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hair wreath
HLATC: 1995.05.002 More info

"Hair Wreaths: Fancywork from the Victorian Era"


During the Victorian period (1837-1901), European and North American societies believed that a middle- or upper-class woman should function as manager of both the house and family. The interior of the home subsequently became a showcase for a woman’s best handwork and decorative taste. The term "fancy work" came to describe both functional and purely aesthetic objects a Victorian woman made or embellished in her free time. From 1850 to 1875, one of the most popular forms of fancywork was the hair wreath. Appealing to the tendency among Victorian women to incorporate the importance of friends and family into their work, hair served as a tangible remembrance of someone.


Often, close companions exchanged hair as tokens of friendship. Hair was also sometimes taken after a person’s death as a means of honor and remembrance.



For a woman whose local supply fell short, hair swatches could even be purchased from catalogs and stores. Hair wreaths were constructed almost entirely of human hair, which was manipulated to resemble a variety of flowers, floral sprigs, and leaves. The flowers placed together in a horseshoe-shaped wreath represent a common Victorian symbol for good luck displayed with the open ends up so as to "hold the luck inside."


This large and densely packed hair wreath incorporates many of the numerous techniques devised for the manipulation of hair. The digital photographs reveal, for example, the heavy use of a gimping technique.

First the hair was put into small groupings of between 10 and 80 hairs, twisted around a knitting needle, and then bound around the bottom by fine intertwined wires.


An interesting inclusion in this wreath is white horsehair, a substitute that was sometimes incorporated when white human hair-the scarcest to find-could not be obtained. Although thicker, horsehair offered similar flexibility to human hair.

hair wreath


To view more examples of hair wreaths in the Collection please click here.


hair wreath



"Researching and Interpreting Textiles: Students Research HLATC Textiles"

by Beth Blahut


Former graduate student Andrea Kolasinski received her M.S. in Textiles and Clothing and her PhD in Design Studies. During her studies here at UW-Madison, she researched a group of nineteen floral fancywork wreaths in the HLATC, dating from 1850-1890. This group included three distinct types of wreaths, based upon the different materials used to execute them: wool yarn, human hair, and feathers. Kolasinski's goal was to write a catalog for the nineteen objects, and to discuss connections between the three different techniques. In addition, she undertook an exploration of the cultural significance of these handcrafted wreaths in the Victorian home. She stated that the wreaths were most likely displayed in the parlor, the room in which guests were received. Middle and upper class women often exhibited their skills in the needle arts there, in an effort to create an elegant and personalized real. Kolasinksi's interest in Victorian culture, and especially in fancywork of the period, led her to choose to study these wreaths. Discussing her personal fascination, she noted that, "fancywork is different from plain sewing because it served as a woman's creative expression; many cultural values reside in decorative, non-necessity objects."


hair wreath

HLATC: 1995.05.003 More Info

Kolasinksi paid considerable attention to the construction of the three types of wreaths, describing the processes thoroughly in her catalog. Her understanding of specific fabrication techniques was gained in part by creating a number of sample flowers. Using a gimping technique, she made numerous hair samples, remarking, "It was interesting to discover how much time and skill it required— an awful lot of time." Professor Gordon believes that the process of fabricating an object can teach a lot about the reality of that experience and allows researchers to examine a process from the maker's point of view. The exercise can even effect a researcher's interpretations and conclusions about a particular object.


Kolasinksi searched through two prevalent woman's magazines from the period, Godey's Lady's Book, and Peterson's Magazine, to locate images of fancywork wreaths and how-to instructions. While she found numerous images of yarn and feather wreaths, she uncovered only brief mentions and no images or instructions of the hair type.


She located a few brief mentions of the hair wreaths, but no images or instructions for them. The techniques used in the three types of wreaths are similar, and connections can be drawn to both mourning embroideries and Berlin wool work. Although fancywork was predominantly produced from published patterns, Kolasinski concluded that in the case of hair wreaths, creativity and personal expression flourished as individuals adapted available patterns and techniques to use with a different material— human hair.


Kolasinksi observed that though important, the visual analysis of magazine images only permitted her to get so close. With the real objects, she could analyze the use of different types of hair, a detail that revealed that hair wreaths were constructed of white and red hair more rarely than other hair colors. Aside from being able to pick up and view an object from all sides, Kolasinksi added that "being with an object has an almost magical quality— almost like touching the past."