There was a time when Cleopatra used to bathe in milk, due to its nutrient-rich beautifying and smoothing effects on the skin. Nowadays, clothing brands came up with an innovative solution to bring the texture of milk out of beauty cabinets, and kitchen, to our wardrobe.
In the ‘30s the Italian chemist and engineer Antonio Ferretti had the idea to extract a precious fibre from casein, a milk protein, and patented it under the name, Lanital. The new fibre had dyeing and olfactive properties that resembled wool ( i.e. from Italian, lana means wool), but was way softer, lighter and pleasant on skin, similar to the luxurious cashmere and silk feel. Lanital fast spread in Europe and had an important production growth until the 1940s, when the spotlight moved on to cheaper synthetics derived from petroleum like nylon.
It was in the last decade that bio-based fabrics made a comeback, thanks to the renewed attention and sensitivity to sustainability. Among all, milk fibre aroused particular curiosity in the fashion industry, as designers are increasingly looking for textiles made from raw renewable materials and eco-friendly, waste-limiting production processes.
Milk fibre derives from casein (a milk protein) collected from milk waste, that is discarded by strict food standards but still contains valuable ingredients with great potential for technical purpose. It belongs to a class of artificial fibers better known as 'regenerated protein'. To reconfigure the dairy waste in fibrous form, and therefore textile, a wet spinning process by means of new bio-engineering technique is used. Casein is dissolved into a solution, then filtered and dried in form of flakes, which are then turn into long strands that are stretched and treated to increase strength and stability of the yarn.
Energy and water saving
This spinning process allows a considerable energy and water saving: in order to produce one kilogram of milk fibre less than 2 litres of water are needed, in comparison to the 10 thousand litres (!) employed to produce the same amount of cotton. Milk amino acids that remain inside the fibre take care of the skin by nourishing and hydrating it, which makes this fabric to all effects functional - soothing, hypoallergenic, antibacterial and breathable.
Besides being beautiful by itself, the bio-textile can also bind to other materials, such as bamboo, cotton, cashmere, linen, nettle or hemp. The combinations can be limitless and every fusion gives to the fabrics a quality that changes according to the material implied. To achieve the best benefits, though, it is important to leave a minimum of 20 per cent of milk fibre in the fabric.
Kay Politowicz, co-founder of Textiles Environment Design (TED) at Chelsea College of Arts in London, writes largely about the coming-up textiles and how they are positively affecting the world we live in. “New protein fibers are going to be a great addition to the world of sustainability as they offer the possibility of a renewable starting and a recyclable end point, for materials that actually feel good and perform in the ways you need” she says.
Transparent sustainability and performance is in fact core to the modern luxury Italian brand Back Label, that is taking the concept of “wellness wear” to the most exclusive wellbeing retail boutiques around the globe, with prices ranging from 65€ to 140€ for milk wear.
The co-founder and owner Filippo Perricone shares with enthusiasm the concept behind his innovative firm: “ My wife Amy and I - junkies of vegan, organic lifestyle - started the company with the goal to take back the quality there was once upon a time. We wanted to go back to the basics, to the origins and, finally, back to a 100 per cent Italian handmade brand, by using to its fullest potential the resources found in nature. That’s where the name of our brand comes from. “
“We address our nourishing essentials to a conscious, curious and cosmopolitan public, that care about wellness from the inside out. Just think that skin is the largest organ of our body - as it breathes, transpires - and the materials we decide to put it in touch with are extremely important, as there is an exchange process between our tissues and textile. The purity of milk fibre textile was our first heart shot and the starting point of our brand, that gradually extended to other types of exclusive natural fibres as well , that we spin here in our lab in Bergamo, as seaweed, eucalyptus and bamboo.”
The milk-textile has come a long way since its invention and today, between the idealist consumer and the practical one, a new balance is blazing a trail and stretching fashion victims’ horizons in a positive impactful way.
Writer: Ginta Kubiliute