Corona: The Unlikely Connection Between Face Masks and Communist East Germany
Three decades on from the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, the communist period in the east has largely been consigned to history. But there is one significant trace of the socialist past still evident in the world’s reaction to the coronavirus.
As recently researched for a story in German news magazine Der Spiegel, material and procedures used in making today’s sanitary face masks trace their history back to Communist East Germany.
One of the many goods in short supply in the socialist state was jute, forcing eastern German textile manufacturers to come up with a substitute, a synthetic, spunbonded, melted polymide fleece. It was called “Kridee” after its inventors.
“Cotton being scarce, polyamide fibers were developed there to meet demand,” explains Germany Trade & Invest health industry expert Gabriel Flemming.
In 1974, in exchange for hard foreign currency and Western equipment, the East Germans licensed the fabric to West German company Reifenhäuser and its subsidiary Reicofil, which used polypropylene in the production process and had started negotiations after making contact at one of Germany’s many international trade fairs.
Eleven years later, in 1985, Reicofil developed the first machines to produce the synthetic fabric. Today, more than 75 percent of all the medicinal and hygienic masks worldwide are made using Reicofil machines – not bad for a product that originated in efforts to get round an annoying shortage.
And Reicofil’s prominence has, of course, only been bolstered by the current pandemic.
“In the wake of COVID19, mass produced disposable protective masks previously in high supply abruptly became scarce,” says Flemming. “Suddenly, hidden champions like Reicofil of the Reifenhäuser Group are catapulted onto a national level of attention. With their manufacturing lines needed for the production of fleece textiles, The company has successfully grown to a 75% global market share. Melt-blown fleece, for example, is an essential product for protective mask makers.”
Moreover, Flemming thinks that institutions from the eastern part of Germany could be a source of further innovation.
“Today, non-profit Clinical Research Organizations like Sächsisches Textilforschungsinstitut (STFI) in Chemnitz or Thüringisches Institut für Textil- und Kunststoff-Forschung (TITK) in Rudolstadt are ready to co-develop medical grade special textiles, testing and manufacturing included,” Flemming says.