Brushing up on Victorian hair art

by Meredith McGovern, Collections Assistant

Remember the good ol’ days when your family would retreat to the parlor and relax by the fire —Dad reading the paper, you playing with your favorite doll, and Mom washing and bundling hair, brushing it out, and weaving it into a bracelet for you to wear? What … no? Sorry, I must be thinking of a Victorian family.

Hair bracelet, 1865 – 1880. Owned by Susan Spencer Merrill (1828-1911)

In the mid-19th century, many women put down their knitting needles or crochet hook and took up a new form of leisure — hair art. I know it sounds strange and probably gives some of us the heebie-jeebies, but the artist would collect hair from their family and friends and would braid or weave the strands into framed wreaths or jewelry, including blonde brooches, brunette bracelets and raven rings. The finished products, like the bracelet pictured below, served as sentimental, everyday reminders of loved ones, living or dead.

To prepare for an upcoming hair program at the Indiana State Museum (more on that later!), Gaby Kienitz, the Indiana State Museum’s textile conservator and craft extraordinaire, agreed to help me create a few bracelets by following patterns originally printed in a popular Victorian magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book. We just needed to gather a few supplies: HAIR (!), a frame or hatbox to work the hair on, and weights to balance the strands. While Gaby built us a small table, I tasked myself with finding the hair. Victorian women spent a lot of time collecting, degreasing, detangling and bundling it. I took the easy route and opted not to snip my coworkers’ locks, although they eyeballed me suspiciously. I turned instead to a modern convenience — my local craft store. The doll wigs looked a bit unruly, so I settled on a skein of chestnut-colored yarn.

Meredith and Gaby channeling their Victorian ancestors.

Supplies in hand, Gaby and I donned our corsets and hoops skirts (not really, but our Victorian counterparts did — sorry, ladies, we feel your pain!) and sectioned off “hair” on the table, crossing it from bottom to top around a tube, clockwise or counter-clockwise depending on the pattern. At first it was difficult. We tried using embroidery floss that proved too fine and a jute twine that was too stiff. The yarn was easiest to weave and held the form of the bracelet best. We found out that the Victorian magazine wasn’t kidding when it instructed its readers to weight the hair. Without weights, our product looked uneven, lopsided and sad. However, before long we got into a groove and started chatting about the same things I’m sure the Victorian artists did — cats, dental work, New Year’s plans and varicose veins. Soon we had several bracelets and chains. Our finished products might not make us misty-eyed over a friend or relative, but they do make a nice lanyard or chain for our museum employee IDs.

The finished products.

Come to the Indiana State Museum for Curls, Cornrows & Comb-overs on Saturday, Jan. 29 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. to check out 19th-century examples of hair art like the one pictured above. I’ll be there taking another stab at a bracelet of my own. You can also learn about the science and culture of hair from a wide array of hair experts and enjoy hands-on activities.