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A History of Milk Protein Fabrics

The process of making real milk fabric was invented in Germany during World War I. In Germany during World War I, there were terrible shortages of all fabrics, so there was a great interest in making new fabrics with whatever materials were available. For a very long time, people have observed that milk, when completely dehydrated, leaves a hard film on the bottom of the container where the evaporation took place. The base proteins of milk, called caseins, have been used for centuries all over the world for various applications in lacquers, paints, glues, and glazes. The Germans looked into using these hard casein proteins as the basis for new fabrics, and all sorts of applications during World War I.

Milk fiber textiles are an extruded fiber type of textile similar to rayon, polyester, and acrylic. The production of milk fiber textiles is just a variation on the manufacturing process of other synthetic fibers. The original process of making milk based fabrics involved using the dried components of skimmed milk or liquid waste from cheese or butter factories. First, the skimmed milk, or liquid milk protein slurries are put through a large centrifuge to separate the desired milk casein proteins from the leftover fats and water. The centrifuge separated casein solids are then mixed in an alkaline water based solution, similar to the process of making viscose for rayon. The difference between making rayon and the original casein fibers is that instead of cellulose being used as a base for the viscose, milk based casein proteins are used. The casein based viscose solution is then pumped at a carefully meter rate into a platinum and gold alloy spinneret or nozzle. A spinneret uses centrifugal force to push a liquid through a hole. The freshly extruded threads of casein are released into a hardening bath of formaldehyde and aluminum salts. The bath of formaldehyde and aluminum salts is not only intended to harden the casein fibers but also neutralize the alkaline solution. After the extruding and hardening process, the casein fibers are washed in water, stretched, straitened, and dried. After being washed and dried, the casein based protein threads are suitable for textile manufacturing. In the original manufacturing process, the fibers that came out of the milk fiber factory were made of pure casein proteins. Today, the usual process of making milk based textile threads is the same as it was in the early twentieth century, except that the turning spinneret releases the threads of casein into a hardening bath of acrylonitrile, not formaldehyde and aluminum salts. Acrylonitrile is the base chemical used to form acrylic threads. The end result is basically an acrylic fiber that includes some casein based proteins, not a pure casein fiber.

Contrary to what the manufactures of the new acrylic “milk” fibers claim, there is no special bacteria resistance or special skin healing properties to these fabrics. Most fabrics sold as milk fiber these days are really synthetics. These acrylic “milk” fiber textiles are not very environmentally friendly to produce. As mentioned earlier, acrylic/ modal that is the real base material for the newer “milk” textiles. Acrylic/modal is not environmentally friendly. Because of the terrible environmental impacts of using acrylonitrile, many manufacturers of acrylic based “milk” fibers try to hide their use of acrylonitrile from buyers.

Ecologic and Social Impact of Milk Protein Fiber Cloth

Q: If milk fiber textiles were made with a hardening bath of formaldehyde and aluminum salts, like the original milk fiber cloth, would this fabric be much less ecologically harmful to manufacture?
A: Yes, the original milk fiber manufacturing methods were not nearly as harmful to the environment as the current acrylonitrile processes. The process of making milk fiber fabrics could be cleaned up a lot with today’s technology.

Q: Is it possible to produce milk fiber fabrics in an overall environmentally sound manner?
A: Yes, it is possible to make milk fiber textiles themselves in a more environmentally responsible manner; however, milk fiber fabrics are linked with the dairy industry. It really would not be a bad idea to turn the waste products of butter, cheese, ice cream, and yogurt making into textiles. It is now possible to use biologically produced enzymes in place of sodium hydroxide to produce a protein solution that can be extruded into milk fiber threads, thus eliminating some of the toxic chemicals in the milk fiber production process. There are also rumored to now be processes where the extruded threads of casein can be hardened by biological enzymes as opposed to toxic chemicals after extrusion. Technologies to re-use and keep toxic chemicals out of the watersheds of milk protein textile factories are being improved constantly.

Q: Could milk based fibers be an effective large scale alternative to cotton in the world textile industry?
A: At this time, no. It takes 100 pounds of skimmed milk, or the watery casein slurry produced as a by-product of milk based food manufacturing to produce one pound of dried casein proteins usable for textile making. This figure is not as bad as it initially sounds. 12 gallons of liquid waste from a yogurt factory weighs about 100 pounds. One pound of pure milk fiber textiles may be enough to make a shirt or bra. The potential for making large quantities of milk fiber fabric is real. The dairy based foods industry produces millions of gallons of waste daily in America alone. The available sources of casein proteins are not limited to the by-products of making milk based foods. Grocery store chains could sell expired milk to textile makers at a low rate. The casein proteins needed for textile making can come from out of date milk, so long as it is not too spoiled. Despite the potentially huge sources of milk proteins, there is no real potential for acrylic “milk” fiber or the original milk fiber fabrics to have any large scale production comparable to cotton. The international dairy industry also does not have a good environmental track record. Expanding the dairy industry just to produce more textiles would be an ecological problem on an epic scale.

The international dairy industry has way too many environmental problems associated with it for this writing to discuss in any real detail. Many thick books have been written about the environmental problems associated the dairy industry. The international dairy industry has been associated with a truly staggering list of water shed pollutants and air pollutants. Even the supposedly more environmentally friendly practice of pasture feeding and pasture raising dairy cattle is linked with a troublingly long list of rather nasty environmental problems. Humanity’s taste for milk based foods comes at a very steep environmental and social cost. Even a very basic study of the large scale dairy industry reveals a disturbing amount of harmful things being passed on to the human consumers of dairy products. For those concerned with animal welfare, most of the world’s diary industry gets low marks.

Q: Should people just entirely stop consuming dairy products or boycott the dairy industry?
A: That is a really tough question. Some nutritionists believe that the consumption of all milk products by humans, with the exception of nursing babies, should stop. However, evidence is there both for and against humans consuming milk products. Abstinence from dairy products is a personal choice. Advocating complete abstinence from all dairy products for everyone is foodie fascism.

It would definitely be a good practice to re-use the by-products associated with the making of milk based foods for use in textile manufacturing; however, milk fiber cloth does not get a good environmental rating due to being linked with the dairy industry. The world’s dairy industry is making some progress on the road toward being more ecologically responsible; however, the dairy industry will remain a world level environmental problem for the foreseeable future.

Future of Milk Fiber Textiles

The diary industry does not get good marks for environmental stewardship; however, there are some positive trends. A small number of large feed lot based dairy farms are beginning to turn the cow waste into methane. Estimates are that one dairy cow produces 120 pounds of solid waste a day. Estimates are that one dairy cow produces the same waste daily as 30 people. One of many environmental problems associated with dairy farming is disposing of the colossal amounts of animal waste. The problem of handling colossal amounts of animal waste is also associated with pig, turkey, and chicken farming. Methane making neutralizes the toxicity of huge amounts of animal waste and creates an energy source. Making methane out of animal waste will not eliminate environmental problems associated with animal farming, but it will ease the negative ecological impact.

Like silk proteins, casein proteins can be produced by genetically modified bacteria. Vats of casein producing bacteria could create a cheap and environmentally friendly source of textile fibers eliminating the need for cotton and other plant based fibers.

Q: Would you consider using any acrylic based “milk” fabrics in any of your clothing designs?
A: No, as I mentioned earlier, I do not plan on incorporating any acrylic based “milk” fabrics into my clothing designs. I simply consider these new acrylic based milk fiber shirts to be just acrylic.

Q: Would you consider using milk based fabrics in your clothing designs if they were not acrylic based?
A: I would consider using some milk based fabrics in my clothing designs if I could be sure that there was no acrylonitrile used in the manufacturing process. I would have to have a talk with the manufacturers of the milk protein based fabric about their methods of production before I would incorporate these textiles into a clothing design.

Q: What are some of the advantages of incorporating genuine milk based fabric into your clothing designs?
A: A true milk fiber based garment has a softness that cannot be beaten by any other fabric; hands down. Neither the softest cotton nor rayon is as soft, smooth, and kind to human skin as true milk fiber fabric. A true milk based garment also helps moisten and nourish the skin while being worn. True milk fiber fabric has a PH level almost identical to that of human skin. A true milk based fabric has good anti-bacterial qualities. Hospitals like to use casein protein fabrics to wrap infections and burns. A true milk based garment is very absorbing of moisture and “breathable”. A true milk based garment is good for keeping cool in hot weather. Milk fiber clothes are decent in cold weather. The milk fiber garments originally worn by the German army of World War I were rather thick and heavy. The original milk fiber German clothing was intended for cold weather. The original interest in making milk fiber garments was to make a replacement for wool. During World War I, Germany was facing critical shortages of wool for making cold weather clothing.

Q: So what are the downsides of incorporating genuine milk fiber fabrics into a garment?
A: A genuine milk fiber garment is not very long lasting and durable, even when made of thicker spun fibers as a substitute for wool. Genuine milk fiber cloth is also rather prone to wrinkling.