A characterization of the factors that control collagen fibril formation is critical for an understanding of tissue organization and the mechanisms that lead to fibrosis. SPARC (secreted protein acidic and rich in cysteine) is a counter-adhesive protein that binds collagens. Herein we show that collagen fibrils in SPARC-null skin from mice 1 month of age were inefficient in fibril aggregation and accumulated in the diameter range of 60-70 nm, a proposed intermediate in collagen fibril growth. In vitro, procollagen I produced by SPARC-null dermal fibroblasts demonstrated an initial preferential association with cell layers, in comparison to that produced by wild-type fibroblasts. However, the collagen I produced by SPARC-null cells was not efficiently incorporated into detergent-insoluble fractions. Coincident with an initial increase in cell association, greater amounts of total collagen I were present as processed forms in SPARC-null versus wild-type cells. Addition of recombinant SPARC reversed collagen I association with cell layers and decreased the processing of procollagen I in SPARC-null cells. Although collagen fibers formed on the surface of SPARC-null fibroblasts earlier than those on wild-type cells, fibers on SPARC-null fibroblasts did not persist. We conclude that SPARC mediates the association of procollagen I with cells, as well as its processing and incorporation into the extracellular matrix.