Saturday, July 18, 2009

MILK: It does a spinner good! Interview with Roo of Moonwood Farm about Milk Fiber

Photos are of hand dyed /handspun Milk Fiber from several Phat Fiber Artisans

The following is an interview with Roo of and Roo introduced me to milk fiber (also called milk latte and milk silk) and we can't seem to get enough of it around here! I would like to personally thank Roo for taking the time to explain things for us!

I'd like to start off by saying 'Thank You" for introducing me to this wonderful new fiber! Although I'm a very novice spinner, I have had some success spinning it! Could we talk a little bit about the texture and feel of this amazing substance?

Milk is unlike anything you've spun before! Compared to bamboo and silk which are super shiny and silky, this stuff is slinky, satiny, almost 'creamy' in consistency, amazingly soft and luxurious. It has a wonderful soft sheen that is reminiscent of the popular 'polished cotton' look from the 80's.

Straight from the manufacturer, in it's undyed form, it can look a little disappointing at first - an off white color, not as soft perhaps as you'd first thought... but when it comes out of the dye pot, is rinsed and hung to dry, it undergoes a magical transformation and truly does emerge as the butterfly of all fibers. In reality, you are just washing the manufacturer's conditioning chemicals from the fiber, but each time I touch the freshly dyed and dried pieces of top it's still a lovely surprise!

Could you tell us a little about how this fiber is made? Where does it come from?

Milk protein fiber is made from real milk. The milk is first dewatered (all the water taken out of it), after which it is skimmed. It then undergoes a new bio-engineering technique to make a protein spinning fluid which undergoes a wet spinning process through which the final high-grade textile fiber is made. While spinning, a solvent utilizing zinc ions is used - this produces zinc oxide, which gives the fibers its antibacterial properties (it is resistant to Golden Staph as well as other bacteria!) as well as durability.

No formaldehyde is present in milk, so it is considered a green product. It passed Oeko-Tex Standard 100 green certification for the international ecological textiles in April 2004.

I have noticed on our Ravelry group, even folks allergic to protein fibers can handle this fiber. Why is that?

'Protein' fiber is normally hair, fur or wool from an animal, the individual hairs have scales when looked at under a microscope. I feel that it's these scales that are causing an allergic reaction in people, they can hold on to dander, dust, greases, and anything else that the animal produces or has been exposed to.

Milk protein fiber is not grown on the animal, it comes from the milk it produces. The fibers are very smooth and do not have scales. It is considered to be more like a synthetic fiber when looked at under the microscope, therefore giving you the best of both worlds.

Looking at milk a little closer still, it has a pH of 6.8, which is the equivalent of human skin. To top it all off, it contains 18 amino acids and contains casein proteins which nourish and lubricate skin. Also, milk protein contains a natural humectant (a substance that promotes retention of moisture) which captures moisture and helps maintains our skin's natural moisture levels. I think that's pretty darned amazing!

You sell undyed milk top in your store. How is it dyed? What techniques can be used?

Although different forms of milk fiber have been around for a while (casein powder was being used in paints back in the 14th and 15th centuries, the first fibers for textile were beginning to emerge in the 1930s!), it is still relatively new to the cottage industry, and as a result we were a bit stumped about how to dye it at first. The technical documentation states: 'The fiber can be dyed in bright colors using reactive, acid or cationic dye technology'. But as fiber artists, who use different techniques than the commercial dyeing equipment, we found that some worked better than others.

ACID DYES (including Kool-Aid and Wilton Icing Color)
Seeing it's derived from a protein, our first instinct was to treat it like any other protein fiber and heartily dived in with the acid dyes. However, we discovered that it was very difficult to dye it all the way through because the dye would strike around the outside, and not make it all the way to the inside. Exceptional color variations can be made using acid dyes!

Milk absorbs the acid dyes very quickly and you'll find, for instance, that if you were to 'feed' a piece of top into a pot that already contains dye, the beginning of it will be dyed very dark, and the end will be very light, all in a matter of less than a minute. Better success has been achieved using the steaming or the microwave technique after hand painting the fiber.

A word of caution however, some people have discovered that their fiber hardens and becomes stiff, or as Dani ( fondly likes to call it, CRUSTY :) after dyeing - this has happened to me on a few occasions too, and I've narrowed it down to processing it too long using too much heat. Milk can take high temperatures very well, but not for extended periods of time.

Personally, I was not entirely happy with the effect of acid dyes on the milk. I love the way the color takes and the variegation of the colors in the fiber, but not the endless rinsing (milk LOVES to hold on to unprocessed dye!) and the slight bleeding that would often occur. So when the reactive dyes arrived for the stash of bamboo in my studio, I bit the bullet and dropped a piece of milk top into a jar filled with a reactive dye bath and set it in the sun to cook.

A whole new world opened up for me as the fiber rinsed clear almost immediately and retained the lovely color of the dye! I have not yet tried hand painting with the reactive dyes, but I love solar processing with them and have even managed to get a very dark grey, almost black, using this technique.

The very best results when drying your milk are achieved by spinning it in your salad spinner to remove excess water (although I've been know to use my hands to squeeze it out, too!), and then to hang it or lay it on a rack. During the warmer months I put it outside in the sun to dry, during the cooler months I hang it and point a fan at it. You'll probably notice some compacting of the fiber as it dries. You can tease the milk top as it dries, or you can wait until it's completely dry after which you can 'snap' it - which means slightly pre-drafting it, enough to stake any stiffness out of the fiber and re-align any strays.

Do you have any spinning tips for Milk? What kind of ratio should we use? How can we prepare the fiber for spinning?

I think that each hand spinner will find their own technique for spinning this amazing fiber, but the best 'instruction' I have read to date came from Carolyn (Greenwood Fiberworks), who wrote an amazing blog entry detailing her experience with spinning milk that she'd hand dyed. She then went on and knitted her spun fiber into the most amazing lace shawl and posted photographs of it. This blog entry can be read here (

How does milk handspun hold up? What kind of hand and drape can we expect when knitting with it?

The drape is truly phenominal, especially when lace knitted and it has a lovely weight to it. To get technical, the drape coefficient compared to cotton and silk is as follows: cotton: 16, silk: 10, milk: 8.

As far as durability goes, milk protein is no less durable than other fibers on the market, although HOW durable exactly (as handspun yarn) we don't know yet seeing it has only recently gained popularity in the cottage industry.

How do you suggest we wash it or process it to set the twist?

As with any handspun yarn and hand-knit items, I always recommend hand washing in cool water and laying it out on a rack to dry. The casein in the milk loses some of its strength when wet, so handle it gently. Dry it as soon as you can, don't leave it sitting damp because supposedly it is (like wool) susceptible to mildew. Techniques for setting the twist differs from spinner to spinner, my personal technique is to submerge the skein in luke warm water first to thoroughly wet it, then letting it sit in hot water (as hot as you hands can stand it) for 10 or 15 minutes. I then, to the horror of most of you no doubt, I dunk it in cold water before spinning it in my salad spinner to remove the excess water and laying it out to dry. This technique was taught to me by master spinner Stefania Isaacson and I've used it for every single skein I've spun, no matter what the fiber content.

Does milk blend well with other fibers?

Oh my god, does it ever! Personally I have blended it with silk, alpaca, and shetland wool, all of which have yielded amazing results. I've also used small bits of left over top in my 'farm mix' (read: kitchen sink) batts. It blends like an absolute dream and adds silkiness and sheen.

Industrially, it's been blended with cashmere, cotton, wool, ramie, angora, etc.

Where else can we get Milk Fiber?

Until 31 July 2008, you can get 15% off combed milk top by using the promotional code MILKPROMO in the following stores: * * * * * * * * * * * * *

* Denotes shops that contributed to the July No Sheep Wool Phat Fiber Box


Carly said...

Thanks for a very informative write-up Jessie & Roo!

The Mully's said...

I always wondered how they made that. I would love to try it. :) I'll check out here shop, thank you Jessie!

Silverstah said...

what a wonderful writeup, Roo! Thanks for spreading the milk fiber love! :)

LICraftgal said...

Thank you for a great article. I have to try some of this milk fiber. This was very informative.

Turtle said...

very informative! i have beeen intrigued by this yarn! can't wait to try some.