An unexpected beginning
It was, one might think, a life of two imperfectly matched disciplines. Anke Domaske was studying microbiology but designing fashion in her spare time, so successfully that, aged 19, she had her own label that was selling well in Japan. ‘I thought I’d have to decide between the two eventually, but then something happened that helped me combine them,’ says the Hanover-based entrepreneur. That something was her stepfather experiencing a serious illness and finding himself suddenly allergic to the fibres in much of his clothing. Domaske investigated and developed a surprising solution: a fibre made from milk.
She concedes that it sounds like a crazy idea: taking waste milk which has been deemed unfit for human consumption and processing its casein protein to create a fibre. But, as she discovered via a YouTube video, it has in fact been done before, in Germany during the 1930s. ‘It was big for a while, until the ease and cheaper cost of processing polyester basically outclassed it,’ she explains. ‘That’s why not many people have heard of it now. But when I looked into it more I found that even then its production involved chemical baths. And I was after something chemically neutral. So many of today’s fabrics, even the so-called natural ones, have actually been treated with all sorts of pesticides.’
After approaching various experts, who told her that a chemical-free milk casein-based fibre product probably couldn’t be made, Domaske decided to try to make it herself. Using a vat, a mixer and a jam thermometer bought from a grocery store for €200, she became a kitchen-table start-up. ‘I thought that my studies would help because, even if you’re dealing with natural ingredients, it’s still a chemical process at work,’ she explains. ‘I have a lot more respect for textile makers now. Creating fibres thinner than a human hair that can survive a washing machine isn’t easy.’
A fabulous fabric
After 10 months of experimentation, she had created Qmilk fibre, and clothing made from it will go on sale this year. And she has also explored the further potential of milk proteins in a cosmetics line of milk-based, all-natural base creams launched after three years of development.
Both the fibre and the moisturisers, claims Domaske, exhibit remarkable properties. The fibre can be turned into 100% milk-based cloth but also blends invisibly with wool or silk. It wicks moisture and is temperature regulating, making it extremely comfortable to wear all year round. It has the tensile strength of wool. It’s anti-bacterial, making it a potential material for hospital bedding or bandages. It’s resistant to both chemicals and flames, offering possibilities for use in technical clothing or in upholstery.
And as for the moisturiser, which Domaske’s stepfather swears by, milk proteins have now been shown to regulate acids in the skin. ‘The stories about Cleopatra bathing in ass’s milk have now been proven scientifically,’ says the designer, who, while conceding that the cosmetics industry is notorious for making all sorts of grand claims, says it also reduces redness and relieves itching. She speaks from personal experience. ‘I’ve had skin problems all my life and now I don’t. So I’m very happy with it,’ she says. The same can be said for her customers, some of whom get through a pot every month. ‘Part of the appeal is the product’s simplicity. You look at the ingredients in most cosmetics and, unless you’re trained in chemistry, it’s hard to know what any of them are. We add some natural oils and that’s it. Like the fibre, part of society’s problem is that people use a lot of chemicals but don’t look into the benefits of natural products already there.’
Whether worn or rubbed in, Qmilk could hardly be a more timely example of what you can get when you do look into those benefits. There is a demand for this kind of product now. ‘There have been two trends in clothing recently: one for less disposable clothing and one for thinking about quality and sustainable production methods,’ says Domaske. ‘And while the whole eco-friendly concept has had a dusty image, the last few years have seen that really change too. There’s a growing awareness of the chemicals used in both clothing and cosmetics – and a growing preference for not having them on our bodies.’