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close this bookBlending of New and Traditional Technologies - Case Studies (ILO - WEP, 1984, 312 p.)
close this folderPART 2: CASE STUDIES
View the documentChapter 3. Application of microcomputers to Portugal’s agricultural management*
View the documentChapter 4. Off-line uses of microcomputers in selected developing countries*
View the documentChapter 5. The use of personal computers in Italian biogas plants*
View the documentChapter 6. Microelectronics in textile production: A family firm (United Kingdom) and cottage industry with AVL looms (United States)
View the documentChapter 7. Microelectronics in small/medium enterprises in the United Kingdom*
View the documentChapter 8. Integration of old and new technologies in the Italian (Prato) textile industry*
View the documentChapter 9. The use of numerically controlled machines on traditional lathes: The Brazilian capital goods industry*
View the documentChapter 10. Electronic load-controlled mini-hydroelectric projects: Experiences from Colombia, Sri Lanka and Thailand*
View the documentChapter 11. The application of biotechnology to metal extraction: The case of the Andean countries*
View the documentChapter 12. Cloning of Palm Oil Trees in Malaysia*
View the documentChapter 13. Technological Change in Palm Oil in Costa Rica*
View the documentChapter 14. Biotechnology applications to some African fermented foods*
View the documentChapter 15. Use of satellite remote-sensing techniques in West Africa*
View the documentChapter 16. India’s rural educational television broadcasting via satellites*
View the documentChapter 17. New construction materials for developing countries*
View the documentChapter 18. Photovoltaic solar-powered pump irrigation in Pakistan*
View the documentChapter 19. Photovoltaic power supply to a village in Upper Volta*

Chapter 8. Integration of old and new technologies in the Italian (Prato) textile industry*

* Prepared by Umberto Colombo and Danielle Mazzonis, Italian Commission for Nuclear and Alternative Energy Sources (ENEA).

THE AREA OF Prato, in the Italian region of Tuscany, is the largest concentration of textile industry in Italy. Today, about half of all Italian wool is produced there, whereas in 1950 Prato accounted for only 20 per cent of Italian output. With a population of about 300,000 (of which half is work force) over an area of 694 square kilometres, across the Florence and Pistoia provinces, the area of Prato provides employment in textile businesses to 70,000 people (75 per cent of workers in all manufacturing firms) and another 20,000 are employed in supporting services, e.g. transport, banks and independent textile mechanics.

Prato has a decentralised industrial organisation with 15,000 to 20,000 firms, each usually very small and employing few workers. There are very few vertically integrated firms. Prato has a highly efficient production organisation. In the thousands of businesses which are mostly family concerns (a structure very similar to that of Third World countries), traditional forms of production, organisation, social relations and technologies survive side by side with very advanced production technologies and marketing systems. This applies also to textile industry. It is worth noting that Prato has a wool-processing tradition dating back to the twelfth century. This makes Prato an interesting case of blending of new with old technologies which are deeply rooted in the local historical tradition and social structure. The relevance of the Prato case is stressed also by the success of its economic activity, especially in the last 20 years when structural crisis and increasing competition from developing countries led to the decline of most European textile districts.


A brief description of the pattern of textile (wool in particular) production in Prato is needed in order to show the technical and social characteristics of the local industrial structure. This will highlight the existing mix of old and new technologies and the way in which innovations develop.

The technical process of wool production in Prato includes four main phases: the processing of raw materials, manufacturing of yarns and fabrics and finishing. First, the materials used are man-made fibres and new wool each accounting for 20 per cent of all production, and reclaimed wool, the remaining 60 per cent.1 Reclaimed wool from rags is the most important (and most peculiar) material for Prato production, where 102,000 to 143,000 metric tonnes per year are imported. After the processing, 51,000 to 71,000 metric tonnes can be used for production, an amount roughly equal to the entire Italian domestic consumption of new wool.2

The reclaimed wool processing involves the following operations: the washing of dirty wool and the sorting, carbonising and grinding of rags. When required, the material may also be dyed. The second phase of the cycle is spinning. The materials may be blended before combing or carding. The yarn can then be treated in a variety of ways, from doubling to twisting and winding. In the following phase, the fabric is produced. Carded fabric is warped and weaved; worsted fabric is reeled and knitted. The fourth phase, that is, finishing, includes fulling, cleaning, cutting, calendering, and, where required, dyeing. Then the product is ready for the market.

As noted above, this process of production is organised in a highly fragmented structure. There are very few large firms with an integrated production cycle from raw materials processing to finishing and employing 200 or more workers. More common are the firms who control only one section of the process and sub-contract the other phases, thus decentralising specific types of production.

On the whole, Prato firms with more than 100 employees account for only 15.3 per cent of total employment and 0.4 per cent of all plants. A few firms can also be found in the group employing 51 to 100 workers: these account for 0.8 per cent of all plants and 11.1 per cent of all employment, while the shares of the firms employing 21 to 50 workers are 2.9 per cent and 18.8 per cent respectively. The small businesses employing 11 to 20 workers represent 12.9 per cent of all employees and 4.1 per cent of all plants. The bulk of textile production is thus performed in very small concerns, with fewer than ten workers, which account for 91.8 per cent of plants and 42.5 per cent of total employment.3 Thus, Prato textile production is mainly performed at home, using family labour (largely women and sometimes also children) or in small artisan shops (businesses employing fewer than 15 workers, subject to special fiscal and labour regulations).

The small businesses usually perform only one specific operation which, however, is not always technologically backward and labour-intensive. Often the most advanced looms can be found in very small weaving shops. Small-scale production may be efficient even when the machines are older. In some cases, the artisans may work almost entirely for single large firms which had often employed them in the past, lent them money to buy the machines (or directly sold the old ones to them) and which guaranteed them minimum orders. For the larger firm, the availability of contract workers of this kind greatly increases the flexibility of its production, and reduces the adverse effects of market fluctuations.

Some medium-sized firms may also be dependent on contract work but they generally do not depend on a single company and perform more than one single operation.

The supply of raw materials and the marketing of finished products, as well as the control over the overall cycle of production are the functions of a very specific entrepreneur, the “merchant converter” (impannatore), a figure similar to a “medieval merchant”.4 He takes orders from the clients and, in search of new markets, he plans specific products (often fashion goods) for which he orders the raw materials, organises the production and distributes the subcontracting work. In Prato, there are about 500 of these “converters”; the medium size of an impannatore enterprise is about 10 to 20 office and warehouse employees. They also play a very important role in the dissemination of information on the processes of production and on the possible technological innovations.

It must be added that a number of associations have an important part to play in encouraging technological innovation in Prato. They are the employers’ and artisans’ associations and a research company, Societa Tecnotessile, set up by a national investment bank later joined by the Chamber of Commerce and local banks.

A number of services such as banking, insurance, a central depurator, a general warehouse and cooperative purchases of raw materials and machinery have also developed around the textile production in the Prato area.


In a process of production so fragmented in separate operations, performed in different shops and, with varying techniques, a comparison between different technologies and an evaluation of the impact of innovation are not easy.

It is particularly difficult because much innovation in Prato does not simply involve the replacement of old by new machinery. Rather, it is a continuing transformation and improvement of existing equipment. The reasons for this are: the small size of most businesses; the high cost of new machinery;5 the need to adapt the equipment to the specific production of each firm and the highly-skilled and innovative environment of the Prato area, which makes possible this progressive and gradual upgrading of technologies to minimise costs.

In this section, the technology used in the main operations of the production cycle of Prato and the possibilities of innovation are discussed. In the first phase, in spite of all the current innovations, the preliminary sorting of rags is still entirely done by hand by very skilled and experienced workers. In recent years in the processing of raw materials, the carbonising of reclaimed wool has become more efficient with the replacement of old ovens by new and larger ones with continuing processing which minimises the number of loadings and unloadings reducing waste and heat dispersion.6 A new integrated machine (produced by an Italian firm) is now available for the entire process. Thus far, however, its high cost has discouraged its application in the newest carbonising methods in Prato.

An increase in the cylinder diameter has allowed greater productivity in the subsequent grinding operation when the rags pass on to a cylinder with sharp needles in order to separate the fibres. This innovation was developed by machine-tool producers of the Prato area.

In the second phase of the cycle, that is, spinning, the technology used by most Prato firms is certainly not the most advanced. The old selfacting machine is still most widely used; the ring spinning is not largely diffused and the most advanced open-end spinning still needs to be adapted to the less homogeneous wool which is largely obtained from reclaimed rags.7 Thus, the carding machines are the oldest type of equipment in the local textile machinery. According to the 1981 Italian Census almost 30 per cent of them were produced before 1960, 27 per cent between 1961 and 1970 and less than 36.9 per cent in the 1970s. This happened in spite of the three work shifts around the clock in the large majority of carding businesses, which would allow an adequate technological renewal through this intensive use of machinery.8

A different picture emerges from the same Census data for the spinning machines, which were mainly (53 per cent) built after 1976 and another quarter were built between 1971 and 1975.9 Even in the old selfacting machines, however, a number of innovations have greatly improved their efficiency. In particular, the use of engines with continuous current and electronic devices of control and command have replaced many electro-mechanic tools increasing reliability and productivity.10

Even though the increase in the number of machines controlled by a single worker has dramatically reduced unit labour costs and increased productivity, the high cost of new machines and the small size of firms still act as an obstacle to the introduction of new technologies. In Prato, this problem has often been solved through the refurbishing of old machines. In the case of spinning, many selfacting machines are equipped with new engines with continuous current, and have been lengthened in order to increase the number of spindles from 600 to 800. The cost of such adaptations is usually relatively low but these changes are likely to occur only in a highly innovative business environment and with the availability of high skills and experience.

It is important to note that electronics technologies are being gradually introduced in textile production in Prato. For instance, in spinning a significant reduction in dead times has been achieved by the introduction of electronics controls replacing the old electrical relays which were prone to accidental stops due to the physical effect of dust.

A more detailed analysis can now be made comparing the different technologies used in the third phase of the production cycle namely, the manufacturing of the fabric. The number, characteristics and productivity of looms used by Prato firms provide the framework for comparing the performances of different weaving technologies.

According to a 1982 survey Prato has 11,690 looms, all of which are in artisan workshops.11 However, a few hundred looms are also used in large factories, but a common case is that of an artisan working with his family at home or in a rented space where he operates a few looms. The number of these artisan firms, 5,242 with 9,119 workers, provides a picture of even higher fragmentation of Prato textile production.

Even though the average number of looms per firm appears to be two to three, a more detailed investigation based on local sources suggests that the number of firms may be artificially inflated by the splitting of family business to obtain fiscal and credit benefits. Thus, a more realistic estimate suggests that each family business has an average of four looms, which is the number of machines that may be controlled by a single worker with the present technology.

The “age” of the looms reveals that 1,400 were built before 1960, 2,600 between 1961 and 1970 and 6,900 between 1971 and 1980. Forty per cent of the looms have been bought second hand from other firms. As reported by the above survey, the technical characteristics of the looms show that 7,147 are new shuttleless looms and 4,543 are older shuttle looms.

A deeper analysis of the technical aspects of weaving firms in Prato has recently been done on the basis of a sample of Prato artisan firms.12 The looms are classified into five groups, their average productivity estimated (in number of plot insertions per minute) and their distribution in Prato firms analysed. Table 8.1 shows these data by type of loom. The gains in productivity resulting from the replacement of old shuttle looms by newer ones (mainly the shuttleless looms) are evident. The looms of type 3 more than double the number of plot insertions compared with the shuttle looms, and raise them by 50 per cent compared with the semi-automatic shuttle loom (type 2). Furthermore, the more advanced looms result in considerable savings of labour.

Table 8.1. Distribution of types of looms

Type of loom

Number of plot insertions per minute

Per cent distribution among all
Prato firms

Per cent distribution among firms with five looms or less

Per cent distribution among firms with more than five looms

Type 1.
Shuttle Loom





Type 2.
Shuttle loom





Type 3.
Shuttleless loom





Type 4.
Sultzer loom





Type 5.





Source: CNA: Indagine sulle aziende agricole artigiane di tessitura dell’area tessile pratese, Prato, 1981.

From the same table we can see that more than half of all looms used are modern shuttleless looms, even though 30 per cent are still accounted for by older shuttle looms. The older models operate almost entirely in the smallest units, which use fewer than five looms, while the shuttleless, sultzer and other looms are more often employed by the largest units.

Table 8.2 provides a more specific analysis of the existing technological mix in Prato weaving industry. It shows that as the number of looms per firm increases, (the main indicator of the size of the firm) not only the average number of workers per firm increases (from 1.65 to 2.28 and to 6, considering the units with one or two, three to five and more than five looms), the average number of looms operated by one worker (or physical productivity) also increases. This is again partly due to the better organisation of medium-sized firms and partly to the newer technology used in the larger units. In the last columns of Table 8.2 we can see that while the firms with one or two looms have old shuttle and new shuttleless looms in almost the same proportions, in the units with three to five looms the newer looms are twice the older ones, and in the largest firms, almost two-thirds of all looms are shuttleless, and one quarter automatic. This allows the firms to increase the number of looms operated by one worker from one in the smallest units to 1.5 in the medium-sized, and to two in the largest firms, with remarkable productivity gains.

Table 8.2 Characteristics of firms by number of looms

Per cent distribution of type of loom

Firms by Number of looms

Average number of workers per firm

Average number of looms per worker


Semi- Automatic




Firms with one or two looms








Firms with three to five looms








Firms with more than five looms








Source: CNA: Indagine sulle aziende artigiane di tessitura dell’area tessile pratese, 1981.

But what is the cost of this technological upgrading of weaving which has such an impact on productivity? According to CSEA (1983) in Prato, a large part of this innovation took place through the refurbishing and improvement of old looms.13 In a few weeks’ time specialised companies of the Prato area are able to transform an old shuttle loom into an automatic one, resulting in dramatic increases in productivity at fairly reduced costs.

This upgrading of looms includes the introduction of electronic equipment, in particular in the operations of feeding, pattern reading and spotting of the broken yarns.

Unfortunately, estimates of the monetary costs of these improvements in looms are not available. These improvements depend on the type of condition of the old loom. Thus a proper evaluation of the benefits of weaving innovations is impossible. It must be stressed however that this specific pattern of innovation is closely related to the specific socio-economic structure of the Prato area, to the presence of traditional skills, and a general openness to innovation. Thus, local conditions play a crucial role in making possible cost-minimising technological improvements even for the very small and fragmented units of the Prato area, where a mix of different technologies still coexists.


In many phases of the textile production cycle in Prato the most important current innovations include the introduction of electronic technologies. Better control and command functions, fewer breakdowns, less maintenance, more operational time, higher productivity, safety and quality of the fabric, are the results of most electronic applications. CSEA (1983) listed a number of machines where electronic devices allow these improvements. They include the press, which can be equipped with safer commands and requires less maintenance; the sorters where an automatic weighting of the materials may reduce energy wastes and improve homogeneity of carding. Many electronic applications have been developed in the finishing operations, with controls of temperature and humidity of the products to reduce energy consumption in drying them up. Electronics would also allow a more flexible programming of dyeing operations through sensors which control the chemical reactions. This would save energy and time, improve the quality of dyeing and reduce pollution.

However, these electronic improvements in textile machinery do not significantly increase the cost of equipment in all cases. CSEA estimated that the share of electronics equipment in the total costs of machinery may range from a minimum of two per cent in the more traditional mechanical operations to a maximum of 15 per cent in the most advanced spinning techniques.

The control of the production process and of quality standards are the main aspects of the textile cycle which are affected by these electronic improvements. Regulation of flows and measurement of characteristics of materials are the most immediate applications while research and tests are being carried out on automatic cutting, colour matching and automatic design.14

However, it must be pointed out that the introduction of new electronics technologies in textile production will require the development of a “new generation” of electronic skills among workers, engineers and designers, who were previously familiar with a more consolidated electric and mechanical technology.

The success of the Prato textile industry in the years to come will largely depend on how this mix of previous technologies and electronics will work.


An important dimension of technological innovation is its impact on energy consumption. Often the improvement of a specific operation may require more energy to perform a given task more efficiently (and with less labour). This is the case, for example, of open-end spinning, which requires 17 per cent more energy than ring spinning. However, in many other processes the development of new techniques which reduce wastage and heat dispersion may reduce the use of energy or prevent it from increasing.

The greatest savings of energy, however, are possible only through a general reorganisation of the process, by reducing the needed transportation, by using and developing more suitable energy sources such as cogeneration and solar energy, and by introducing a system of temperature control.

A more efficient energy, transport and communication system in an industrial area such as Prato, may require the introduction of microelectronics technology in all the stages of the Prato textile cycle.

The Italian Commission for Nuclear and Alternative Energy Sources (ENEA) has started an infratechnological study of Prato textile system in order to assess the scope for the introduction of information technologies and telematics in the communication networks co-ordinating the textile cycle among the Prato firms.15

In a highly fragmented industrial structure where quick communication is necessary to use the industrial structure most efficiently and to keep costs down, the development of a telematic network providing the information flows needed by all the firms involved in the textile cycle may represent a qualitative jump for an industrial structure like that of Prato.

In fact, speed and efficiency of communications are crucial factors for the success of the complex structure of Prato’s textile production described in Section I. The contacts and flows of information required by subcontracting at each stage of production in thousands of firms, coordinated by the “merchant converters” (impannatore), the provision of banking, insurance, consulting and transport services as well as the procurement of raw materials and orders often on foreign markets, are all functions of the Prato production process which may be undertaken more efficiently by appropriate information technologies in a telematic communication network.

This innovation in the overall organisation of the system, parallel to the changing production technologies, is another important dimension of the technological upgrading even though most efforts have so far been directed towards improving the process within each firm. This dimension stresses what happens outside firms rather than inside them; it closely links the provision of services and infrastructures to the process of production and takes greater account of the local social and cultural environment.

In a search for appropriate technologies and innovations in an industrial area, both aspects must be considered in order to improve the overall efficiency. The scope for improving inter-firm relations becomes even greater in an industrial structure fragmented into very small units, as in the case of Prato and most of the less developed countries.


The case of Prato has shown how a small industrial district can develop a highly flexible and integrated industrial structure on a decentralised basis. In an age of crisis for large industrial concentrations Prato provides an example of a different industrial organisation for both developed and developing countries. The high efficiency of Prato textile production results from a particular mix of old and new technologies. It has shown how innovation both in production and organisation of a textile cycle can lead to high productivity and quality of the products. This is the result of: a deeply rooted cultural tradition, the introduction of electronic technologies in an innovative environment and the specific social and economic structure of the Prato area. However, the success of Prato and its open attitude towards innovation is related to the benefits so far obtained from the new technology. Here the introduction of electronics did not have the dramatic effects on employment that occurred in other industrial sectors and in many textile districts, in recent years. On the contrary, the efficiency of the system has allowed employment in textiles to increase from 21,000 jobs in 1951 to 36,000 in 1961, 45,000 in 1971 and 51,000 in 1975.16

It is difficult to suggest that the case of Prato can be generalised to all small-sized industrial structures. However, it represents an important example of a different type of industrialisation where the blending of technologies and gradual but continuing innovation have led to economic success.


1. CERPI: Ricerca sul sistema socioeconomico dell’ area tessile di Prato, Cassa di Risparmio, Prato, 1974.

2. Andrea Balestri: Industrial organisation in the manufacture of fashion goods: The textile district of Prato (1950-1980), M. Phil. Thesis. University of Lancaster, United Kingdom, 1982, p. 39.

3. FULTA: Materiali di documentazione e di analisi economica, Federazione Unitaria Lavoratori Tessili-Abbigliamento, Prato, 1976. (Mimeographed).

4. E. Avigdor: L’industria tessile a Prato, Feltrinelli, Milan, 1961.

5. A couple of decades ago a new loom cost US$4,500 to US$6,000, and was operated by three workers. Now a new loom cost ten times more and one worker can operate three of them weaving at a much higher speed.

6. R. D’Anna: Il settoro meccanotessile rato, la Commune de Prato, 1982, p. 72.

7. ibid.

8. G. Lorenzoni: “Un rinnovo a ritmi diversi - Indagine sulla filatura cardata”, Progress, Prato 1983.

9. ibid.

10. CSEA: Indagine sulle industrie elettroniche in Toscana e sulle possibili applicazioni nel tessile e nel cuoio, Torino, p. III. 17, (Mimeographed).

11. U. Cecchi: “Telai e tessitori protagonisti di una economia”, Progress, Prato, 1982.

12. CNA: Indagine sulle aziende artigiane di tessitura dell’area tessile pratese, Prato, 1981.

13. CSEA, op.cit.

14. ibid. p. III. 40.

15. D. Mazzonis, U. Colombo, and G. Lanzavecchia: Cooperative organisation and constant modernisation of textile industry at Prato, Italy, in E. U. von Weizser, M. S. Swaminathan and Aklilu Lemma (eds.) New frontiers in technology application-integration of emerging and traditional technologies, Tycooly International Publishing Ltd. Dublin, 1983, and ENEA: Analisi di un processo d’innovzione consistente nell’introduzione su larga scala di tecnologie telematiche, Milano-Reseau, 1982.

16. C.F. Sabel: “Italy’s High Technology Cottage Industry”, Transatlantic Perspectives, Washington DC, December 7 1982.