From Milk to QMilch: Creating an Environment Friendly Textile Fiber

Anke Domaske, the great granddaughter of a seamstress in East Germany, began to draw, sew, and design dresses as a child. At the age of 19, she opened her own fashion label, Mademoiselle Chichi, and a few years later, prominent celebrities like Mischa Barton and Ashlee Simpson were seen wearing her clothes.1

But that doesn’t explain how her dresses found their way to Time Magazine’s Top 50 inventions of 2011.2

In addition to being a fashion designer, Anke Domaske is a biochemist and microbiologist. For six years, she doubled as a student at the University of Göttingen while managing her firm. She would retreat to Hannover at night to manage Mademoiselle Chichi.3

Her journey towards materials development continued when her stepfather was diagnosed with cancer and found his immune system weakened to such an extent that his own clothing exacerbated his health condition. This led Domaske to discover that “there are so many people who really suffer just by wearing normal clothing.”4

By combining her love of fashion, her knowledge of biology, and her commitment to creating anti-allergenic clothing, Domaske and her research team have created a novel organic fiber. This fiber, which can be spun into cloth, is named Qmilch, and is primarily composed of casein, a protein extracted from soured milk.2

The biochemistry of casein lends well to the production of fibers. At least two casein proteins, aS2 and K-casein, have been shown to assemble into fibrous protein aggregates, called amyloid fibrils, in the bloodstream.5 Domaske’s implementation of naturally occurring design principles places her work into the realm of biomimicry. By studying how the structure of objects found in nature correspond to the function they perform, the field of biomimicry aims to apply these natural design principles to the creation of manmade items, such as Qmilch. Much like the artificial leaf described in this column’s previous article, Qmilch also represents a positive and progressive form of environmentalism, where products are designed not only to be environment-friendly, but also to be more efficient, higher quality alternatives to products already available on the market.

Because production of Qmilch is a private venture utilizing relatively new technology, there is little scientific literature on the topic.6 Most of the information available about Qmilch comes from interviews with Domaske herself. After two years of trial and error, Domaske and a team of five arrived at a tear-proof, water resistant recipe for the fibers. To produce these fibers, casein, water, and other natural components, like beeswax, are fed into a large machine. Once created, the fibers can be spun rough for a heavier texture or spun smooth into a soft jersey.7 Although casein is extracted from soured milk, the final product is odorless, falls like silk, and can be machine washed and dried.8

There are four distinct ways in which Domaske’s invention is environment-friendly. First, it saves resources and time. Not only is the amount of water required drastically reduced, but the whole manufacturing process takes about one hour.7 Furthermore, Qmilch uses only organic and renewable materials; unlike silk production, pesticides and other toxic chemicals are not required. Domaske has also strived to make the process of production green, along with the product. Renewable energy from photovoltaic cells and wind turbines is used to power manufacturing. The sour milk that is used in this process recycles widely available raw material that would otherwise have been discarded. Finally, the textile product is biodegradable, which reduces landfill space.3

According to Domaske, fabric woven from Qmilch has a number of other fascinating qualities. Looking at the scanning electron microscope image to the right, one can see that Qmilch is smooth, instead of scratchy or scaly like the cotton and wool shown alongside. Therefore, it irritates the skin less, which benefits those who have textile allergies or a compromised immune system.2 There are many ways in which the body’s response to organic chemicals found in clothing can elicit an immune response. For example, volatile organic chemicals can stimulate irritant fibers in the nasal passage, leading to an increase in polymorphonuclear cells, a symptom of inflammation, and eventually leading to the recruitment of immune cells, such as macrophages. Individuals with a weakened immune system, therefore, can suffer from disorders, such as multi-chemical sensitivity disorder.8 Also, the pH of milk is 6.8, similar to the pH of the human body. As a result, Qmilch does not disrupt the skin’s acid mantle,9 a natural barrier to bacteria, and other contaminants. Additionally, Domaske claims that the amino acids present in the milk protein are antibacterial, anti-aging, and regulate blood circulation and body temperature.3 She believes that incorporating 20% Qmilch into regular yarn will prevent the growth of bacteria, thereby reducing unpleasant odors10 and the spread of infectious diseases through cloth. This will also result in textiles that are smoother to touch.3

Though this fabric has received recognition in prestigious magazines, such as Times and Science, the current dearth of accessible scientific literature raises many questions about the validity of claims made by the company. For example, how exactly is this fiber antibacterial? What tests have been conducted to prove that this is so, and what’s the mechanism of the antibacterial activity? The anti-aging claims, always tenuous to prove, raise similar questions. What does it even mean to attribute an anti-aging quality to clothing? Hopefully, as the research transitions into large-scale distribution, the company will release detailed scientific papers for careful peer review.

Apart from a lack of visible support for their claims, another area of concern is the cost of producing the fiber. Qmilch is less expensive than silk and as of last year, dresses were priced at a minimum of $290.2 However, this is the cost of a designer dress from the Mademoiselle Chichi collection, made from Qmilch, not the cost of a mass-produced dress made of the same material. The cost of producing the fiber itself is expensive (about $28 for 8 ounces) but Domaske hopes that low transportation costs for locally produced milk can bring the overall price down.7

Domaske plans to expand her business by transitioning from small batch production to quantities as large as 560 tons per annum.1 The demand for a fabric with Qmilch’s properties extends beyond fashion. Other companies have expressed interest in using Qmilch for automobile seat covers, hypoallergenic wound dressings, and hospital bed sheets. Domaske believes that “anything that you can currently make from plastics could be done from biopolymers,” such as Qmilch.3 “Anything” truly covers a broad range. She even sees potential for the use of Qmilch in the packaging industry, to create packages for children’s toys that are not toxic and therefore safer to handle.

A wonderful aspect of environmentalism, one that is not often adequately highlighted, is that it provides us with an opportunity to rethink the way we do practically everything. Because of the need to conserve our resources and protect the earth, we are re-imagining the most fundamental aspects of our day-to-day lives, from how we generate energy to how we create buildings to how we make the clothes that we wear. While I firmly believe that accountability is and should be central to environmentalism, I think it is important to note that accountability is not synonymous to sacrifice. Qmilch is a product that illustrates this principle well. Just because Qmilch uses half a gallon of water to make 2 pounds of fabric, while cotton uses 10,000 liters of water to make the same amount,7 clothes made of Qmilch are not inferior in quality or coarser to the skin than cotton is. With a change in perspective, I believe innovation, supported by rigorous, ambitious, and interdisciplinary research, can come to represent environmentalism, in the place of sacrifice.

References:

  1. Qmilk – Clothes out of milk: She knew she could do it!Culture for Friends. Last modified March 21, 2012.
  2. Diaz, Jesus. “These Women Are Wearing Clothes Made of Real Milk.” Gizmodo. Last modified July 26, 2011.
  3. Ghazali, Cynthia. “Got Qmilch? Fashion designer Anke Domaske creates new fabric made out of milk.” New York Daily News. Last modified November 15, 2011.
  4. Kutsche, Johanna. “Young German designer turns milk into clothing.” German Missions in India. Last modified October 21, 2011.
  5. Thorn, David C., Heath Ecroyd, and John A. Carver. “The two-faced nature of milk casein proteins: amyloid fibril formation and chaperone-like activity.” Abstract, Dairy Association of Australia 64, no. 1.
  6. Science. “Spinning Milk Into Silk.” July 29, 2011, 505-506.
  7. Eddy, Melissa. “Anke Domaske Makes Milk Fashion.” Huffington Post. Last modified November 15, 2011.
  8. National Research Council (U.S.). Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology. Multiple Chemical Sensitivities: Addendum to Biologic Markers in Immunotoxicology. National Academies Press, 1992.
  9. Thomas, Pat. “Antibacterial clothing – a fashionable threat to human health.” NYR Natural News, December 29, 2011.
  10. Health Benefits of Cucumber and Skin benefits.” Articlesbase. January 20, 2012.
  11. Image credit (Creative Commons): The Bees. “Silk for Gillian’s Shawl.” Flickr. Last modified April 9, 2011.
  12. Image credit (used with permission): Bremer Faserinstitut. “Microscope Images of Qmilch, Wool, and Cotton.”

Prathima Radhakrishnan is a rising third-year student from the University of Chicago majoring in biological chemistry and biological sciences with a specialization in neuroscience. She is also pursuing a minor in creative writing, and is a Senior Editor of The Triple Helix Online. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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