The How-To of Hairwork

“Warm the palette by placing it on the hob, or before the fire for a few minutes, and you will soon find that the curl becomes loose and may be lifted off with the edge of a knife.”

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The Edinburgh brooch, circa 1850. The only component missing from this otherwise outstanding example is an inscription. Sadly, no more can be known of the deceased beyond that he or she was gray-haired and elderly, and came from a Scottish family that could afford a high-quality death memento. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

I purchased this mourning brooch in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1993. It was the foundation of my collection and, at the time, was actually was my second choice—the first being a smaller, plainer piece with a simply coiled blond lock, probably dating from the 1820s or 1830s. The brooch looked more “human” to me, but the shop owner enticed me toward a different brooch, assuring me it was unusual. It dates from the late 1840s to early 1850s.

The body is 14-karat gold or higher with a tube hinge, C-clasp, and a pin that is longer than the length of the brooch—all evidence that an item that was indeed crafted in the 18th or 19th centuries. The hair memento compartment is set amidst a tempestuous lovers’ knot untamed by the somber black enamel embellishment. Inside the glass-capped compartment is a piece of black cloth on which palette-worked gray hair has been affixed. The design is known as Prince of Wales feathers and is decorated with a pearl band, as well as a stalk of barley and ribbon made from gold wire thread.

The Prince of Wales feathers for the Edinburgh brooch were carefully crafted by a professional hairworker. For an exploration of how it was made, one can turn to no better source than the Collector’s Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry: Identification and Values by C. Jeanenne Bell, which contains a full reprint of Alexanna Speight’s 1877 booklet, A Lock of Hair. The booklet contains instructions for palette work that were aimed at the Victorian lady who aspired to a new and noble handwork. Taking up the hobby, as Bell notes, would not only give her “the satisfaction of working with the hair of her loved ones, but it also assured her that the precious locks would not be substituted for, or augmented with, another’s”—an ignoble deed undertaken by unscrupulous memorial jewelry makers and feared to occur with regularity.

Speight instructed her readers to first dissolve one small piece of borax and one of soda in a half a teacup of hot water, and to soak the lock of hair for several minutes to remove “oil and impurities” before the hair could “take its place among the fine arts.” The cleaned hair was spread on a palette and scraped with a knife then the cleaning process was repeated with fresh borax and warm water. The hair was then spread on the palette again and the ragged ends chopped off.

Next, a curling iron heated by a candle flame or spirit lamp was used to shape lengths of hair into feather shapes, with Speight coaching her aspiring artists to hold the irons in position until the hair began to steam then allow it to cool before removal. The twist of the curl and the ends were then affixed with gum and these were then left under a small weight for an hour. Afterward, the curls were slightly moistened with water to touch up the shape, if needed, then remoistened with gum and left to dry. The process was repeated for a second and usually third curl.

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Patterns for palette-worked hair from the mid-1800s, with Prince of Wales feathers at bottom right. These patterns were not all meant for use in memorial jewelry, but also for pieces that commemorated friendships, engagements, marriages, and other milestones in a family’s history.

To remove a curl from the palette, writes Speight, “warm the palette by placing it on the hob, or before the fire for a few minutes, and you will soon find that the curl becomes loose and may be lifted off with the edge of a knife.” The curls were then arranged on an ivory, bone, or milk glass, cloth, or even a paper tablet. Speight goes on to teach her readers how to make the delicate gold-wire band and ribbons by twisting the wire around a needle, and the barley stalk by cutting the wire and using gum applied with a camel-hair brush to cement the shape. Similarly, the decorative band was constructed, using gummed paper as a ground, by carefully arranging the gold-wire band and split seed pearls. Finally, the decorative elements were carefully arranged amidst the curls. After drying, any extra gum was removed using spirits of wine.

The design thus assembled, the tablet would be inserted into the selected brooch setting by the jeweler. The final step, in some cases, was the engraving of a memorial or other inscription. Sometimes the entire process was handled by a single skilled artisan—such as the one who placed this advert in the London Illustrated News: “Hair jewellery, Artist in Hair. Dewdney begs to inform Ladies or Gentlemen that he beautifully makes, and elegantly mounts in gold, Hair Bracelets, Chains, Brooches, Rings, Pins, Studs, etc., and forwards the same, at about one-half the usual charge. A beautiful collection of specimens handsomely mounted kept for inspection. An illustrated book sent free. Dewdney, 172 Fenchurch St., London.” Ω

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

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