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2 August 2017

The Resurgence of Milk-based Clothing

Clothing made from milk may seem like a downright bizarre idea, but it is in fact nothing new. Fibres made from milk proteins became popular throughout Europe and America during the 1900s as an alternative to wool, however the arrival of cheaper synthetic alternatives such as nylon all but drove them from the market.

With the issue of food waste now firmly in the public eye, the idea of creating clothing from such wasted produce is experiencing something of a resurgence as companies and customers alike seek out ways of reducing the estimated 1.7million tonnes of waste created annually by the food manufacturing process in the UK. With UK-based charity WRAP estimating that as much as 20% of this 1.7million tonne figure is dairy products, milk does actually seem like a pretty sensible place to start. The only food category of which more waste is created annually is meat and fish, and Gaga’s dress wasn’t exactly practical…

So how exactly does the process of converting milk into usable fibres work? Milk fibres in fact belong to a class of bio-based man-made fibres known as regenerated protein fibres, the exact fibre in question in this case being casein. The casein is separated from sour milk before being dissolved in a solution which removes all unwanted contaminants. It is then forced through a spinneret to create long strands of fibre, which are subsequently stretched, heated and chemically treated in order to strengthen them. In the past this chemical treatment involved the use of dangerous compounds such as formaldehyde, but these days milk fibres tend to instead be blended with the much safer acrylonitrile, which is widely used in the creation of acrylic yarn.

Switzerland-based yarn and fibre specialists Swicofil are one of the various companies now delving into the possibilities of milk fibres for clothing and textiles. Beda Ricklin, CEO of Swicofil, recently discussed the topic with, telling the publication that milk fibre is “a very smooth and soft product” and “very nice to wear, like cashmere or silk”. He asserts that the aforementioned ‘luxury’ fibres are the best conventional comparison to milk-based fibres.

Not only does the resulting material have a rather pleasant feel to it, it also performs far better than you may expect in terms of insulation and moisture wicking. As we’ve discussed in the past, these two properties are highly important when it comes to clothing, especially in cold environments.

Of course the usual questions concerning the fact that the process relies on waste products have been brought forward, with many asserting that we should be making efforts to stop such waste from occurring rather than simply repurposing it. However, of the estimated 340,000 tonnes of milk wasted during the manufacture of dairy products in the UK, WRAP states that only 200,000 tonnes are avoidable. This still leaves around 140,000 tonnes of waste product to work with in the UK alone.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for the written word. Currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor, his time at many UK festivals has taught him the importance of keeping warm.