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Is It the Real Thing?

You ignore the bustling hum of the market around you. You have found the perfect sweater to keep you warm on those chilly Andean nights. “Oh, yes, it’s wool,” the vendor says with a friendly smile. But the age-old question pops up in your mind: is it the real thing—or synthetic?

You can still rely on touch to tell you—to some degree. Sheep wool is thick and “itchy.” Alpaca wool is fine and soft and rolls down compactly, yet springs back to its original density when unrolled. Synthetics—polyester, nylon and what-not—feel, well, synthetic, right? Well, no, not any more. Increasingly these fibers have become almost equal in touch to their natural competitors.

But there is still one fool-proof way to know for sure whether that sweater you are yearning for is the real deal. The secret is to always carry a pack of matches or a lighter in your pocket when you head out to the market. First, pick a bit of fuzz off the sweater, being careful not to pull the yarns of the garment. Twirl the fuzz to make a strand, then strike a match and burn the strand. Plant fibers-cotton, linen, ramie and even silk-will all turn to a fine, light-colored ash. Animal fibers—whether from lamb, sheep, alpaca, llama or even critters like qiviut and yak (yes, this test will work on any continent)—will singe and smell like burnt hair. Synthetics will melt into a small black ball and smell like burnt plastic. If that sweater is a mix of natural animal and synthetic fibers, it will both singe and melt; by how much it does of either, you can pretty much calculate the percentage of blend.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Peru: Shopping in Iquitos, Shopping in Peru, Centro Comercial Constitucion and Bargaining.

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

01 Jun 2012

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