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Casein plastic headscarves, 1935 - 1940
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Object statement
Headscarves (4), 'Lanital', printed synthetic fabric, rayon / casein, made by Snia Viscosa, Italy, 1935-1940
Plastics have been described as "materials that can be moulded or shaped into different forms under pressure or heat." They were a cultural phenomenon in the twentieth century when they changed the way objects were produced, designed and used. It was also in the twentieth century that most plastic products moved away from natural raw materials to synthetically produced ones.

The museum's plastics collection began in the 1930s with the acquisition of specimens of plastic raw materials and finished products. The collection was driven largely by Arthur de Ramon Penfold (1890-1980), a former industrial chemist, who worked as curator and later director of the museum from 1927 until 1955.

Synthetic fibres comprised an important part of the Museum's plastic collection. Arthur Penfold stated "the production of synthetic fibres is still more or less in its infancy, the future is unpredictable. They have revolutionised women's dress; they have caused an ever-widening range of attractive fibres to be made available at prices to suit the pockets of all classes in all countries. The textile market appears to be an expanding one; the capacity of the world to absorb new fibres is unknown".

These scarves are made from Lanital, a synthetic fibre made from the milk protein casein. Lanital was developed in Italy in the 1930s and became a popular material to mix with wool and fur to create inexpensive clothing and textiles.

These objects are a part of a large collection of plastics and plastic moulding powders acquired by the museum during Arthur Penfold's career. This collection gives an insight into a period of great social, material, technological and scientific development as well as the collecting practices of the museum at the time. Plastics continues to be an area that is explored and represented in the museum's collection, however today it reflects some of the more ambivalent attitudes towards plastics and their use, particularly in regards to the environment and sustainability.


Sunday Telegraph, 'For plastics he saw great things', 11 November 1945.
M. Kaufman, the First Century of Plastics, The Plastics Institute, London, 1963. pg55
Penfold, A. R., 'Plastics and Synthetic Fibres', A.H. Pettifer, Government Printer, Sydney, 1956

Erika Dicker
Assistant Curator, May 2008.
During their development in 1930s, 40s, and 50s, synthetic fibres offered a cost effective solution to using natural materials, which were becoming increasingly expensive. Wool became scarce during World War II, owing to the vast amounts that were required to make military uniforms. Manufacturers quickly discovered new cheap and easily obtainable raw materials to use in the creation of textiles. Raw materials, such as casein from skim milk or protein from peanuts, could be dispersed in a solution of caustic soda and then have carbon disulphide added. The solution was then aged, and forced through a sieve like apparatus called a 'spinneret'. The resulting filaments could then be spun on a spinning machine. The synthetic fibres were then mixed with wool, rayon, or cotton to produce textiles that were used in numerous applications.

These scarves are made from Lanital. Lanital was trade marked in 1937 by Italian firm Snia Viscosa, who were one of the worlds largest producers of synthetic fibres in the 1930s.

Lanital is a fibre made from Milk, or more specifically the protein Casein, found in milk. Casein can be treated with alkalis and chemicals to be made into a fibre that closely resembles wool in its chemical composition. This technology was first developed in Italy, and the resulting textiles were also known as 'Italian Wool'.

In 1935, the first experimental Lanital fibres possessed only 10 percent the strength of natural wool. Eventually it was found that a mix of 50% Lanital and 50% wool produced a much more desirable textile. The plastic properties of casein gave the textile a permanent creasing ability, and improved its fineness. One of the benefits of the casein fibre was that it could be easily mixed with other fibres. Arthur Penfold saw a great opportunity for the rabbit fur industry to utilise these new fibres, as the rabbit population was being dramatically decreased by the introduction of the myxomatosis virus at the time. He predicted correctly and the casein fibre became an important factor in the fur felt and wool fur hat industry, when rabbit fur became scarce in the late 1940s early 1950s. Real fur and wool was mixed with the casein fibre to produce a product almost equal in quality, and at a cheaper production cost.

The manufacture of Lanital stopped after World War II but resumed again in 1952 under the name 'Merinova'. Similar fibres were in manufacture at the same time under names such as 'Fibrolane' and 'Casolana', and 'Aralac'.

Arthur Penfold realised the benefits of using casein in synthetic fibres, stating that "there are great possibilities when you realise a cow, in the course of its productive life, could produce about forty suits."

Penfold, A. R., 'Plastics and Synthetic Fibres', A.H. Pettifer, Government Printer, Sydney, 1956
Lanital, in Time Magazine, December, 1937.
It is often perceived that plastics are a material of the twentieth century; however, its beginnings go back to eighteenth century Europe and conditions created by rapid industrialisation, scientific curiosity and opportunities to create great wealth through innovative and entrepreneurial ideas. Many of the semi-synthetic plastics of the nineteenth century and the synthetic plastics of the twentieth century were influenced by earlier manufacturing methods of making products out of natural plastics such as horn and tortoiseshell. The development of synthetic plastics, however, allowed for a product that was not subject to availability and fluctuating costs.

The Australian plastics processing industry began around 1917, growing significantly after World War Two. In 1939 production of plastics was around one thousand tonnes per year and fifty years later it had grown to around nine hundred thousand tonnes . New innovations in plastics, a rising population and increasing home ownership and household consumption were major influences on this growth. Today the plastics industry is one of Australia's largest manufacturing sectors.

Between 26 and 28 September 1934, the Sydney Technical College and the museum collaborated to develop what was advocated as the first Plastics Industry Exhibition in Australia. It is likely that this sample was displayed during this exhibition, along with the first permanent plastics display established at the museum. This exhibition was advocated as the first plastics exhibition in Australia. The museum contributed the majority of the exhibits, which included colourful moulded objects and synthetic resin powders. The highlight of the exhibition was a standard hydraulic press that produced synthetic resin objects while the audience watched. This was loaned by John Heine and Son and run by staff from the College's Mechanical Engineering department. It utilised dies made by College students and synthetic moulding resin powders from local plastic companies. A Conversazione was held on the evening of 26th September, 1934 'to which prominent citizens, including representatives of the Plastics Industry were invited', and at which both Penfold and Dr N H Lang gave lectures on the plastics industry

A permanent display of plastics was established at the museum, and was described by the Sunday Telegraph as 'the best display of plastics and fibres in the world show(ing) the complete history of plastics from first experiments to the latest developments' . Penfold was greatly concerned with the technical and commercial development of local industries, such as the plastics industry, and believed that the museum was 'destined to play a conspicuous part in bringing Science to the aid of industry' through both research and display.

In December 1944 Penfold, along with Mr C H Hunt of Newcastle Technical College, was commissioned by the NSW Government to investigate overseas technological trends in the plastic industry, including the training of technical personnel, throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. On his return Penfold continued to promote the importance of Australia's development of a vigorous research and training program in developing local technical expertise arguing that: 'The field is so vast and the potentialities of plastics is so promising, that no effort should be spared to provide adequate training for all persons wishing to acquire a knowledge of these new materials' .

Chemlink Consultants, Australia's Chemical Industry - History and development, available at http://www.chemlink.com.au/chemhist.htm, accessed 08/08/2007.
Penfold, A. R., 'Reports on Plastics Investigation, 1945, in the United States of America, Canada and the United Kingdom', 31/10/1945
Penfold, A. R., paper, 'Recent Developments of Plastics Overseas', delivered before the Plastics Institute of Australia, NSW Section, 29/11/1945
Penfold, A. R., 'The Influence of Science Museums on Industry', read at the first Biannual Conference of International Council on Museums, 1948
Sunday Telegraph, 'For plastics he saw great things', 11/11/1945
Sydney Technological Museum, Annual Report, 1934

 This text content licensed under CC BY-NC.

Headscarves (4), 'Lanital', printed synthetic fabric, rayon / casein, made by Snia Viscosa, Italy, 1935-1940

A set of four Lanital synthetic printed headscarves made
Production date
1935 - 1940

 This text content licensed under CC BY-SA.
Acquisition credit line
Gift of AR Penfold, 1961
+ Plastics technology
+ Penfold, Arthur
+ Scarves
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{{cite web |url=https://ma.as/187694 |title=Casein plastic headscarves |author=Powerhouse Museum |accessdate=21 February 2017 |publisher=Powerhouse Museum, Australia}}

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