Wednesday, June 29, 2011

UBC Collaboration: New Challenges for 2011

On March 8, 2011, Maiwa visited the University of British Columbia to present some new challenges to the students of APSC 263. Last years projects were such a success that we were very keen to present some new problems. After discussions with artisans in India we gathered about ten projects that might be appropriate, from these an advisory group selected four that had the best fit with engineering goals. Here’s the four that were chosen:

Indigo extraction typically involves large cement tanks to process the crop.
1) Portable or small scale indigo extraction units.
For artisan work to be viable it needs to be part of a network. There is a present demand (both locally and internationally) for natural indigo. Often, however, there is an economy of scale that shuts out the small farmer. To be committed to ongoing indigo growing a farmer must either invest in his own indigo extraction facility, or transport his crop to someone else’s. As most farms are only 5 – 10 acres both options are prohibitive. If there were a small-scale extraction option, or a mobile option which could travel from farm to farm, small landowners could grow indigo, extract it and sell the finished product competitively.

Industrial sewing machines used by small producers.

2) Solar power for small producers.
Good tailoring is vital to artisan work. Often the time, energy, and expertise invested in a cloth comes to nothing when it is poorly finished. Industrial 3-phase sewing machines, however, are not so easy to run off the grid, or when the grid has a power out. The usual solution is a diesel generator to keep the supply constant. Solar seems such a logical option given the intense and abundant sun in most of India. Can it be economically tied into group of 3-phase sewing machines?

The second stage of a water purification tank - note the discolouration.
3) Borewell impurities.
As regular followers of this blog know, the Ajrakh craftspeople of Kutch have struggled with water issues for a number of years. There is now a good supply of water, but it is far from pure. The Khatri’s have built a filtration system but they continue to face problems from this complicated issue. Are there ways to deal with what appear to be iron oxides and salts in the water?

Hand building leather bags with the finished, cured hides.
4) Toxic processes in leatherwork.
The conversion of an animal’s hide into leather involves a de-hairing process using sodium sulphide. The hides are soaked for a number of days and then the spent solution must be disposed of somehow. Presently the solution is simply poured onto the ground. Are there alternatives to sodium sulphide? If there are no alternatives to sodium sulphite, can it be neutralized or rendered harmless?

The student's worked exceptionally well under the tight deadline and presented solutions on April 5, 2011.


  1. alternatives to sodium sulphide?

    tannins from acacia bark were traditionally used in Australia. Acacia mearnsii is known to grow successfully in India. liquor made by soaking the bark is an excellent non-toxic tanning agent.

  2. My name is Carmen Bolaños, and I am from El Salvador,I had an indigo dyeing microbusiness there... There certainly are limiting conditions that slow down and even impede craftspeople from better work performance in third world rural areas. Good performance and good trade are directly affected by a set of circumstances that include those you mention in your blog. As for the issues you are trying to solve, I find the water issue is perhaps the most important (all are of the utmost relevance though, including working with bare hands...) but there are people improvising extraction units with bricks and plastic foil, japanese volunteers did it in El Salvador. Therefore the know-how would be key when water was available. Disposal of extraction waste, reuse of water, access to clean water... those are unheard of concepts and dreams for many farmers, thank you for your awareness. I am proud that someone with your knowledge and experience with craftspeople is looking for solutions to some problems in the production process. I can identify so well with the issues you identify, and I am sure technology can give good answers to them. Again I thank you, even though I am not in my country anymore, and I am sure your seek can have a positive impact in India but also in other places with similar circumstances!
    Carmen Bolaños (edit my comment if you think it is necessary)

  3. Re: Jawaja leatherworkers. We should have been more clear in our description. Jawaja use natural tannins for the tanning process, but for removal of the hair - the dehairing process - they use a sodium sulfide solution. They have experimented with lime but found the length of time needed to be prohibitive. There is also research under way for an enzyme alternative to the sodium sulphide. We are hopeful that a solution can be found for either an alternative method or for containment and treatment of the sodium sulphide.

  4. The borewells in southern asia produce water which is contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic. Efforts to mitigate this involve introducing oxidized iron into water vessels and pipes. There is a possible approach: accurately test the available water (there are more accurate tests and assessments of the results), finding better water. Exposure to contaminated water is dangerous to consumers and particularly agricultural workers and others who are directly regularly exposed through their work.


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