Milk fibre was first discovered and produced in 1930 by the Italian Antonio Ferretti. In Italy as well as in many other countries at the time, tonnes of excess skim milk were wasted each year until Ferretti’s innovation proved to be an inexpensive solution to this problem. His goal was to turn milk byproducts into a new futuristic fibre able to substitute wool. The milk fibre was mainly used during the 1930s and 40s in Europe and the USA for clothing and household items, but unfortunately its popularity rapidly decreased with the invention of cheaper full synthetic fibres.
For many years milk fibres played a tangential role in the vast textile industry. However, recently few manufacturers have started to embrace this idea again as a green alternative to conventional cotton or silk fibres.
Milk fibre is a regenerated protein fibre based on casein, a protein in milk, which is obtained by acid treatment of skimmed milk. At the beginning of its existence the fibre was blended with a number of substances to provide a wool like texture which would be treated with several chemicals to increase its strength and stability. Formaldehyde was one of them which made the production of this fibre harmful to workers, the environment and consumers.
Nowadays, milk fibre is usually blended with acrylonitrile, the main component of acrylic yarn, and is considered to be synthetic or semi-synthetic. The manufacturing process doesn’t include any use of formaldehyde or any other toxic chemicals that were utilised back in the 1930s. It should be noted though that acrylonitrile is also known for its toxicity and harmfulness to humans and the environment.
Recently, some manufacturers found a way to produce milk based textiles without the use of any synthetic fibres. QMilk is one of them.
The company was founded by the microbiologist and fashion designer Anke Domaske which developed a new sustainable technique to produce milk fibres only by using natural ingredients: “As water – and energy-efficient, zero – waste – is this procedure process very sustainable. QMILK fibers are made of 100% renewable Raw materials and non-food milk. The QMILK fiber after a few weeks is biodegradable in compost. (DIN EN 14119).” Her mission is to create a synthetic and chemical free fibre using “milk not suitable for food use and expensively disposed so far as unused secondary waste.” Analysts suggest that every year 116m tonnes of dairy products are wasted globally.
In addition, Domaske affirms that thanks to this technique she is able to create one kg of milk fibre with only two litres of water, compared to the 20,000 litres currently used to produce the same amount of cotton.
Fabrics made from milk are soft, smooth, antibacterials, good at wicking moisture and have great insulation properties. They are often used for apparel products that are worn close to the skin and household items however they can also be used for more technical applications. They are often blended with cotton or silk to create smoother texture or reduce costs. In fact, pure casein fibres are difficult to produce meaning a higher price than conventional materials, although cheaper than other luxury components like silk.
Header Image Credit: Robert Hrovat.