or viscose rayon. The name viscose comes from the viscous solution that is created in the process of making rayon.
what is the environmental impact of rayon?
Rayon is most commonly made from cellulose extracted from beech trees, pine trees, and bamboo. Though these are renewable resources that can benefit the environment during growth, the process used to extract the cellulose to make rayon uses harsh chemicals. Carbon disulfide, a highly toxic chemical known to be a human reproductive hazard is used as a solvent in the beginning of the process. Ammonia, caustic soda, sodium hydroxide, sulphuric acid, and acetone are also commonly used in the process to extract the cellulose from the wood pulp and to soften bamboo fibers. Further, most factories do not have high recovery rates of the solvent (most are near 50%). This means the hazardous solvent is released into the environment.
is rayon synthetic?
No, rayon is not synthetic. It is a semi-synthetic fabric. Unfortunately, due to the high environmental impact of the production of rayon, we suggest avoiding it. But don’t lose hope! Keep reading for some great developments of the semi-synthetic family that yielded fantastic alternatives.
what is modal fabric?
Modal fabric was essentially developed to improve the weaknesses of rayon. The fabric is stronger when wet and softer to the touch than rayon. Modal fabric feels very similar in touch to cotton. It is a very breathable fabric and does not trap perspiration or odors. Though very similar in feel and properties, modal is lighter weight than cotton. When cotton and modal are blended, the resulting fabric is lighter than an all cotton textile. Clothing made with modal often has a characteristic drape. Modal is sometimes referred to as ‘modal rayon’.
what are the properties of modal fabric?
Modal fabric is a wear resistant, soft textile, that is extremely versatile. Modal fabrics do not shrink or lose their shape when machine washed and tumble dried. Clothing made from modal is also resistant to fading and greying. Created as a second generation to rayon, modal has many of the same properties, but a higher wet strength than rayon and increased softness. A ‘higher wet strength’ means that modal is more resistant to tears and damage when it becomes wet.
Modal fabric acts very similarly to cotton when treated with different finishing techniques and can be easily treated to increase strength and shine. The dying process of modal is very similarly to cotton as well, and the fabric is color-fast after being washed in warm water. Modal is highly absorbent (around 50% more absorbent than cotton). This high rate of absorbency prevents clothing from feeling sweaty or sticky.
what are the end products of modal?
Modal fabric is a popular option for products with high body contact, such as lingerie, undergarments, pajamas, bath towels, robes, and bedsheets. Modal fibers are commonly blended with cotton, wool, or synthetic fibers to create blends. Since modal is highly absorbent and breathable, it is often used for activewear. Though not stretchy itself, when blended with just 5% spandex, modal creates a breathable and stretchy piece.
what is the environmental impact of modal?
The environmental impact of modal depends hugely on the manufacturer. Lenzing, an Austrian company who you will here more about below, is a superstar of the semi-synthetic world. They make a modal with cellulose from beech trees. Beech trees propagate by themselves, needing no irrigation or seeding. Lenzing sources over half of the beech trees from local farms in Austria, with the remainder imported from neighboring countries. They also source exclusively from forests that use sustainable methods. Lenzing uses a gentle treatment to turn the beech wood into modal fabric. They also recover 95% of the material used in production.
is modal biodegradable?
Yes, modal is biodegradable. It is cellulose from wood fiber, so it will break down much faster than synthetic fabrics.
what is lyocell?
Lyocell is also known by the brand name Tencel, which is produced by the Austrian group Lenzing. It further improves on the cellulosic fibers of rayon and modal by using nanotechnology. We’re not joking – check it out:
what are the properties of lyocell?
The manufacturing process of lyocell isolates nanofibrils in the cellulose. These are essentially tiny fibers of cellulose that have properties that are easier to manipulate, mostly due to their size.
The nanofibrils are hydrophilic, so they love water and absorb moisture quickly. This makes lyocell fabrics excellent for cooling and regulating body temperature.
As the nanofibrils absorb water and moisture, they move the absorbed moisture into the fiber, rather than leaving it on the surface (like what happens with synthetic fibers) where bacteria grows. Synthetic fiber clothing will host hundreds to thousands times more bacteria over the same amount of time between washes as lyocell. Lyocell is naturally (without any chemical treatment) antibacterial. This means lyocell fabric is less prone to odors, allowing the you to wear and wear before you wash! Not only does this save water and energy by less washes, but it helps increase the longevity of your clothing.
Lyocell fabric is also naturally hypoallergenic and extremely gently on skin, again, thanks to the nanofibrils. Since the nanofibrils are so small, lyocell is smoother to the touch on a microscopic level and beats modal, cotton, and wool in smoothness. This also makes lyocell anti-static. You also can forgo the fabric softener when washing lyocell, because it is not needed on this super soft fabric.
what does Lyocell feel like?
The final form of lyocell is extremely easy to manipulate. Lyocell can look and feel like anything from suede to silk to denim. It is also often utilized as a fill material, due to its efficient moisture management properties and ability to regulate temperature.
is Lyocell stretchy?
Yes, a fabric that is 100% Lyocell can be stretchy. Lyocell fabric can be manipulated to be stretchy without being blended with synthetic elastomeric fibers like spandex.
what impact do rayon, modal, and lyocell have on the environment?
The fibers of rayon, modal, and lyocell are biodegradable. The cellulose for these fabrics is sourced from renewable plants including beech trees, pine trees, bamboo, and eucalyptus trees.
The company Lenzing is a reliable source for these fabrics. Lenzing sustainably harvests the trees that they use to source cellulose. They create viscose (a variation of rayon) and modal from sustainably harvested beech trees and lyocell (Tencel) from sustainably harvested eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus trees can be planted on land that is not fertile enough for food crops. It’s a hearty tree that grows quickly, requires no irrigation, treatment with pesticides, or fertilizer. Eucalyptus trees use 20 times less water than cotton. You could say eucalyptus grows like a weed – a very helpful weed.
Lenzing also now recycles the chemicals used during their production process. When making Tencel, Lenzing reuses up to 99.8% of the non-acidic solvent used to extract the cellulose. The other .2% of the solvent is broken down in biological water treatment plants. None of the solvent remains in the produced fiber, and further, the solvent is non-toxic and yields innocuous in dermatology tests.
Unfortunately, there are a number of producers of rayon, modal, and lyocell, and many of these use polluting chemicals to grow, harvest, and manufacture. So as always, we need to check our sources.
what is Cupro material?
Cupro is a semi-synthetic fabric derived from an often overlooked part of the cotton plant. Cotton linter is a downy and short fiber that encases the seeds of a cotton plant. Before Cupro, cotton linter was often discarded as an unusable bit of cotton.
The cotton linter undergoes a process to remove any impurities and yield a product that is pure cellulose. The cellulose is then spun into yarn. Due to the processing, Cupro has a much softer feel than conventional cotton and can have very similar weight, look, luster and hand as silk.
what are the properties of Cupro?
Cupro is very efficient in moderating moisture in absorption and release. The fiber has very tiny pores that absorb moisture quickly and just as quickly release the moisture to the outside. Unlike most synthetic fabrics, Cupro does not allow moisture to become trapped between your skin and clothing. This is great news for comfort, body odor, and wash cycles.
Because of Cupro’s great absorptive quality, the fibers are also rockstars at temperature regulation. To keep you cool in summer, moisture absorbed by the fibers pulls your body heat to the outside where it is released. In cold environments, Cupro can retain your body heat, again utilizing the water absorbed by the fibers as a regulator. The moisture in the fibers also prevents static electricity from collecting and building up, therefor providing an un-clingy and un-shockingly comfortable wear. For the full rundown of the technology behind Cupro, check out the science here.
It is very forgiving to sensitive skin. In fact, studies have found Cupro to be more agreeable for people with sensitive skin than even silk.
what is the environmental impact of Cupro?
As with all cotton products and textiles treated with chemical processes, we need to be careful where Cupro is sourced.
Asahi Kasei Corporation is a large producer of Cupro and has declared goals of zero emission and energy conservation. The waste produced during the processes to create Cupro are thoroughly recycled, with their overall rate at nearly 100%. Cupro itself is made with what would otherwise be unused fibers, so what was formerly considered waste.
The Cupro of Asahi Kasei Corporation is Eco Mark certified, recognized by the Japan Environment Association.
Derived from a natural source, Cupro is fully biodegradable. It reaches half of its original weight after just two months in what are considered average summer conditions (80% humidity at 95 degrees Fahrenheit).