The Victorians used to harvest hair from dead people to make jewelry. I tried my hand at the century-old craft in a six-hour workshop.
I signed up for the "Victorian hair art workshop" listed on the Museum of Morbid Anatomy's events calendar thinking it was a class on 19th-century hairstyling. When I realized that it was actually a daylong course on making jewelry out of hair—students are requested to bring their own, sourced however it seems easiest to source hair—I didn't really know what to feel. On one hand, Victorian hairstyling looks fairly arduous, and probably involves more greasy middle parts than period films acknowledge. On the other hand, making jewelry out of hair seemed kind of gross, especially when I found myself wandering into a salon after work asking if they could sweep some split ends into a Ziploc for me. They obliged, but warned there would probably be some dirt from the floor, too.
Read more: Death in the House of Wax
When I showed up to the basement of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus, Brooklyn, however, I found my dirty trimmings—formerly the property of a curly-haired brunette—were unnecessary: There was hair everywhere. The Victorian hair art workshop is a six-hour course led by Karen Bachmann, a brusque but enthusiastic master jeweler who got her start making chicken-heart necklaces as a student at Pratt. Although Bachmann, who wore magnifying jeweler's glasses mostly pushed up on her forehead throughout the class, spent some years working at Tiffany, it's clear her true passion is hairwork, and at the beginning of class she bustled around the room showing us the samples she had brought for us to experiment with. Her students, particularly those who work in salons, frequently bring her envelopes full of floor hair, she said, waving said envelopes around; she also had a number of extensions in colors like Jessica Rabbit red and lime green. After dumping a clanking bag of mounts into a bowl, she pulled out a long brown ponytail and implored us to guess what it was: Horsehair, she explained, you can buy from a number of online purveyors for about $40 a tail, and it's coarser, which means it's easier to work with. The Victorians would practice with it so as not to waste the limited quantity of hair they had from a particular person—especially important when that person was dead.
Mourning brooches featuring palette-worked hair from the Wellcome Collection. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
The workshop was small—five women, two of whom said they had traveled from out-of-state to take the course—and began, more or less, with a history lesson. Stemming from the practice of exchanging locks of hair with a loved one, which began around the 16th century in England and France, hairwork was a hugely popular custom in 19th-century Europe and America. According to Bachmann, it really took off with Queen Victoria, an "unlikely icon" who supposedly wore a piece of jewelry containing a lock of Prince Albert's hair every day from the moment they got engaged. Anyone slightly creeped out by the notion of wearing someone else's hair only needs to see some of the antique pieces Bachmann passed around while she discussed the development and techniques of hairwork; they're incredibly elaborate, and impressively durable. The practice was not just contained to jewelry, either; the most beautiful piece Bachmann had that day was a German shadowbox featuring an ornate wreath of ashy blond flowers encircling illustrations of angels and the Madonna and child.
The fact that all the hair in this piece was the same color, Bachmann noted, meant that it probably came from the same person, likely harvested during the days-long mourning period during which the deceased would lie, slowly decaying, in a coffin in the family's home. Though wives might chop off knee-length manes to braid elaborate watch fobs for their husbands, a primary purpose of hairwork was mourning. Unlike the rest of the body, hair does not really decompose—as Bachmann's always-growing collection demonstrates, hairwork can still be found on eBay and in antiques shops today—and it feels more closely tied to one's identity than, say, a tooth. These qualities, plus its material sturdiness and similarity to thread, made it an ideal mechanism for creating symbolism in memory of a loved one, particularly at a time when mourning largely took place in the home. According to Lindsay Palka, writing at the Toast, hair jewelry had another cultural advantage, in that it was "decent" enough to be worn during mourning. Since women were considered "more religious" and more associated with the home and domestic issues, they particularly beholden to mourning customs, and much more likely to create hairwork than men. According to Bachmann, who taught herself hairworking techniques by deconstructing vintage pieces she found, the practice faded away into morbid obscurity shortly after the Industrial Revolution, when funerals moved away from the home and Queen Victoria's (male) successor took the throne.
A German shadowbox featuring table-worked hair
From here, we moved on to demonstrations, and to trying it out for ourselves. There are two types of hairwork: palette-worked hair and table-worked hair. The former is like making a drawing or image out of hair; it involves gluing and arranging the hair on palettes and in lockets, often using imagery that symbolized death, if that was the occasion for creating the piece. (A sheaf of wheat was common in lockets or brooches with children's portraits on the back; it represents "life cut short.") The latter is more three-dimensional, originally involving a special circular table with a hole in its center; inside was a knitting needle, around which you would wrap hair to create a series of loops, or "wraps," connected at the bottom by a braid. When you run out of hair, you pull these wraps off the needles and arrange them into pieces like the German shadowbox, or other looping patterns—all of which, I learned, is very hard.
Either type requires first combing out the "fluff," which gets everywhere, to achieve a mostly even chunk to work with. (It doesn't need to be very thick; twenty-five strands is a good amount.) Modern layered styles don't lend themselves well to hairwork, which requires small chunks of hair to be the same length in order to make a smooth loop that doesn't frizz or thin out halfway through your project. The Victorians tended to grow their hair out for their entire lives, in one long sheath—"very ugly," Bachmann noted, but good for these purposes. For palette-worked hair, the Victorians would use cornstarch to make the hair stay put so they could arrange it; we used hairspray, though Bachmann pointed out that this was not a permanent solution, which makes sense. In Bachmann's class, we were invited to try both types; for easier palette-worked pieces, you can use shorter hair or curls, but this was not what was appealing to me. For table-worked hair, we constructed makeshift hairwork stations by taping knitting needles to the sides of the classroom tables. Even this I was bad at; my knitting needle kept unsticking, causing me to lose the sturdiness necessary to make tight loops that won't unravel when you remove them from the needle. To do hairwork, Bachmann said, "you don't have to be a jeweler, but you do have to have patience."
"Think about how hard it is to hair on your head," she added, and I knew I was in trouble, for I am bad at this, too.
Bachmann demonstrating a single wrap table-working technique
There's a movement in contemporary feminism whereby women are reclaiming traditionally feminine practices, such as knitting or cross-stitch, that in the past have been oppressive mechanisms for keeping women in the house, twiddling with things. (Another reason hairwork died out was because women started joining the workforce during the world wars, leaving them less time to sit around crafting elaborate wearables.) I am not part of this movement. My mother tried to teach me to sew, both by hand and with a machine, at least four separate times during my childhood and adolescence, to no avail; when an ex-boyfriend told me that he used to do some kind of pottery thing with a previous girlfriend—just, you know, for fun—I replied that I almost couldn't fathom it. I am very bad at sitting patiently while repeating a complicated series of hand motions to create a desired effect. And spending hours in concentrated toil to end up with a lopsided scarf or unevenly painted cereal bowl feels like more frustration than it's worth.
In other words, I was by far the worst in the class. Next to me, a redheaded woman I would later learn was a jewelry designer happily produced an array of elaborate flowers in several complementary colors, apparently having intuited table-worked looping techniques beyond the basic ones Bachmann had taught us. Nevertheless, once I'd gotten the hang of the most basic single wrap—we also learned a double, but when I tried that it fell apart as soon as I took it off the knitting needles—I ended up finding it kind of relaxing.
The hair salon trimmings I'd brought were all too short and fluffy to create much out of, unless I'd wanted to attempt some palette work, an endeavor I briefly considered but for which I was ultimately lacking inspiration, which I realized was necessary to carry out something I might like the look of. What I really wanted to make was something like the elaborate German shadowbox, but after my first attempts I accepted that I would be best served just wrapping hair in a single crisscrossing pattern for the remainder of the class, if not for all eternity. It's about the journey, not the destination. As my neighbor pulled her sixth or tenth elaborate flower off her knitting needles, earning a "very impressive" from Bachmann, I decided to go back to the single wrap and make something rudimentary. I found that if I wrapped the hair tightly enough, it would coil into something that looked like a forget-me-not when I removed it from the knitting needle, which seemed good enough to me.
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