The Versatile History of Horsehair

I’m not at all into music. I was certain that when I was given my recorder in third grade, I would finally learn to read and play music.

I was wrong of course and I never even understood Three blind mice. I guess these childhood flights are designed to teach the young and naive about failure. I also thought I could float in a puddle in an overturned umbrella thanks to Christopher Robin. Another of life’s disappointments.

No matter.

I evoke the music because I learned, thanks to Danger, that horsehair is used to make violin bows. Apparently this knowledge is slow to come to me, because everyone I tried to impress with it already knew, which is disappointing, if not a little embarrassing. I bet there are a few people like me who have wandered through life without this fact.

It turns out horsehair is used for all sorts of things, but we’ll start at the beginning.

Bows

Horsehair has been used in violin bows for over 400 years. You would think that with today’s technical advancements in just about everything, someone would come up with a synthetic substitute for horsehair. And someone did, but apparently the result is “really awful”. So horrible in fact, even beginners can tell the difference.

Horses still prevail, we should just know that for a fact.

It is obviously the ponytail hair that is used for the bows given the length required. What isn’t obvious is that the hair comes from horses that live in cold climates like Mongolia, Russia, and even Canada, as they have thicker hair, including their tails. And thick tail hair is just the ticket for violin bows.

The reason tail hairs are the perfect thing for a bow is that the scaly surface of each hair grips and releases an instrument’s strings with just the right amount of intensity to create the perfect vibration.

Upper string players prefer white hair, while lower (low) string players prefer black hair because it tends to be coarser and can grip larger strings better. Although some lower string players go for a black/white combo, salt and pepa so to speak.

The top string group is picky about the hair used, which is fair because their bows cost around $8,000 and need to be put back together after 800-1,000 hours of play. I’m surprised the hair lasts that long. Their favorite hair is naturally white throughout the length with no color variations. Bleaching hair, as you know from bleaching your white pageant clothes, weakens it and so it stands to reason that color is more about performance than aesthetics.

As a morbid but interesting note, almost all of the tail hair collected comes from slaughterhouses rather than live horses, which makes sense. And of all the hairs in a tail, only a small fraction is useful, because those that are twisted, too short, or the wrong color are discarded.

Wigs

Credit: Fourteen heads showing different types of wigs. Colored engraving, 1773. Wellcome Collection. Public domain mark

Word wig comes from the word wig which was a type of long curly wig that Charles II made popular in 1660 when he returned to the throne. Wigs, unsurprisingly, were often made of horsehair and that makes sense because that was 400 years ago.

However, if you want to buy a horsehair wig today, they are available. Not only are those ridiculous wigs you see in courtrooms often made of horsehair, but so are regular wigs.

According to several websites, horsehair is a popular choice because the tail and mane hairs used are similar to human hair in texture and styling ability. Maybe it’s just me, but nothing about my hair looks like a ponytail. My hair is more like Boris Johnson’s in its overall state of lightness and blond unruliness. Maybe your hair is closer to a horse’s than mine. I do not know.

dance floors

Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom, built in 1930, has a unique spring-loaded dance floor as it’s covered in coiled ponytail hair. This gives it the perfect amount of absorption for dancing, saving ankle and knee joints for years to come.

As unique as the Commodore’s dance floor is, the province of Saskatchewan has two horsehair dance floors. The Danceland Ballroom has a world famous 5000 square foot horsehair dance floor and has been doing so since 1928. And the Jack Millikin Center has the same dance floor but not world famous.

From what I can tell, these are the only three suspended dance floors in the world that have used horsehair to add spring to your step. I cringe at my own words here.

Horsehair fabrics

In the mid-1700s, horsehair began to be used in the manufacture of textiles. For some reason I thought it was a horse’s body hair, which is a ridiculous notion, it’s tail hair that is used in combination with cotton or silk.

The appeal of ponytail hair is its natural shine, durability, value, and ease of maintenance. The use of horsehair several hundred years ago enabled countries to source local materials and therefore reduced the need to import fabrics. Famous designers such as Chippendale and Hepplewhite were the first to use horsehair fabric.

You can still find products made from horsehair fabric today. For example, I managed to stumble upon some rather beautiful tote bags made from the very fabric. Akris is the brand, and if the mood takes you, you can pick up one of these handbags for just $4,490. Chump change if you ask me.

There is also a company that makes bespoke bedding, some of which uses horsehair. For example, you can specially order a pillow to your own specifications that is filled with 100% horsehair. It is unclear what type of horsehair is used and whether you can supply your own horsehair. It does not matter, the pillow, depending on your wishes, will cost between $39 and $428.99. It better be a comfortable pillow. You can also buy a horsehair mattress, but it’s one of those “call for a price” situations, meaning it’ll cost you an arm and a leg.

Gibson Girl

In the early 1900s, the Gibson Girl look was all the rage. It was just one of many pompadour hairstyles of the time, which is just a fancy way of saying poofy hair. In order to achieve such large hair, they were often styled over a “rat”. Obviously, it wasn’t a real rat, but rather shriveled horsehair encased in cloth. This acted as a sort of buffer in which to stick on the head and build the hairstyle over it. A building block, if you will, for a puffy headdress.

Other things

There is a long list of things horsehair has been used for in the past and present. Things such as brushes (fine art and shaving), fishing lines, flies, plaster, pottery, baskets, yarn, hats, crinolines and bustles.

Honestly, what would we have done without horses?

Sources: CPR.org; Akris.com; Horsehairfabrics.com; Johnboydtextiles.co.uk; Maliteriepersonalisee.com

Featured Image: Rebecca Berry Photography

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