Contamination and Purity

Last night as I was unpacking the coat I had bought at Kullu Dussehra, I noticed a bit of poly contamination:

poly contamination
poly contamination, lower right

In the context of wool, “poly” refers to polypropylene, shreds of which get stuck in the fleece when sheep rub against polypropylene rope that might be used on a farm for twine, fixing fences, etc; or when wool is packed in polypropylene sacks. In my training as a wool classer, poly contamination was addressed as a problem to be solved by educating ranchers about its sources and persuading them to switch to other materials.

So, here’s a slightly different perspective: at the sight of that bit of poly, I thought, “aha! now I know for sure that this is actually wool.” Because all the shops around here advertise “pure woolens,” and the salesperson at the Dussehra stall invoked that phrase to justify the price (which I wasn’t haggling on anyway, since it already seemed absurdly low to me). But it’s actually a bit difficult to tell, short of setting fire to the nice new coat you just bought. “Synthetic” fibers, being petroleum products, burn readily and melt into a hard bead. “Natural” fibers burn to ash, and wool even self-extinguishes. As you may have gathered from the scare quotes around “synthetic” and “natural,” I question these categories (you can read one of my critiques on that here). In this case, “naturalness” was actually indicated by the presence of a synthetic fiber, which would not have been present in a fully synthetic yarn. I’m not saying I want more poly contamination in my wool, though–one shred was enough to spur this contemplation.

Not that I know that it’s “pure” wool, either–could very well be a blend. As my friend and colleague Nisha commented, the locally available mill-spun wool is usually not 100% wool. To make this more confusing, the word “wool” here is often used to mean yarn of any variety. Locals say “pure wool” to mean “handspun wool”–so here we have a category that is supposed to refer to an essential characteristic of a material, but is shaped by the means of its production. “Purity” as a category, itself a mix of material and social.

To be getting this much theory out of a coat, it was a serious bargain. Bonus: it keeps me warm!

Kullvi coat
wearing my coat while stringing Diwali malas with all the focus of a kindergartner making a Cheerios necklace

Thinking with: Anna Tsing, always. Academic peeps–please suggest other theory friends I should meet!

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