Micro-spinning - A Revolutionary Invention

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T. Hema Kannan

It takes around 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to produce just one pair of regular blue jeans.  To grow the cotton required for an ordinary cotton shirt is not as bad as for jeans, but it still takes a whopping 400 gallons of water.

Yes, this information does make us raise our eyebrows that cloth has traveled a long way from the cotton fields, to the textile industry and then to the consumer - you and me. How is the yarn that goes to make the cloth processed, how much of water and electricity is being consumed during the spinning and weaving of the yarn?


The next question is - are we conscious of the cloth we wear?

The story of cotton started a long time ago - in India, cotton fragments of woven cotton material were found first in the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro. India went on to supply the world with cotton fabrics from at least the time of the Roman Empire, and from then up to the end of the 18th century, there are testaments to the quantity, quality and variety of Indian cotton fabrics scattered amongst various written records. Pliny, the Roman historian of the 1st century AD calculates the value of the cotton fabric trade between India and Rome at 100 million sesterces (equal then to 15 million rupees) every year, and complains that India was draining Rome of her gold. The trade in cotton cloth was the main source of India’s fabled wealth.

Since then, a lot has been said and recorded about cotton textiles exported from India to many other countries the world over.  We know that the Indian cotton handloom industry is one of the greatest manufacturing institutions of the world.

Today the erstwhile glorious textile industry of India, holds a mere 2.5% of world textile trade, behind China, Pakistan and Turkey; and the main item of export is the cheapest grey cloth, made on power looms, in which we are competitive only on account of the low wages we pay. Since textiles still provide about a third of our exports, in order to maintain even this undistinguished presence in the world, we now need to import textile machinery from Japan and Switzerland.

Apart from the ever changing political conditions in India, why has India’s textile industry fallen to such levels? What is needed to revitalize the innate strengths of India in textile design and production?

Enter L.Kannan, a mechanical engineer from IIT, Chennai. An unassuming scientist, Kannan worked for a long time with grass-roots organizations and NGOs working with the rural poor. This motivated him to look for solutions which are simple to handle by end-users and hold the promise of scalable impact. Kannan realized that to tap the strength of skilled but economically backward artisans, the need of the hour was intermediate technology in order to retain the power with the weaver and also to retain the diversity, richness and convenient availability of yarn. There was a need to remove the weavers from being at the mercy of large spinning mills/power looms.

This kick started the journey for L.Kannan into providing solutions that are sustainable and meaningful in a country with a huge population of handloom weavers.

It would be apt to say that Kannan put together his spirit of the inventor, the heart of a social worker and the expertise of a successful mechanical engineer and focused on making a technologically superior machine, which at the same time would be simple to handle by end users. The result has been micro-spinning technology that has immense potential to transform lives and particularly rural communities, apart from revitalizing India’s textile industry.


A Matter of Scale

Traditionally, spinning and weaving was a cottage industry, and the entire chain of production from cotton to cloth was localized – and necessarily small. But with the industrial revolution, the spinning of yarn began to be carried out almost entirely in the ‘organized sector’, in mills that are of a much greater scale– about a hundred times greater.

For these spinning mills, cotton fibers are compacted into dense bales for ease of transportation. This tradition is a legacy from the times when cotton from India and the Americas had to be transported to mills in England.  This action of baling has to be undone in the mill again without damaging the fibres, which makes for very complex machinery. In turn, such complexity becomes affordable only at a very large scale. This is why spinning mill machines have to be very big although the final spinning spindles themselves are very small – each producing less than 100 grams in 8 hrs.

By avoiding baling, the Micro Spinning process enables light and small machines that handle the fibres through aerodynamics and buoyancy.  These subtle effects and the fact that these machines do not require a controlled humidified environment (which is both energy and water intensive) result in the yarn produced having a distinctive fall that makes the cloth much sought after.


Microspinning: Small and Effective

Micro spinning is able to mobilize the strengths of the traditional textile sector unlike the modern textile industry in India. The handloom sector provides employment for an estimated 12.5 million people and is the largest rural employment provider next to agriculture. The cotton handloom sector comprises of different stages leading to a final product that is 10 to 100 times higher in value than the cotton input. This industry also has highly segmented markets which demand customization and quick responses to the changing needs of the market. This is best achieved by flexible units that manufacture in small batch sizes. Hence, about 95% of weaving, dyeing and other activities are carried out in what is officially called the ‘decentralized sector’.

This anomaly – between the large scale spinning mills and the small scale required for the handloom sector - distorts the organization of the industry and inhibits it from being competitive in the contemporary market. The only reason for the persistence of such an aberration has been the absence of a technology alternative.

Kannan set up Fractal Foundation and deconstructed modern spinning technology to get to the root of its relationship to scale. It was found that the stages preparatory to spinning, carried out in the spinning mill, are carried out in a wasteful and elaborate manner only in order to achieve large and homogeneous output volumes - a legacy of mass production in British textile mills where cotton had to be imported.

These preparatory stages have now been re-engineered by Fractal Foundation for small-scale production.  This enables, for the first time in the world, end-to-end integration of the cotton value chain entirely in the decentralized sector. An added attraction is that the non invasive handling of cotton fibres in micro-spinning makes for a superior quality.


Malkha - the Brand

The cloth woven with yarn from a micro spinning machine is different – with a distinctive appeal, with an excellent drape and fall. This difference has found ready recognition among high-end fashion designers and middle-class customers alike.

The brand MALKHA has been created to help in marketing this special cloth made with yarn from micro spinning, so that it translates into higher realization for the rural producers. Within two years of its launch, the brand has reached different markets in India and abroad, and is expected to grow significantly in the coming years.


Empowering Rural Communities

The Malkha process provides an alternative to the present situation where both farmers and weavers are dependent on spinning mills: now, growing cotton, spinning and weaving can be linked and integrated bringing the farmer and weaver together through micro spinning as an additional rural occupation. It is the missing link in a fully rural cotton textile industry using local raw material and local skills. Not only has it created more employment, it has also strengthened rural society both socially and politically.

As a small scale process, Malkha has the potential of empowering rural communities in other interesting ways. Though the Malkha process uses the same amount of power per spindle as conventional spinning, it economizes by eliminating the baling, unbaling& blow-room processes. Since the use of electricity is distributed, it would be able to use small-scale alternative power sources in the future. Relatively little investment is needed, compared to the huge capital costs that large-scale industry requires. Relations between each part of the production chain would be one of equals in the Malkha process, among a series of independent producers, compared to the conventional spinning industry, where the power is disproportionately with the investor of capital. Making the production process entirely local opens the door to eventual direct relations with the local market. The cloth made in this way is very durable, making it suitable for rural wear.


Environmental Impact

The Malkha process has the potential to significantly reduce the carbon foot print and water consumption of the textile industry and also to minimize pollution of water and soil.

Due to its sheer size, the textile industry is a major contributor of GHGs (Green House Gases) on earth. In 2008, the annual global textile production (US) was estimated at 60 billion kilograms of fabric.  The estimated energy and water needed to produce that amount of fabric boggles the mind:

•        1,074 billion kWh of electricity  or 132 million metric tons of coal and

•        between 6 – 9 trillion liters of water(3)

One study1 estimates that every Kg of industrial cotton textiles consumes 11,000 litres of water.  About 15% of this carries the toxic load of chemicals used in textile processing.  The Malkha process makes a big difference in this scenario.

The carbon footprint of cultivating organic cotton is only 22% of that of conventional cotton, which in turn is much lower than the footprint for Synthetics. Since most operations in the Malkha value-chain is human powered, electricity consumption of Malkha textiles is fewer than 25% of that required for conventional textiles (where on the average every Kg of textiles uses over 16 units of electrical energy). Also, the inputs used in wet processing are organic and impose no chemical load or discharge into the soil.


Potential Impact on Communities

The impact that this invention would have in the textile industry could be likened to the introduction of the personal computer in a world of main-frame computing.

Gandhiji famously said that what India needed is production by the masses and not mass production. Inspired by his words, E.F.Schumacher developed the idea further and spoke of the importance of intermediate technology – not the age-old tiny scale technology nor the modern large and mammoth scaled technology and factories. As he said in his path breaking book, “Small is Beautiful- Economics as if People Mattered”, we need machines to suit human communities and ‘the human scale’ and these will usually not be destructive of the environment as big businesses are.