Sustainable Fabric From Sour Milk

It was just another regular morning. Antonella Bellina woke up, made herself some breakfast and decided she wanted milk in her coffee. But, when she took the first sip, a foul taste took over her mouth: the milk was way past expiration date.

What could have been just a ruined breakfast actually sparked a business idea that would change the course of Bellina’s life. Having worked as a researcher in the Italian textile industry for over 10 years, she thought: “what if we converted sour milk into fiber?”. After all, the protein in wool is very similar in structure to casein, the main protein found in milk — and an estimated 30 million tons of dairy go to waste each year in Italy alone.

The idea wasn’t entirely new. In the early 1900s German chemist Frederick Todtenhaupt was already attempting to turn milk byproducts into a silk substitute, but his efforts came to no fruition. It was only in the 1930s that Bellina’s compatriot, engineer Antonio Ferretti, managed to produce fabric from milk.

Backed by Mussolini, who was more than interested in achieving economic self-sufficiency, Italian company SNIA Viscosa began producing milk-based fabric at large scale in the mid 1930s and even sold patents to other countries, including Germany, Belgium, Japan and England. The innovation was celebrated in this 1937 film by the British Pathé, which says “in the future, you’ll be able to choose between drinking a glass of milk and wearing one”.

Sustainable Fabric From Sour Milk

How does the process of converting milk protein into fiber work?

The process is actually very similar to making cheese. We extract casein from the milk and then dry it until it becomes a powder. Then we spin this powder into fiber in a machine that resembles the one that makes cotton candy. The resulting fiber is white in color, but we can dye it. Duedilatte uses natural dyes only, such as strawberry or coffee. The liquid material we’re left with after extracting the casein from the milk can be used to feed farm animals, nothing is wasted. Here in Italy there are places where you can collect sour milk for free, so basically we only pay for transportation and the production process in our lab.

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