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Appropriate textiles technology

Reintegrating rural families in development

by Charnchai Limpiyakorn and Astrid Faust-Tiyapongpattanar

Technical information exchange in the ASEAN countries has not kept pace with their rapid transition to industrially based economies. TIS aims to help bridge this gap by providing a comprehensive information service.

Appropriate technology/ends by its very nature to be socially benign. In a number of instances, it can therefore be used directly to counteract some of the negative social impacts of conventional development. A good example of this can be found in the cottage-based textile industry in north and northeastern Thailand.

In these regions, carefully phased interventions are reintegrating otherwise marginalised people back into the development process. This is being achieved, in combination with entrepreneurship and marketing training, by introducing improved spinning and dyeing techniques to villagers. Incomes in some villages in consequence nearly doubled in the short period from 1992-1996.

The process began in 1985 when the Appropriate Technology Association (ATA) of Thailand with technical assistance from ISAT among other agencies, began a Local Weaving Development project in Roi-et Province in the impoverished northeastern region. The goal was to help village women become more self-reliant through the formation of weaving groups that would use natural dyes to produce distinctive textiles that would find a ready market.

Trying out natural dyes To begin with, the project's primary objective was to study and experiment with the use of natural dyes from the bark, leaves, trunk and roots of trees as well as from small insects and minerals. Natural dyes had been used traditionally, but knowledge about them had almost died out. Although they can be harmful to health and the environment, synthetic dyes are easier to use.

Natural dyes are usually found in the forest. The project therefore organised village men and youths to collect material from trees, herbs and even crops. Then, starting with a single group of seven women in one village in Roiet Province, the first weavers' group was formed to use this material. This group has been joined by a further 23, and in all the groups now consist of over 500 women in villages in three neighbouring provinces - Roi-et, Srisaket and Surin. Since the quality of their weaving steadily improved, the confidence of the women in these groups increased as well.

Today, they are networking, participating in training workshops and study visits, and even hiring their former advisers as marketing consultants! Some of the women now earn more from weaving than from rice farming. Thus a kind of cottage industrialisation is taking place that releases people from their dependence on agriculture and gives them the benefits of industrialisation without the social and economic dislocations that are so often associated with the conventional process.

But ATA is not the only project in Thailand. Another initiative, called the Small Business and Handicraft Promotion Project (SBHPP) was established five years ago by the University Academic Service Centre (UNISERV) of Chiang Mai University, northern Thailand. The goal here was to complement public sector programmes by such organisations as the Northern Industrial Promotion Centre (NIPC). With technical support from the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Centre for International Migration and Development (CIM) in Frankfurt, and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in Bonn, the university brought together government and non-government organisations in a wide-ranging home-based handicrafts development project. Happily, through the ILO, the Appropriate Technology Association (ATA) became a major partner.

Initially, appropriate technology was not the central issue at SBHPP at all. It first concentrated on upgrading villagers entrepreneurship and marketing skills, mainly in five northern provinces including Chiang Mail As these skills increased, the participants, mainly women, began to realise the need for better technology to produce goods to acceptable market standards. Hence the introduction of appropriate technology and the involvement of ATA.

Local technology slow

The need for appropriate technology was particularly felt in relation to traditional textiles. The project found that local spinning technology had not changed in centuries, meaning mainly that it was slow, and with very low productivity. Similarly the dyes, either traditional or synthetic, left much to be desired. Colour range and fastness were inferior. Some of the synthetic dyes pose health and environmental hazards. Raw material supplies for traditional dyes often could not be maintained.

In 1994, therefore, ATA and SBHPP developed the technical content of the project. As RISE-AT was formed, it assumed responsibility for technical information search, retrieval and transfer, using among other sources of information ATA's own database on textile technology.

Regarding spinning technology, a multi-step procedure was followed. After first investigating current practices and needs among textile producers in north and northeast Thailand, RISE-AT contacted alternative technology information carriers in Thailand and abroad to see what technology was available. Some of the most important information sources were the Department of Industrial Promotion and the Thai Karen Baptist Convention in Thailand, ISAT/GTZ in Germany, Tools Netherlands and Development Alternatives in India.

On the basis of this information, the partners then collected samples of spinning machines from Thailand, Burma, India and New Zealand which were operated under comparable conditions. In the event, 15 spinners watched by ten non-government and government representatives test-operated all the machines during a one-day seminar in Chiang Mai that was facilitated by RISE-AT. This allowed a spinning machine development plan to be outlined in consultation with both the spinners and the GO and NGO representatives.
The partners then continued to test the spinning machines in the field to draw conclusions for the workshops and to devise further adaptations. On the basis of feedback from the field, prototypes of an electric carding machine and spinning machine were developed by mechanical craftsmen who had participated in the previous steps. The final step - the dissemination of the new equipment - can start once adapting the prototypes has been completed.

As for dyeing, the issues concerned fastness, health and safety. The search for solutions was domestic rather than international and specialised know-how was available through ATA. But the same basic approach of problem and resource identification, followed by hands-on workshops and development, was followed. As with the spinning and carding machines, the full process is still not complete.

A wide range of colours

The proposed solutions were to improve natural dyeing skills and the natural resource base. Better quality, but more expensive, synthetic dyes would solve the problems in that area. Concentrating on traditional dyeing processes, the experience ATA had gained in its work in the northeast proved invaluable. Trial and error with 15 kinds of tree among the 24 village groups in the northeast had produced a wide range of natural colours - yellow, green, brown, grey, pink, red, orange and purple.

Thus with ATA's help, natural dye users from both the north and northeast of Thailand were brought together in a training course that, through the direct exchange of practical information between practicing dyers, produced considerable technological advance. A field survey three months after the course showed a wider range of colours in use than before.

Improved quality

Encouraged by this success, a second training course was organised on colour fastness, process optimisation, and resource base conservation. Positive results were also achieved. Three months after the course, a survey found improved dye quality.

In both projects, however, appropriate technology has not been the only important aspect. In addition, considerable attention has been paid to entrepreneurship and marketing, and to product development. This has led village groups to participate m such sophisticated activities as design clinics, as well as workshops on fabric and embroidery design, new product line development, sewing training and so forth. The northern groups even staged a fashion show, Ethnotex 1996, which was a huge success.

But above all village women in north and northeast Thailand are becoming wealthier, more independent and more self-assured - partly because of these projects.


Les technologies appropri ont favoris'essor nomique de l'industrie du textile dans le nord-est de la Thande. L'association thandaise pour les technologies appropri (ATA) en a lanc'initiative vers le milieu des ann 80 en impulsant la crion de groupements de tisserandes. Rltat: la qualites tissue s'est amoret les intss ont pu accroe notablement leurs revenue.


Gracias al empleo de tecnolog apropiadas, la industria textil en el noreste de Tailandia estxperimentando un auge econo. La iniciativa fue lanzada a mediados de los aochenta por la Asociacie Tecnolog Apropiadas de Tailandia (ATA) mediante la creacie grupos de tejedoras. La calidad de los tejidos ha mejorado, y el nivel de ingresos se ha incrementado significativamente.