What is milk fiber?
Milk fiber is a bio-based semi-synthetic fiber that utilises casein protein extracted from the waste milk such as sour and spoiled milk and is then processed with certain chemicals and synthetic polymers such as acrylonitrile to obtain fibers. Also referred to as casein fiber is not entirely sustainable owing to the manufacturing process involved. Around 1.7 million tonnes of waste are generated annually of which 20% is the dairy waste, that accounts for 340,000 tonnes of wasted milk say a UK charity organisation, WRAP. Thus, there is an urgent need to address this problem. And so, casein fabric helps to utilise the waste milk that would otherwise be thrown in drains and transform it into a textile substrate.
The casein fiber was first formulated in the 1930s in Italy by Antonio Ferratti under the brand name Lanital as a fiber that would compete with wool. While the milk fiber at the same time was manufactured in America also. However, it is believed that casein was discovered before the 1930s and was used as a binding agent in the paint industry in the 14th and 15th century. These casein-based paints were used to paint the churches. Although the milk fiber gained popularity in America and Europe in the 1940s, the fiber saw a downfall due to world war II.
The milk fabric is sold under various brand names such as Lanital (Belgium and France), Aralac (America), Merinova (Italy), Wipolan (Poland) and Fibrolane (Britain). However, the manufacturing of Lanital, Aralac and Merinova milk fibers stopped soon after the war because the quality of these milk fibers was low in comparison to wool and with the advent of synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester their demand declined.
Since its discovery, continuous efforts have been made to innovate milk fibers that could be processed without the use of the toxic chemical. Qmilk, Germany-based company, however, affirms that they have succeeded in the processing of milk fiber that is organic. Anke Domaske, microbiologist, fashion designer and founder of Qmilk first came up with the synthetic-free milk fiber in her quest to find the fabric that would not cause any allergic reaction to his stepdad who was suffering from cancer. Initially, she found that the conventional method to produce milk fiber involved the use of toxic chemicals and then she decided on innovating chemical-free casein fiber. She also adds that Germany produces about two million tonnes of waste milk that is unfit for consumption and so Qmilk utilises the locally available spoiled milk in the manufacturing of casein fiber which has zero waste and utilises low water and energy in its processes.
The milk fiber is often blended with cotton, silk, cashmere wool which adds to the properties such as soft handle, breathability and durability. The acrylonitrile processed milk fabric, however, has not gained much commercial importance due to the existence of other alternatives such as synthetic fibers but it is believed that pure casein fiber will soon find its potential. The milk fabric is known for its properties such as softness, moisture-wicking and anti-allergic properties. Also, another point that hits the milk fabric commercial upliftment is the low production and difficult processing.