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What is Milk Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • September 22, 2019 • 9 min read

Fabric nameMilk cotton
Fabric also known asMilk fiber, casein fiber
Fabric compositionBlend of casein protein from milk and acrylonitrile or pure casein protein
Fabric possible thread count variations200-300
Fabric breathabilitynReasonably breathable
Moisture-wicking abilitiesHigh
Heat retention abilitiesMedium
Stretchability (give)Medium
Prone to pilling/bubblingLow
Country where fabric was first producedItaly and the USA
Biggest exporting/producing country todayEurope
Recommended washing temperaturesWarm or hot
Commonly used inSocks, underwear, other forms of intimate apparel, clothing usually made from wool, and household textiles

textile milk cotton yarnTextile Milk Cotton Yarn

What Is Milk Cotton Fabric?

Milk cotton is a type of fabric that is made with the casein powder found in milk. This type of fabric is also called milk fiber or casein fiber, and it has historically been mixed with a number of substances to provide them with a cotton-like texture and tensility.

These days, most casein fiber is mixed with acrylonitrile, which is the same substance that's used to make acrylic clothing. Therefore, milk cotton isn't a truly organic fiber, and it is generally considered to be synthetic or semi-synthetic.

milk cotton bodysuitsMilk Cotton Bodysuits

Interestingly, a German fashion designer named Anke Domaske claims to have created a form of milk cotton made from only casein fiber, which means that the fabric she produces can be considered to be entirely organic. Domaske's company is called Qmilk, and she claims that she had the idea to develop a synthetic-free version of casein fabric after a family member became allergic to most types of clothing upon developing a certain type of cancer.

Intrigued by the potential of milk fiber but discouraged by the manufacturing process currently used to make this fabric, Domaske developed her own method of creating casein fabric without using any toxic chemicals. She claims to make all of her Qmilk garments from waste milk generated by German dairies that can't be consumed by humans.

milk cotton yarnMilk Cotton Yarn

At this point, the production of milk cotton worldwide is very minimal. While this fabric experienced its heyday in the early decades of the 20th century, it fell into obscurity as other synthetic or semi-synthetic fabrics became cheaper and more prevalent. While milk cotton made with acrylonitrile is unlikely to make any gains in popularity, it's possible that pure casein fabric will become more popular as time goes by due to its unique allergen profile and the environmentally sustainable production processes that are used to make this textile. Across the world, textile producers are focusing on the potential that protein-based fibers have to solve the environmental issues associated with producing cotton and other staple textile crops.

Consumers prize milk cotton for its softness and smoothness, and it is often used for apparel products that are worn close to the skin. However, it is relatively difficult to produce casein fiber, which means that most consumers are unlikely to have experienced the benefits of this fabric. Those who have worn milk cotton report that it has very pronounced moisture wicking abilities, and pure forms of casein fabric can be washed at high temperatures. Since they contain acrylic, however, semi-synthetic forms of this fabric can only be washed in cold or warm water.

How Is Milk Cotton Fabric Made?

how is milk cotton made

The process used to produce this type of fabric depends on the version of casein fiber that is being made. However, no matter which subtype of casein fabric is produced, the first step in making this textile is obtaining milk.

In most cases, the milk used to make milk cotton is waste milk that is otherwise unusable. This product is generally obtained directly from a dairy, and it is then skimmed to remove fat and dewatered. The end result is similar in appearance to milk-based protein powder, but to make fabric, the casein protein still needs to be extracted from this powdered substance.

The powdered milk is then dissolved and purified to remove any substances that are not casein. Past this point, however, the production process diverges based on the methods that are being used.

new knitting wool soft milk cotton hand woven crochet chunky yarnNew Knitting wool soft milk Cotton Hand-woven Crochet Chunky Yarn

The original production process for casein fabric entails the immersion of powdered casein in alkali to make a solution that is then passed through a spinneret. After it has made its way through the spinneret, the solution is immersed in sulfuric acid to remove the alkali. The resulting fibers are then stretched and spun into yarn, and they are tanned with aluminum salts and formaldehyde to render them into usable textile yarn.

It's easy to see the problems with this production method. Formaldehyde is toxic, and a variety of other chemicals are also used in this process that may also be harmful to workers, the environment, or the end consumer.

The modern method of producing casein fiber involves chemically grafting pure casein to acrylonitrile in a process called graft copolymerization. This process doesn't entail the use of formaldehyde or any of the toxic chemicals that were used in the original casein fiber production method, but acrylonitrile is also a known toxin and carcinogen. While this modern method is more efficient and potentially safer, it still has its fair share of problems.

Recently, a variety of milk cotton producers have reported their newfound capacity to manufacture stable and tensile forms of this textile without mixing it with any synthetic materials. Ostensibly, this new production method is much more environmentally-friendly and results in a safer workplace, but there's just one catch: There's no detailed information available that explains the exact nature of the processes used to make this sustainable form of casein fabric.

For instance, the makers of Qmilk claim that their production process produces zero waste and that their fabrics are entirely biodegradable. However, they do not indicate which methods they use to avoid the necessity of including acrylonitrile or formaldehyde in the production process.

As casein fabric becomes more popular, it's likely that scholarly articles and other sources of information will appear with more details on how these new fully-organic versions of milk cotton are made. At this point, it's necessary to simply trust that manufacturers like Qmilk are living up to their promises.

How Is Milk Cotton Fabric Used?

how is milk cotton used

Due to its glossy and rich texture, casein fabric has been widely used as an alternative to silk since its invention. While this fabric is inferior to real silk, it can replicate the lightness and softness of this textile if it is manufactured properly.

One of the main purposes of milk cotton in the 1930s and 1940s, however, was as a replacement for wool for members of the military. It was quickly determined, however, that milk fiber products, which were branded as Lanatitil, Merinova, and Aralac, were inferior to wool, and production of these fabrics ceased as purely synthetic materials, such as nylon, became increasingly popular in the post-war period.

aisuru club x uglee milk cotton crop topAisuru Club X Uglee Milk Cotton Crop Top

In recent decades, milk cotton has primarily been used as an alternative to cotton or silk. While it's sometimes possible to find apparel that is made entirely from this casein-based textile, it's much more common to find milk fiber blended into other fabrics. For instance, it may be combined with silk or cotton to create a smoother texture or reduce costs.

Casein fiber is sometimes used for home textiles such as towels and bed sheets, but its primary application is as a material for apparel. As casein fiber made from pure milk with no added synthetic ingredients becomes more and more popular, this type of textile is carving out a market niche for distinct groups of consumers.

On the one hand, there are consumers who have allergies to other common textiles who seek out pure casein fiber for its unique allergen profile and generally mild texture. On the other, some consumers prefer pure milk cotton because they perceive that it is made in an environmentally sound manner and that it actually reduces the milk waste that would otherwise be generated by major dairies.

Where Is Milk Cotton Fabric Produced?

milk cotton in the world

No one country is considered to be a major producer of this type of textile because it is not produced in high quantities. As with most types of textiles, China is the single greatest producer of milk cotton, but even within the borders of this manufacturing powerhouse, casein fiber is not produced in any great quantities.

The milk cotton fabric that is produced in China, however, is almost invariably the type that is mixed with acrylonitrile, which means it is environmentally hazardous and harmful to workers. If you want milk cotton that is made from pure milk using environmentally friendly processes, you'll need to work with independent suppliers in Europe and elsewhere who are currently pioneering the renaissance of protein-based, sustainable fibers.

How Much Does Milk Cotton Fabric Cost?

Milk cotton is generally quite costly. The high price of this fabric was the primary factor that originally caused the decline of the casein fiber industry in the mid-1900s, and the cost to produce this textile hasn't reduced significantly despite the development of more efficient manufacturing processes.

Purely organic milk cotton costs significantly more than other types of this fabric. For instance, the fabric that Qmilk uses to make its textile products costs about 40 percent more than cotton, and these high prices will likely continue to disincentivize the popularity of this type of fabric.

What Different Types of Milk Cotton Fabric Are There?

different types of milk cotton

While milk cotton made with formaldehyde is a thing of the past, semi-synthetic milk fiber made with acrylonitrile is the most commonly-produced type of this substance. Another type, however, that is made with pure casein is rapidly becoming the preferred form of milk fiber across the world.

How Does Milk Cotton Fabric Impact the Environment?

The environmental impact of casein fabric varies depending on the type of manufacturing process that is used. For instance, the original forms of milk cotton that were popular in the early 20th century were often processed with formaldehyde, which is a neurotoxin that contaminates the ecosystem. Any milk fabric that is made with formaldehyde is not environmentally sustainable, but it's unlikely that any casein fiber manufacturers continue to use this toxic substance to create their products.

Milk cotton made with acrylonitrile is marginally better for textile workers and the environment, but the production of this subtype of casein fiber still can't be considered to be truly sustainable. It is practically impossible to recycle acrylic textiles, and these fabrics do not decompose. In addition, most kinds of acrylic fabric are highly flammable, which poses another health hazard.

cotton sleeves milk silk bodyCotton sleeves - Milk silk body

Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has indicated that acrylonitrate enters the body via skin absorption, inhalation, and ingestion and that this substance is a carcinogen and mutagen. Wearing fabrics made with acrylonitrile may cause cancer, and workers who contact this substance during production may also encounter serious health difficulties.

If the acrylonitrile used in the milk cotton production process is not disposed of properly, it can negatively impact the environment. Also, according to some estimates, it takes about 100 gallons of milk to make three pounds of milk fiber, which means that the casein fiber production process could be wasteful. According to Anke Domaske, however, she can make six T-shirts with one kilogram of milk, which appears to indicate that the amount of milk needed to make this fabric is not standardized.

Until the production of milk cotton becomes more mainstream, it will remain unclear whether or not this substance is good or bad for the environment. On the one hand, it seems that making this substance can put waste milk to good use that would otherwise be thrown away, but on the other, it's clear that certain methods for producing milk cotton are profoundly environmentally hazardous.

Milk Cotton Certifications Available

milk cotton certifications

In 2004, the entirety of the purely organic milk fiber industry was granted Oeko-Tek Standard 100 certification, which means that it is considered to be 100 percent environmentally sustainable. However, it is again important to stipulate that the largest producers of purely organic milk fiber have yet to disclose details on their production processes, so it's impossible to say exactly which aspects of this industry prompted this coveted certification.

At this point, neither the United States Department of Agriculture or the EU's organic standards organization have recognized milk fiber as a textile that can achieve organic status. As the production of this textile increases in volume and the recipes used to make purely organic casein fiber lose their trade secret value, it's possible that more certifications for this textile will be made available. Needless to say, the semi-synthetic fabric made by mixing casein fiber and acrylonitrile cannot be certified as organic or environmentally sustainable.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.