Any market and industry benefits from supply diversification, so major textile and clothing companies can take heart from continued innovation amongst fibre and fabric producers into new material sources.

This extends, for instance, to sourcing material from unusual places such as milk and fishing nets, while creating more opportunities for traditional sources such as flax.

A good example is the Italy-based Aquafil Group and the Netherlands-based ECNC Group and Star Sock, who announced in March a Healthy Seas initiative to turn marine waste, particularly fishing nets, into Aquafil's Econyl yarn - a fibre made from nylon waste.

The initiative has three phases, including operating a pilot scheme in regions of the North Sea (off the Netherlands and Belgium), the Adriatic Sea (off Italy, Slovenia and Croatia) and the Mediterranean Sea (off the Spanish coast).

It also envisages a future expansion to new coastal areas, while encouraging fishing fleets to collect rather than discard nets so that materials are available later. It is also formalising the scheme through government regulation mandating the recycling of nets.

The initiative's organisers claim there are about 640,000 tonnes of abandoned fishing nets in the world's oceans - one-tenth of all marine litter - which can harm marine animals for hundreds of years, while being a huge waste of material.

Econyl yarn can be made into socks, swimwear and underwear, while offering identical chemical and performance characteristics to traditional nylon, according to the company. The key to its recycling technique is a depolymerisation process that allows a "very high ratio" of nylon output compared to the waste input, it says.

Milk proteins 
Meanwhile, Germany-based Qmilch has created a groundbreaking biodegradable fibre made from the proteins in waste milk. "Qmilk fibre combines the benefits of wool and silk fibre" in terms of durability and feel, explains Anke Domaske, spokesperson for Qmilch.

Qmilk fibre also offers natural antibacterial properties, natural ultra-violet (UV) protection, strong water and dye absorption, and a light weight - less than wool or silk at 1.17 grammes per cubic centimetre.

The company has been testing and building up production aiming to enter the market by spring of 2014.

Domaske says the company expects to be producing 1,000 tonnes of fibre per year once a Hannover plant - now under construction - is complete. It will be targeting, among other applications, clothing (such as lingerie and sportswear) and home textiles.

"We have several hundred customers and interests; we get good feedback from the textile industry," she adds. Manufacturers can either use the Qmilk fibre alone or blend it with other fibres - the most preferred blend being with wool, she says.

Qmilch collects the milk proteins in a powder form from dairies around Germany, obtaining materials which would otherwise be wasted - for instance, milk that does not meet food standards and cannot be consumed. "In Germany alone, it's about 2m tonnes every year that has to be wasted...we are working on a system to collect the milk protein directly at farms," she says.

Comparing the process to making noodles, she adds: "You have a flour [the protein powder]; you add water; and you mix everything in the machine, and then you get a dough; and that's pushed through a spinneret."

While Qmilch's operations are focused on Germany at the moment, Domaske says the technology could be used in other countries.

"There are many countries that have a lot of problems with milk production...like in India, a lot of milk turns sour because they don't have [adequate] cooling systems...in every country there are different reasons why milk turns sour or why it cannot be used as a food."

Crailar flax
Meanwhile in Canada and the US, Crailar has produced a fibre alternative to cotton made from flax, which has been traditionally been easy to weave into linen but difficult to knit like cotton, notes Jay Nalbach, Crailar's chief marketing officer.

The company has developed a process to remove lignins from the flax, making the fibre comparably soft to cotton and similar to process.

It currently uses third party contractors to produce its flax but plans to expand, announcing in September it is considering expanding production into Europe, whilst already building in-house capacity in South Carolina in the US.

According to a company communiqué, this US facility could produce more than 250,000 pounds (about 113.40 kilogrammes) of Crailar flax fibre per week - almost double current production, explains Nalbach - with room to expand.

Crailar currently sources flax from North America and has exported its fibre to Japan, Pakistan, Turkey, China, Spain, India, South Korea and Brazil, while also serving American customers.

Crailar claims its flax outperforms cotton in wicking away moisture and holding its shape - reducing knitwear shrinkage by 50% in some cases. "We're still waiting for some of the woven perspectives and tests to come back, but it's very promising that all of our partners in all applications will see a marked benefit from the inclusion of Crailar flax over their typical fibre," notes Nalbach.

Crailar is not alone in wanting to incorporate flax into blends with other fibres that can create new quality options for textile manufacturing, says Frank Riccio, president of the New York-based Danforth Group, a supplier of specialty fibres and pulps to the paper, textile, nonwovens and composite materials industries.

These include Belarus-based Gronitex and Lithuania-based Baltic Flax, who produce cottonised flax fibre. Their main challenge is ensuring this flax can be efficiently processed on cotton spinning frames, which has not been possible until now.

Which is all well and good, but Riccio sounds a note of caution. A key challenge for such innovators of fibre blends and alternatives to natural fibres is keeping down costs.

"If you're selling it based on the premise that it's just like cotton, but you have to go through 20 steps to make it just like cotton, it may be too expensive in the end," he says, adding "cost is a driving factor in the industry."

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