The following Roots to the Past column was published around five years ago.
I’ve done many things with my hair over the past forty years. It’s been cut, curled, ragged, rolled, permed, bleached, coloured, gelled, moussed, sprayed, braided, twisted, wired (for the Pippi Longstocking look) and crimped. But there’s one thing I haven’t done: used it as art material.
Many of our European ancestors were skilled craftspeople. Women often prided themselves in needlework and weaving. During the Victorian Era (1837 – 1901), a different type of artistic medium became popular. Intricate jewellery, wreathes and framed images were created using human hair. White hair was rare, so horse hair was used as a substitute. Many art pieces have survived time and have been passed down through generations.
Women created the unique items with their own hair and gave them to family and friends as special mementoes. These items were cherished long after the woman passed away. Sometimes hair was gathered from the deceased to create remembrance items. Rings, broaches and bracelets made with this hair were called mourning jewellery. Black enamel and pearls were common on such pieces to indicate mourning and tears.
For other items, hair was twisted and manipulated to create flowers, leaves and other patterns. One popular arrangement was the horseshoe. These were hung with the opening on top to catch and hold good luck. Family wreaths contained a life time of work. A woman began the wreath using her hair then added her spouse’s. When the children arrived, a hair sample from each was added to complete the piece.
Obviously, women couldn’t always use their own hair if they were prolific creators; they would eventually run out. Local sources were found and donors were paid for their contributions. Women could also order hair from stores and catalogues.
I find it fascinating to know an ancestor’s hair colour could be revealed by a keepsake item made with the very hands who harvested the hair. Hair colour speaks volumes, and may help trace a family line simply from the colour or texture. On a scientific level, DNA can be extracted from hair to help with research.
Although items made from human hair might seem a little creepy in today’s minds, it is very similar to friends or lovers exchanging locks of hair as keepsakes or a mother saving the first trimmings of her child. Many people donate hair to create wigs for cancer patients. Hair is one thing that seems to last forever if properly stored.
The closest I’ve come to making anything with my hair was the six-inch braid I removed before getting my hair cut short. At the time, my newborn’s fingers constantly found a place to entangle in my long locks, and the pulling created headaches. I knew the hair couldn’t stay, but wanted a memento. Now that I’ve seen the interesting things made from hair, I’m tempted to pull the braid from its box and start creating.
Interesting links to learn more about hair crafts:
The Official Victorian Hairwork Society website: http://www.hairworksociety.org/
Leila’s Hair Museum: http://www.hairwork.com/leila/index.html