Skin from early and late stages of scleroderma has been shown to contain large amounts of thin (30-40 nm diameter) collagen fibrils that may be present in bundles or intermingled with large diameter fibrils (90-120 nm). The nature of these fibrils is unknown. Skin biopsies were obtained from involved areas of nine patients with progressive systemic sclerosis (PSS), one case of generalized morphea, one case of morphea, and six normal controls. Intact skin was analyzed by immunoelectron microscopy (IEM), while extracts were subjected to sodium dodecyl polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE), Western immunoblotting, radioimmunoassay (RIA), and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). Fine fibrils 20-40 nm in diameter in the mid to lower dermis of scleroderma skin were labeled with antibodies directed against the aminopropeptide (AP) of type III procollagen. Antibodies directed against the AP of type I procollagen labelled fine fibrils in the lower dermis. Larger fibrils (80-120 nm) did not label. pN alpha 1 (III) was found to be present in both normal and scleroderma skin. Extracts of scleroderma skin contained 2.5 times the amount of pN (III) collagen and 3.0 times the amount of fibronectin as did extracts of normal skin. The data indicate that the increase in thin fibrils in scleroderma skin is most likely due to an increase in type III collagen, which retains the AP at its surface.