Aralac: The "wool" made from milk

Yesterday, Cory posted a vintage ad for boys' hats and accessories, which included a small selection of ties made from something called "Aralac". I didn't think much of it, until I noticed J. Brad Hicks' comment pointing out that Aralac was a synthetic wool made from cheese. Which was not a joke.

Seriously. It'll make more sense once you understand how the stuff was actually made.

Think about it this way: Wool (the actual kind, that comes from sheep) is a protein. So is casein, which is found in milk. Making Aralac is basically about getting the protein casein to behave like the protein wool. In 1937, Time magazine described how the process worked:

Having practically the same chemical composition as wool, it is made by mixing acid with skim milk. This extracts the casein, which looks like pot cheese. Evaporated to crystals, it is pulverized and dissolved into a molasses consistency, then forced through spinnerets like macaroni, passed through a hardening chemical bath, cut into fibres of any desired length. From 100 pounds of skim milk come 3.7 pounds of casein which converts to the same weight of lanital. [Aralac was also called Lanital.]

Casein isn't cheese, as J. Brad Hicks described it. Instead, it's the stuff that makes cheese happen. If milk is the liquid and cheese the solid, casein is the stuff that facilitates the transition — the casein in milk clumps together and solidifies into cheese.

So, in a way, Aralac really was cloth made from cheese. During World War II, when wool was scarce, it made a lot of sense to buy Aralac — which was significantly cheaper and easier to get a hold of.

Why don't we wear Aralac today? Couple reasons. First off, it wasn't a particularly strong fiber. According the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, Aralac fibers were only about 10% as strong as natural wool, so the stuff was usually mixed in a wool-Aralac blend to improve durability. And, despite assurances to the contrary in that 1937 Time story I quoted above, Smithsonian says Aralac was a royal pain to successfully dye.

It's also worth noting that Aralac isn't totally gone. In fact, there's a German company trying to market QMilch — a fabric made from milk that isn't deemed high enough quality to be sold as food. It's apparently more like silk than wool.

The Time magazine story is behind a paywall, but you can read a 1944 Life magazine piece on Aralac for free at Google Books.
• Smithsonian on H. Irving Crane, inventor of Aralac
The Powerhouse Museum on Aralac and other synthetic fibers
Read a brochure on Aralac from the 1950s

Special thanks to J. Brad Hicks and the Knitty Professors blog


  1. I know there is at least one yarn for knitting with a milk-based fiber included with the wool, but I don’t know that it’s trying to mimic wool as such. (I haven’t used it myself, though I’ve used some interesting fibers. ;))

  2. A nearby factory produced “Erinoid” plastics which were casein based. The colours were really amazing when you compare them to modern petro-chemical plastics. The factory closed in 1980 even though it was still profitable. So why did it close? It was acquired by British Petroleum who shut the factory down, presumably to kill off the competition.

    1. As a Uniqlo employee and someone who is currently wearing a Heattech shirt, I sadly have to dispute this assertion. Heattech is made of 40% acrylic, 6% elastane (spandex), 21% viscose (rayon), and 33% polyester. (Aside: Yes, I know that off the top of my head. Uniqlo training is a batshit crazy experience. It’s basically a six-week cult indoctrination featuring cute illustrations and funny “Engrish”.)  I might be wrong, but I do not know of a manufacturing process for any of these synthetics that uses milk proteins. Rayon is made from wood pulp which is pretty cool. But, sadly, I’m not wearing a milk shirt. 

        1. Well, there you go. I am a gentleman who works in the men’s department, hence my ignorance of the women’s Heattech line. So, @twitter-95328997:disqus is correct in the case of women’s Heattech. I’ve actually wondered why the women’s line is a bit softer than the men’s, and now I know. It’s because they have cheese clothes. 

          Edit: Also, as an aside, Heattech is really awesome. It’s quite good for layering or sleeping in. (Not a shill for Uniqlo, the capacity in which I work for the company does not grant me any benefits from sales. I just honestly dig the line. ((But, to be fair, I pay a substantially discounted price for anything I buy, so keep that in mind when considering the validity of my endorsement.)))

          1. Shatnez

            “Neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woolen come upon thee.”
            — Leviticus 19:19
            — Deuteronomy 22:11

            Probably derived from common law at the time of writing which forbade looking like a Canaanite which was:

            “the heathen priests adorned themselves with garments containing vegetable and animal materials, while they held in their hand a seal of mineral. This you will find written in their books”
            — Levicitcus 20:23

            Soooooo… if you’re a terribly religious person in a cloth store: you’re gonna have a bad time.

            P.S. What’s it with religion and their dissing of other religions? I mean I get dissing religion if you’re an atheist. But dissing a religion if you’re a religion? Sounds like walking on terribly thin thin ice.

          2. Cheeseburgers are a ‘sin’ I indulge in – no shame, maybe a little guilt. 

            If cheesburgers are wrong, I don’t want to be right. 

            Supposedly, in paradise, cheeseburgers will not be a sin. 

            I say ‘why wait’? 

            Even if I do eat cheeseburgers — heaven, or if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing, candy-land, happy-piggy-land, pure-land…gates will not be closed.

            Actually, me and mine don’t believe in heaven anyway. Purgatory, at least in the abstract sense – yeah, sure.

            forgot to say…pic is of some of the me-and-mine trembling b4 G-d

          3. Real men wear whatever they want!

            (Females are forbidden to wear anything in public – or Accumulate Profit.)

  3. Maggie, there’s a great Pathé news real from 1937 announcing the invention of milk wool in Italy:

    The good stuff starts at around 2:25.

    Apparently, Mussolini was counting on this as an option for clothing production for the axis powers, but it could never compete with the insulation properties of real wool — maybe a micro-structure thing from the extrusion of the protein. I know that wool has little scales on the fibers which help it to felt, and to fluff up, and presumably, fibers extruded from smooth nozzles would not have any interesting surface character.

  4. I handspin different fibers and have tried as many fibers as I could get my hands on including milk fiber. It is silky in hand and shiny as well, though I found it a bit squeaky in the way rayon is. Here’s a data sheet on the stuff.

    You can purchase your own here . . .

    1. The book “The Gecko’s Foot” has a chapter on spider silk, and how every attempt so far has been a failure (but there’s still hope that maybe someday somebody will figure out how to make the stuff).  The goats were one of the more high-profile and expensive failures.

  5. Casein was also used to make Clear “Glass” for WWII fighter cockpits and the glass fronts for ball turrets, (think Plexiglass” type material

  6. A couple notes.

    1) QMilch is pronounced the same way as Kuhmilch which is Cowmilk (yes a very creative company name, throw a Q and things will be fine)

    2) The QMilch homepage features a scantily clad model laying on white stuff, cloth in white gowns holding a crystal decanter filled with milk. It’s got me confused the heck. It’s more wtf worthy than the original ad :) 

  7. Main thing I notice is that the gentlemen in the ad are wearing their pants a bit above the waist instead of down around the hips. Which makes me wonder if grandpas do this because they’re merely out of touch with current fashion trends rather than it being something that is caused by the aging process.  Are we going to have in the future old men running around with their underwear showing as their pants hang off half way between the hips and the knee?

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