I’ve now been a teacher for more years than those I have not. I’ve been on countless field trips and visited many museums. The strange thing is that I somehow totally missed this common hobby from the 1800’s. It wasn’t until our Manitoba Stay-Cation that I first heard of hairwork. We visited the Hillcrest Museum in Souris last week and our tour guide pointed out a “hair wreath” hanging on one of the walls. At a glance or from a distance, you honestly would never know it was made of human hair, but when you get up close…well, yuck! I was totally grossed out and in fact, my gag reflex started to kick in. Are you kidding me…a wreath, a decoration for your home, made entirely out of human hair. Who would do that and why?
I mentioned this to my neighbour as she is extremely well read. She totally knew what I was talking about and went on to explain that sometimes hairwork was done using hair from loved ones to make a form of a family tree. I have to admit, like my own mother, I did keep a lock of hair from both of my kids’ first haircuts, but I certainly didn’t wear it as a broach! Besides wreaths, other crafts were made and given as gifts to loved ones. Although “hairwork” was not always created when mourning the passing of a family member, it often was.
Having had long hair most of my life and forever finding strands here and there about the house, I can’t even imagine the thought of twisting and weaving them into a special piece of art or jewellery. To think these “art” pieces would actually be a like a family heirloom. To me hair is disgusting, but I must say the thought of hairwork was so far out there for me, I had to google and see what else I could learn about this “art” form from so long ago.
What is even more interesting is that “hair jewellery” was actually a viable industry in the mid 1800’s. Evidently, you could choose the design you liked and submit the hair you wished to be used in the finished piece. Hairworkers would do “contract work” to create the desired pieces. So in fact, they got to touch and work with the hair of a stranger. I don’t mean to knock history as I know times were completely different. For example, you couldn’t order a floral spray for a funeral, but for me it’s just a little more than I can fathom. I guess it made for cheap and accessible craft supplies and came in a variety of hues, but really? Don’t get me wrong, I think that the concept is genius and the intricate work is phenomenal, but I personally just can’t get passed the medium used. Perhaps if this was something that my own family had passed along for generations, I might feel differently. In fact, this post had me thinking about a locket that has been in my mom’s family for a long time. I emailed my cousin to see if she could email me a photo of it because if my memory serves me correct, I think one side of the locket contained a photo of an ancestor and the other side contained locks of hair. Perhaps this was some how part of this popular trend.
For your enjoyment, I have included some lovely photos (Ha! Ha!), but if you want to see some actual pieces, I know that the Hillcrest Museum in Souris, Manitoba has one and the Seven Oaks House Museum right here in Winnipeg has three as well. Seven Oaks House was built in 1851 and is one of the oldest surviving residents in Manitoba. We live quite close to it, so I have been there several times, but never even noticed the hair wreaths. You can bet I’ll be going back to check them out this summer.