Of the various leisure activities for the Victorian
woman, none is, perhaps, more interesting than hair
work to create jewelry.
During the mid-nineteenth century
hair work became a popular drawing-room occupation, as
the much-practiced knitting, netting, and crocheting. By
acquiring knowledge of this art, ladies were able to
manufacture the hair of beloved friends and relatives into
bracelets, chains, rings, earrings, and thus insure that
they could actually wear the treasured memento they prized.
The objects which were made in hair are more numerous than
is generally supposed. An ingenious Victorian hair-worker
thought of many little domestic articles which could be
either made of hair or ornamented with it. The following
were some of the commonest applications: bracelets,
brooches, earrings, rings, chains, necklaces, shawl pins,
cravat pins, purses, bags, book markers, pencil cases,
guards, studs, stud chains, scent bottles, walking sticks
and even riding whips.
[Photo: Mid-nineteenth century women wearing a hair work
cross on a chain.]
A Victorian table worked open
"beads" hair bow pin with acorn drops. The knot
of the bow is gold tone inscribed with the name
"Lizzie." It measures 2-1/2" by 1-1/4". [Photo courtesy of Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry]
may seem strange to learn that the most beautiful pieces of
hair-work were created upon so simple a frame as a hat or a
bandbox, and that even a decanter was sufficient to make
various small articles in hair. At times, the bottom part
of a bandbox was turned upside down or a hat was stood upon
its brim. In either case, a flat table was made, in the
center was cut a small round hole, just large enough to put
a finger in. If the hole made in the top of the hat or the
bandbox was ragged at its edges, pieces of paper were pasted
over the rough parts before it was used.
Another form of frame was a
wooden cramp screwed onto the projecting rim of a table or
the corner of a mantle-piece. Whether this apparatus, or a
hat, or a band-box was used as a frame, a circular piece of
white paper was pasted over the table, and a hole made in it
corresponding with the hole in the table. Freestanding
frames were also used, and the most popular were those small
in size and light in weight.
A braiding table was very
simple in its construction, and cost little; the chief thing
necessary was that every part of it was perfectly smooth, as
the least roughness would tear the hair and destroy the
evenness and beauty of the work.
There were two varieties of
braiding tables; the first, or "ladies' table," stood about
thirty-two or thirty-three inches high; the second stood
nearly four feet high. The latter table was
preferred—although it was more fatiguing to stand than to
sit, more command of the work was obtained. Furthermore,
with the smaller braiding table, ladies' dresses, when
sitting, interfered with and disturbed the weights and their
Table braiding is similar to Japanese KUMI HIMO.
You can find a braiding table at the Halcyon Yarn web site to try your hand at
making your own hair work keepsakes.
of hair work depended more on the artistic skill, creativity
and practice of the worker rather than on any instructions
given. For working these, ivory—such as miniature painters
use—short lengths of hair (from two to four inches), thread,
and gum dragon are all the materials required. For tools, a
fine edged penknife, a very delicate pair of scissors with
fine sharp points, a couple of pencils, a fine long pin, and
a palette were necessary.
|The popular lady’s magazines of
the era often provided directions and pattern designs for
creating these cherished keepsakes. The following are
instructions provided in a series of articles in Godey’s
Lady's Book in the 1850s.
for Preparing the Hair:
tress, which is about to be used, into lengths, tie the ends
firmly and quite straight with pack thread, put the hair
into a small saucepan with about a pint and a half of water,
and a piece of soda of the size of a nut, and boil it for a
quarter of an hour or twenty minutes; take it out, shake off
the superfluous moisture, and hang it up to dry, but not
near a fire."
has become perfectly dry, divide it into strands containing
from twenty to thirty hairs each, according to the fineness
of the hair or the directions given for the pattern about to
be worked. It must be observed that every hair in the strand
should be of the same length, and the strands should be all
of an equal length."
Victorian hair brooch, basket weave in
glass covered compartment, scalloped design, back indented,
[Photo courtesy of Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry]
end of each strand, then take the requisite number of leaden
weights, weighing about three quarters or half an ounce
each, and affix about a quarter of a yard of pack thread to
each of them; lay them down side by side on the table, and
to the other ends of the pack thread affix the strands of
hair already prepared, knotting them on with a weaver's or
sailor's knot; care must be taken all this time to prevent
any entanglement or derangement of the hair."
ends of the strands must now be gathered together, firmly
tied with pack thread, and then gummed with a cement
composed of equal parts of yellow wax and shellac melted
together and well amalgamated, and then rolled into sticks
for use. We now come to the table and the arrangement of the
strands on it."
will exemplify the following directions. To the tied and
cemented cluster of ends attach a loop of pack-thread, and
hook this on to the small hook in the hole in the center of
the table; then lift each strand gently and separately off,
and arrange them all smoothly and evenly round the table in
the proper order for working the pattern; this done, affix
the balance-weight (a collection of three or four similar to
these attached to the strands) to the loop in the hole, and
allow it to hang down exactly in the center of that hole; a
brass tube or wire of the requisite size for the pattern
about to be worked must now be placed in the center, with
one end of it resting on the hook where the loop of
pack-thread has just been taken, and the work is ready to be
commenced; each strand having been first examined to see
that no loose hairs hang about."
pattern is completed, the center or balance-weight must be
detached, and then the pack-threads holding the other
weights should be gathered together and cut off. Afterwards,
smooth the short ends of the strands of hair on the tube and
lay them tightly down to it with thread; then cut off the
cemented end, and lie these parts also down in the same way.
Take the tube and immerse it in scalding water, and let it
simmer there, with the hair work on it, for about ten
minutes; withdraw it, shake off the superfluous moisture,
and hang it up to dry, not too near a fire; when thoroughly
dry, the work must be gently and carefully slid off the
tube, each end separately cemented with the before mentioned
composition, care being taken to gather up every hair, and
the pattern will appear complete and ready to receive
whatever clasp, snap, or slide it is thought proper to affix
Victorian table worked hair bracelet with gold stations
amazingly delicately worked, circa 1870. [Photo courtesy of Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry]
Pattern for a Bracelet. (Fig. 4.)
"Sixteen strands of twenty-five
or thirty hairs each, according to the fineness of the
hair. For this pattern the strands must be arranged in
fours, and numbered."
"Take the strand which lies on
figure 1, at the bottom of the diagram (Fig. 5), and move it
towards the left, and into the place of the next figure 1
strand, lifting that and carrying it to the top of figure 1
strand, while this latter in its turn must be removed to the
place of the right hand figure 1 strand, which goes to fill
the vacant place of the one first lifted at the bottom.
Proceed now to figure 2 of the bottom group, and work the
strands numbered 2 round in the same way, and in the same
direction. The next strand to be raised is figure 3 of the
bottom group, and this is to be worked in the same way, but
in the opposite direction, that is, towards the right and
into the place of strand 3 on the right of the X, which in
its turn goes to the top, and the top one to the left, while
that from the left hand group comes to the vacant figure 3
at the bottom. Figure 4 is worked in the same way and
direction as the threes; then recommence at 1."
"The point to be observed is to
move the ones and twos towards the left, and the threes and
fours towards the right; always beginning from the bottom
group. This pattern should be worked on a brass tube of the
thickness of an ordinary lead pencil, or rather larger; and
it looks very well over another and closer plaits. Each must then be
worked separately and when finished, and perfectly dry, the
smaller one should be passed through the larger, and the
ends of the two cemented firmly together. For such purpose,
we should advise that the Fig. 2 pattern should be worked
on a larger wire, perhaps of the size of a No. 10 knitting
Victorian braided hair watch chain with gold fittings, 10-1/3".
[Photo courtesy of Morning Glory
Antiques and Jewelry]
A Pattern for
a Chain or Guard. (Fig. 2.)
"For this pattern, sixteen
strands, each consisting of about twenty hairs, are
required. These must be arranged in pairs on the circle on
the table, at equal distances, and so that the opposite
pairs shall be in direct lines with each other."
"Number them with a piece of
while crayon chalk, as in the above diagram (Fig. 3), and
commence working as follows:
Take up the two bottom strands
over figure 1, and remove them to the position of the
opposite pair over the opposite figure 1, bringing back that
opposite pair to the position before occupied by those just
removed. Proceed then to the pair of strands over the right
hand figure 2, and in the same manner lift them into the
places of the strands over the opposite figure 2, and bring
these latter back. Work those over figure 3 and figure 4 in
the same manner, lifting those from the right hand side over
to the left, and bringing the latter back."
"Then recommence at figure 1,
and repeat this pattern until the hair is worked up;
remembering never to cross the strands, but simply lift them
over gently and without jerking from one side to the other.
This chain may be worked in pieces of three or four inches
each, and then united with gold slides, or in only two or
three portions, or in one continuous length; but this latter
plan would require the hair to be longer than we can usually
obtain it, namely, from fifteen to twenty inches or more in
length. It should be worked on a brass wire of about the
size of a No. 15 or No. 16 knitting needle."
Earrings were usually worked with moulds rather than tubes
or wires. Below are examples of three molds illustrated
in Godey's Lady's Book.
Victorian 14k yellow gold hair earrings, each a
foil-backed closed collet set dark citrines suspending an
acorn-shaped woven hair pendant earring, 1-1/2". [Photo courtesy of Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry]
Chain or Guard Pattern (Fig. 6)
"Ten strands only, of about
twenty hairs each, are required for this. They must be
Take figure 1 from the bottom,
and move it round in the direction pointed out by the arrows
into the place of figure 1 at the top, bringing that round
and down to the bottom; so on with the twos, threes, fours,
and fives, always working in the direction pointed
out—namely lifting the right hand strand into the place of
the left, and that round to the right: they should be lifted
round, and not crossed over. A wire about the size of a No.
15 knitting needle will do best to work this on. Bear in
mind that the strands are to be worked in the order in which
they are numbered."
"A very pretty bracelet may be
made with this pattern by increasing the size of the
strands (putting from thirty to thirty-five hairs in each),
and working on a tube of the size of a No. 6 knitting
needle. Three lengths of the pattern must then be made, and
twisted together so as to form a kind of rope or cable, and
firmly cemented together at the ends."
Victorian hair bow bracelet of open weave table work with engraved initials "AVP" on clasp.
[Photo courtesy of Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry]
Snake Bracelet Pattern (Fig. 8)
"Thirty-two strands of from
twenty to thirty hairs each, and arranged in groups of
fours, as evenly as possible, are needed for this pattern,
which may be worked on a tube of the same size ordered for
Fig. 4 pattern, or on a flat brass mesh about half or
three-quarters of an inch in breadth, or on a mould large at
one end and diminishing towards the other. In this latter
form, it constitutes the fashionable snake bracelet."
"A cross must be made with
crayon chalk to indicate where the pattern always
commences; and the strands must be kept as much as possible
in their places. Commence thus, working towards the left:
Take the outside right hand
strand of the first group of four immediately on the left
of the cross, and pass it over the one next to it; take the
outside left hand strand of this same group, and pass it
over the two next to it; repeat these movements with this
group, and then proceed to the next four, and work them in
the same way; and so on all round the table, until you again
come to the cross. This forms the first part of the plait."
"Then take two strands from the
right of the cross and two from the left of it, to form the
group of four, and rearrange the fours all round, taking the
outside twos of each neighboring set to form the fresh
grouping. Begin as before with the four immediately on the
left of the cross; take the two middle strands, and pass
them over the outside ones, and then under them, and so into
the middle again; cross the left hand middle strand over the
right hand one, then pass the right hand outside strand over
the two middle ones, and then the left hand outside strand
over the three others; proceed to the next group of four and
work them in the same way, and so on all round the board.
The pattern is now complete; the strands must be restored to
their original places and groups, and we recommence with the
first part of the plait."
"In working this pattern, great
care must be observed in the altering and restoring the
arrangement of the strands in their several groups at each
change of the plait. The opposite groups must also be kept
as much as possible in parallel lines, as the symmetry of
the work depends on attention to these niceties."
Godey's Lady's Book:
1850, 1851, 1859