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!

Questions I Have Asked Myself While Writing My Thesis

Why do I feel compelled to use full names in the first mention of women, but not men? BECAUSE PATRIARCHY.

Should I cite Foucault just to call him out for his inaccurate use of skeining as a metaphor for entanglement? YES. ALSO LATOUR.

How can all these otherwise very smart philosopher dudes think it’s ok to use weaving terminology when they clearly don’t actually know how to weave? BECAUSE PATRIARCHY.

Although grammatically correct, does this sentence, with its qualifiers, subordinate clauses, and three or more items in a list, perhaps contain too many commas? PERHAPS.

Should I switch to decaf? NOT JUST YET. MAYBE GREEN TEA THOUGH.

What if my committee asks me to explain what a “flat ontology” is? LET’S JUST CHECK FACEBOOK REAL QUICK IN CASE THERE ARE ANY NEW PANDA VIDEOS.

On “Divers,” when Joanna Newsom sings, “recall the word you gave,” how brilliant is it that she can mean it both as “remember” and “take back”? VERY BRILLIANT.


If I quote somebody who uses British spelling, like “valorising,” and then I want to use that term again outside of the quote, do I have to keep using their silly spelling? Or should I change the spelling in the quote, like, “valori[z]ing,” or does that make me look more pretentiously pomo than I really want to be? HM, THAT’S A TOUGH ONE.

Is there too much alliteration? PROBABLY. How can I get rid of alliteration when I have to write about flinging fleeces so they retain the shape of the sheep? YOU CAN’T. JUST ROLL WITH IT.

Should I change out of my pajamas? IT IS NOT EVEN NOON FOR ANOTHER 32 MINUTES YET.

Why can’t the subtitle be “Breaking Binaries Left and Right”? BECAUSE PATRIARCHY? OR MAYBE BECAUSE EUROMODERNITY.

Should I have put the question mark inside the quotation mark there? NO, I THINK THE BRITS HAVE GOT IT RIGHT ON THAT COUNT.


No More Pencils, No More Books

Well, a lot more books, actually. But no more teacher’s dirty looks for sure. Thank goodness.

So far I’ve spent my free time on this bizarrely rainy first day of vacation:

1. marveling at Michael Taussig’s whacked-out, genius take on the origins of organic chemistry (in What Color is the Sacred?–amazing book. Read it.),

2. trying to talk myself out of re-reading Gravity’s Rainbow (somehow I feel like after the Taussig it’ll suddenly all make sense, but somebody please slap some sense into me),

4. bugging my Himachali friends with weird requests to save up berries and ashes until I get there in August, and

5. playing with lichens!


These are turkey tail mushrooms, oak galls, and three types of lichens that Kim and I collected from under the oak tree where we ate lunch every day at shearing school. We’re going to try them on a fleece we got from a school sheep. We weren’t sure if the lichens are the right kinds to make dyes, but I figured it was worth a shot. I put them in a dilute ammonia solution to extract the color, and…


Yes! It’s hard to see, but the one on the left is a dark orange. They’re supposed to ferment for a month before we use them, but I think it’s gonna work out.

On the Usefulness of the Dupatta

When I arrived in the mountains, I thought the dupatta was an elegant but impractical wardrobe staple of the pahari women. I mean, why on earth would you want this gauzy thing trailing after you, snagging on the stinging nettles, while you traipse around the place? Since then I’ve seen the dupatta double as a baby sling, sunshade, handkerchief, and hot pad for lifting boiling pots off the flame. That’s what I call real elegance. Or, as Tripura would say: Style.

Next time…

For the past week (at least), every conversation I’ve had has included the phrase “ugly bar” (meaning “next time.” But it still sounds funny to me every time). Many, many things to do at the ugly bar when I get there. Whenever that may be. Today I drive back down to the flatlands…later will back-fill with many deep thoughts about apprenticeship models, language learning, and of course string.


So for these last few weeks that I’m here, I’m doing a mini-apprenticeship with a weaver in town. I get to learn a different tradition of weaving (including how a slightly different type of loom operates), really put my Hindi to the test (because she doesn’t speak English), and develop fabulous legs walking up and down the mountain every day. Yesterday I learned lots of color words while practicing making dovetail joins in tapestry weave; today I watched her weave straight twill and learned all the parts of the loom. In exchange, I seem to be required to sit in her kitchen drinking excessively sweet tea and eating excessively bitter bitter melon. I suppose this too shall pass…

Work Day

Brighu's work: posing for photo-ops.
Brighu’s work: posing for photo-ops.
Our work: tilling the rocky soil.
Our work: tilling the rocky soil.

Nisha and I had to prove that we are not “city girls,” so Brighu put us to work clearing a garden space for tomatoes. While we were working, Tripura brought us tea and then started showing me all the edible weeds. After she directed me to gather “itni sabji” for dinner (“sabji” meaning “vegetables,” and “itni” in this case meaning “a shit-ton”), Ranbir brought Rani the cow down to eat all the “sabji” I was supposed to be picking. Grrr.

Rani and the kids helping.
Rani and the kids helping.
You'll remember me when the west wind blows upon the fields of barley. And mustard greens.
You’ll remember me when the west wind blows upon the fields of barley. And mustard greens.
Tripura cooking lunch.
Tripura cooking lunch.

We’ve also been discussing some ideas that the boys have for improving their property and the village in general. Brighu wants to put some big trash cans around town and also work with the schools to get kids involved in trash clean-up. Ranbir wants to build small guest cottages on an unused field above the house. I want to combine ideas and build the cottages with plastic waste. Brighu is skeptical and says I have to build something first to prove that (a) we can find enough plastic to do it (please! it’s EVERYWHERE) and (b) it works as a building material. So while I was digging, I also started gathering garbage. Filled one bottle easily, just on one bit of their land. I think we can do this.

Adventures in Ethnobotany, aka Bungle in the Jungle

Yesterday morning I sat down with Ranbir and showed him a list I had of potential dye plants. He thought he might recognize a couple of the local names, and consulted with a neighbor sitting on the roof next door, but we didn’t get very far. We thought it might help to look up pictures and see if he recognized the plants by sight, since the lists I had were from different areas of the Himalayas and he might know things under different names. This was much more successful, and we came up with about a dozen matches. The neighbor kid was over, and every so often would run off to grab a sample of a plant he recognized out in the yard. I was the most excited about locating a local indigo, Indigofera dosua, known here as “kathi.” So in the afternoon, we took the goats and headed up to the jungle (which is actually a pine forest above the town). Ranbir was sure we would be able to collect leaves, but his sister said the leaves wouldn’t come until next month. In the jungle, we stopped to ask villagers gathering firewood if they had seen any kathi growing. They pointed us to some trees, which hadn’t yet leafed out. I was skeptical–I was pretty sure we were looking for a small shrub, not a tree. But everyone kept insisting yes, this is kathi. When we got back home I looked it up again, and found that there is another indigo (I. heterantha) which grows 2-3 meters tall. In the evening, a “brother” (actually cousin) stopped by, and we told him about our kathi quest. He happens to work in forest conservation, and was able to tell us some plants which produce dyes. He said that the leaves of the kathi will produce greens, and the flowers will produce purples. So…maybe promising? But we’ll have to wait a month or 2 to try.