Thursday, June 26, 2014

Kristen: Does your hairwork piece have real human hair in it? Maybe...

Let me just say that any conversation that challenges the status quo of a long held belief is cool, so long as it has its basis in research. I've been told that the art of research is a life-long process, one that a true historian enjoys with laughter and tears. Whether I am wrong or right matters little; the discussion will make collectors and amateurs alike reexamine their current research, which benefits everyone.

Recently I've had a bit of a discussion about hairwork, especially the weaving in brooches. I have a few pieces, and was told that at least one was not made of hair, but silk. It terrified me to think that I could be talking about these brooches, saying that they have real hair in them and...nothing. I'm the type who likes to dig, so here are a few of the things I've found, and the process that got me here.

For those of you who know Glenna Jo, you recognize her personality in an instant. I see a bit of myself in her, with the drive to know authenticity. She still does public speaking engagements, but for the most part she enjoys spending time with her husband looking at antique treasures. Well-known within the reenacting community, she has recently begun sharing bits of knowledge to our Tuesday sewing group. Fast forward to the day I brought in my hair collection, when she pointed out that one of the pieces was actually silk, without a bit of hair. Needless to say I was shocked! None of my previous research had mentioned it (only that it was done in the "usual manner"). I stopped buying hairwork pieces that I couldn't completely authenticate, and I left it at that.

Now, in my fourth season of reenacting, I've been tasked with helping newer members of the 21st Michigan get started. It weighs heavy on me, as my advice can mean the difference between hundreds of dollars of farby or authentic gear. The hairwork question bothered me again, as I noticed people buying expensive pieces on ebay, seemingly without authentication. I imagined how angry I would be if I found out the truth later! Now for the hard part-challenging what I had been told by experts.

It's really scary, as a sort of newbie, to challenge others who have been reenacting for much longer. No one wants to feel stupid, and making a comment that certain hairwork jewelry might not be hair at all, well that's a big statement. Especially since a person might invest his/her entire career in jewelry! But I also think hoarding this type of information is wrong, especially for buyers. I put out my feelers on Facebook, but still didn't get a definitive answer. I needed to bring in more research. I did find one picture that could be seen as that fine weaving, but not really. A closer examination will show a normal weave, not the too tight one that I'm discussing in this post:
Take a closer look here

As I said before, books/magazines from the 19th century are surprisingly cryptic in their instructions. I've yet to find written proof that silk was used. Already at a disadvantage, I had to ask people who would definitely know more-those brave souls who dare crack open an original! I went back to Glenna Jo and asked her a few questions...

Stop #1: Glenna Jo

My original source, the first to cast doubt on the jewelry. I just had to talk to her! Our conversation veered in so many directions, but in terms of the hairwork brooches, she was certain: the "perfectly" woven hair is more often than not a bit of fabric. The weave resembled that of silk, and to me it looks a lot like this (the second one is from my personal collection):

Is it impossible that hair could be woven that finely? It seems that way to me, though I might be influenced by the fact that I actually tried it and it was incredibly difficult. According to Glenna, it didn't make sense that the Victorians would want a basic design for such an intricate piece. Why would they want a weave that looks just like fabric? Also, hair generally has different colored strands (all at once) and my hairwork is all identical. Every strand in place, not a single varying color. A little too much like the twins from The Shining, if you ask me. Could a jeweler do this? Probably. But who would ask for it?

Glenna notes that there were so many styles to pick from, so much to personalize for a single brooch. Braiding certainly stands out, but this isn't quite braiding, it's weaving. I know if I was sending in money for a hairwork piece, I might choose something a bit more complex or interesting:

Glenna adds that "accuracy is not an end goal, it's a process." She brought up a few times in the past when she had thought she was correct, only to be proved wrong later. Working through research is time-consuming, as I would soon find out. I asked about where Glenna had first heard about the fabric backing, and she brought up quite a few names, including Ruth Gordon. Apparently she had heard the tidbit about 20 years ago at what would become The Ladies and Gentleman's Conference. All I had was a on to the next source...

Stop #2 Ruth Gordon

Googling "Ruth Gordon" alone shows nothing useful. If you type "Ruth Gordon hairwork," a broken link from shows a bio. This lady sounds like she knows her stuff, but the page looks old. Another search brings up her store "Cherished Memories," with a phone number! Unfortunately the phone number is wrong, but the man was very helpful and somehow I got to talking with Ruth. And let me just say, I like Ruth. We share a mutual interest and...Michigan. We both live in Michigan.
Photo from Victorian Hairwork

I asked about fabric backing pieces of hairwork, and how to tell if it was real hair. She says that hair is not perfect, that it should be apparent that a material is hair under a microscope. Lines would probably have some slight imperfection, probably not too straight, unless it was done very finely by a professional. Even then, strands should be somewhat visible. She adds that all different types and weaves of fabric were used for backing the brooches; the material was much better for holding a grip on the hair.
Photo from Victorian Hairwork

In our conversation she recalled how she had seen some pieces sold that were not actually hair at all, and that the only way to tell was to take it apart, as she had done so often. My favorite quote from her? "Be common-sensical." It is the job of the buyer to truly understand the purchase, an idea I've heard brought up often when a reenactor goes hunting down sutler row. But what if the seller doesn't know either? The only way to be sure was to take it apart! I had to keep searching...

Ruth did give me several other places to go. She mentioned Leila's Hair Museum as a stop along my research path, with a website I had previously visited. Unsure about how I would contact anyone, we finished talking. Seriously, Ruth is quite a peach, and I'm excited to hear that she plans on rejoining the world of hairwork. Expect more posts about her in the future! On to my next bit of research...

***Recent Addition***
Ruth has confirmed that this is made from fabric, as the edges are frayed. I see so many pieces online just like this, and people think it is real hair! I am going back and checking my collection...

Stop #3 Leila Cohoon

Leila was much easier to find, with a phone number right on her website! I was just as shocked when Leila herself answered the phone; I asked her about the silk backing of a brooch, and she knew immediately about the nature of my question. It seems that many people have tried to sell her inauthentic hair! 
Seriously, how could you lie to this woman??

Leila continues with Ruth's idea that people have tried to pass off unfinished pieces as hair. She takes it a step further, saying that in the years she has been opening up brooches, any piece that was questionable has turned out to not have real hair. If it is too fine, too perfect, it probably isn't hair, only the backing. There's a good chance that the woven square-looking stuff was silk or other fabric. Leila seems to agree with Ruth that the only way to tell is if it is opened.

I liked the confidence in her voice and that might be because she has examined thousands of hairwork pieces. Not just looked, but taken apart and tested for authenticity. I don't think there is another person in the U.S. with her experience of hairwork in all its forms. It is useful to add that she opened her own cosmetology school, and in her words: "You can't fool a hairdresser." When this woman is doubtful of so many pieces, it might be a good idea to follow suit! 

Leila was incredibly helpful and I was grateful that she was willing to talk to me for so long. It is obvious that this woman knows her stuff; I feel more confident that fabric can pass as hair. Leila mentioned a few names, and Lucy Cadwallader came up. This was a name that reenactors trusted, so I bid the (wonderful) Leila adieu. On to my next point of research...

Stop #4 Lucy Cadwallader

Again, I ran into some difficulties finding her number. After awhile I found it, but not after calling a few wrong numbers. Lucy's website boasts her beautiful work, and I was excited to speak to her! 

Lucy brought up the fear that many women shared from the time period; pieces sent to jewelers might be made from a different source of hair simply because it was easier. That would be terrible! Perhaps a loved one had died, or was gone for a long journey. Such fraud scares me as well, hence this long, drawn-out post!

Lucy agrees with Ruth and Leila that the only way to discover the truth would be to open up the original piece. She adds that sometimes they used embossed paper as a backing, but fabric too. Sometimes jewelers made samples of a piece with animal hair to show what hairwork would look like under glass, which would then be replaced later with human hair. Lucy said it was possible to achieve such a tight weave of hair in a brooch piece, but also added this warning: "It is buyer your research!" Without an example in front of her it was hard for her to be specific about pieces lacking hair, though she did say that she had opened many an original piece. If opened carefully, there should no be damage to the work. 

End of the Road: Conclusions?

Without analysis by any of the women, it seems that I can't definitely say whether certain pieces are silk or hair. I did find common threads (haha) amongst the words of all the women during my brief questioning:

1. "Hair" brooches without hair have been sold, advertised incorrectly.
2. Silk/other fabric was used as backing for hairwork brooches.
3. If it looks a little too perfect, there's a good chance it might be fabric.
4. If you want to know for sure, you have to open it.
5. People get upset when they find out an original does not have real hair.

Of course I still have a ton of questions. I've seen inside a few brooches recently, and it looks like thread to me. How would I know for sure? I'm not at home to crack open my originals, something I would totally have already done in the name of historical research! I do have more information coming, as Ruth will be sending me pictures of the fabric backing that she has found (many types), which will help. I can't wait! It's like a kid waiting for Christmas, except I'm an adult and it's research so...whatever. 

As more information surfaces, I will go back and revise this post. I shudder at those stories of reenactors who don't evolve, that simply stay stuck in their ways because it is easier (Rainbow Snoods!). If I'm wrong I'll tell you and move on, because historical research is a process, a journey with many winding twists and turns. When this ride stops being fun, I'll get off and let someone with more energy continue. And through it all...

Stay Gold Ponyboy!



  1. You, too, Johnnycake!
    As an "Outsider" (read: male) I found this to be very well written and, more than that, very well researched!
    It's your research that got my interest.
    You done good my sometimes daughter!
    Don't stop researching but make sure you watch a sunset once in a while.

  2. Glenna Jo ChristenJune 29, 2014 at 3:59 PM

    Good job Kristen! You are wise to err on the side of caution in indicating which brooches are likely to be silk than hair. I keep my first non-hair hair brooch as a reminder 'buyer beware' (caveat emptor" to the Latinists among us.)
    I am flattered you see some of me in yourself. I'm glad you are seeing one of my better traits too. :-)
    Keep up the good research work!



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