By Samantha Comerford, Assistant Collections Manager, Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection; MA Candidate, Department of Art History
I first encountered the art of hairwork during an internship at the Illinois State Museum and was both fascinated and a little grossed out by it, as many people are. Although many materials used for artmaking and textile production are physically connected to living things (wool, shells, leather, natural pigments), objects made of human materials can be startling or even off-putting. Hair is also an emotionally-loaded material associated with keepsakes for remembrance (parents saving a lock of baby hair after a first hair cut), romance (a lover wearing a locket containing their partner’s hair), and mourning (keeping a lock of a deceased loved one’s hair). The enduring nature of hair – the way it lasts long after someone has passed away – means that hairwork powerfully embodies memories and stories through the physical essence of another person…perhaps to an uncanny extent.
I, however, quickly became enamored. I love the delicacy of the work, as well as the ways that such objects embody sentimentality while providing a tangible link to people of the past. Many collections of historic objects have a few hairworks because the ornamental art form was popular during the Victorian era. The Helen Louis Allen Textile Collection (HLATC) is no exception. At HLATC, I have encountered a multitude of hairwork pieces using different techniques, hair colors, and forms. We have a gorgeous collection of wreaths and small florets. Visitors to the collection are often caught off-guard upon the discovery that these wreaths are in fact made with human hair; they often first assume that the fine, detailed work is made of thread.
While hosting collections visits, I especially enjoy facilitating close looking with these works using magnifying lenses. At HLATC, we often use lenses we call “loupes” to look closely at stitches, weavings, or fibers in order to better understand the techniques and materials used in a textile. Guiding the visitors to look closely and carefully at hairwork with loupes, I am able to help them see the variations in each strand of hair, the elegant wirework, and the fine weaving techniques. This helps the students and scholars better understand the materiality of the objects and the work of the makers.
Women most often created hair wreaths as a form of fancy work in the nineteenth century. “Fancy work” usually describes artworks that 19th-century women made by hand in the home among communities of women– including, but not limited to, painting, embroidery, and drawing. Although using hairwork in jewelry was common, hairwork wreath creations like these HLATC examples were display objects that served as visual markers of an individual’s family or community while being loaded with the sentimentality and romanticism of the nineteenth century. To create such works, various members of a community would give locks of their hair to the producer of the hairwork, or the producer would collect hair from a deceased relative.
Because of my interest in these objects, CDMC Visiting Executive Director Sarah Anne Carter and Middlebury College Professor Ellery Foutch recently invited me to join a workshop Dr. Foutch had organized with Pratt Institute Professor Karen Bachmann. Professor Bachmann is a practicing studio jeweler and a former master jeweler at Tiffany & Co. who has studied and published extensively on the techniques of hairwork; she guided us through the practicalities of working with hair and wire. The workshop was part of a material culture course Dr. Foutch designed focusing on the history of hairwork, human hair as a medium, artists and makers of such work, and the multivalent meanings of hair in American culture, past and present.
To participate in the workshop, I collected my own hair over the course of a week or so and used it to create this flower form! We utilized the gimp technique, which involves creating a loop with the hair and wrapping that loop in wire to provide stability and make a form. While I have to admit that working with my own hair felt a bit strange; taking techniques practiced more than one hundred years ago and replicating them by my own hand was a powerful experience.
Following the workshop, I looked back at some of the objects in the HLATC collection and saw that many of them use this particular gimp technique. The images below display this same technique close-up. While my flower may shy in comparison, it feels like I have unlocked a secret to this set of HLATC objects. I am excited to bring this learning and technical practice to future classroom visits and to share the art of hairwork with other scholars!
I want to thank Ellery Foutch and Karen Bachmann for sharing their knowledge and time. I also encourage readers to learn more about the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection and/or listen to this Radio Chipstone episode for more on hairwork.