The Ladies' Tea Guild

Friday, October 24, 2008

Some plans for the Victorian Hairwork Tea

Well, after having had a cup of assam (Trader Joe's, I think) and another cup of lemon ginger tisane (Twining's), I am still awake ... even though it's past my bedtime. Time to make myself useful until I fall asleep! Right now, that's going to mean: work on the plans for the next meeting of The South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild (which will be on November 8th. Ahem.).
The title and theme for this meeting will be "Victorian Hairwork", as in, the sentimental and sometimes morbid, but always elaborate and amazing form of art and ornament made from -- or using -- human hair. According to my research, more than half of the stuff was sentimental in nature, and was not made on the occasion of someone's death; it was popular as a gift between lovers (Jane Austen has Edward Ferrars wear a ring with a lock of Lucy Steele's hair in it, in "Sense and Sensibility"), parents and children (especially when sending a son off to war or a daughter off to marriage), spouses, intimate friends (Queen Victoria is said to have been given a bracelet by Empress Elisabeth of Austria, made from her hair), and other people joined by bonds of affection. A common form of hair art was the wreath, tree, or horseshoe shape, composed of flowers and leaves made from the hair of different members of the same family, meant to be framed and hung on the wall in the way we would display a family group portrait nowadays.
Simpler designs, like braids and coils enclosed in glass-fronted brooches, could be formed easily at home, but the more ornate creations were often done by professional hair artists who advertised their services in ladies' magazines. Elaborate items of jewelry could be made at home, however, using directions and drawings printed in ladies' magazines, and some specialized tools. These tools are difficult, if not almost impossible, to find these days, but there is a Victorian Hairwork Society that helps to keep the art form going. A few artists practice this art, and there is also, apparently, a town in Sweden where hair art is said to have originated, that has never given it up. I'll have to get back to you on the exact name of the town ...
Anyway, why are we going to be looking at this for our next meeting? Well, it's unusual, it's so very Victorian, and I think some remnants of this "women's work" folk art have been adapted and are still with us in America, today. I am thinking of those embroidery floss friendship bracelets that everyone was making when I was in grade school and high school, and that are still being made today, as evidenced by the stack of them on the wrist of a teenage friend. I have a book in my bookcase called _American Children's Folklore_, and it contains a chapter on those very friendship bracelets, although the author doesn't speculate where the idea originated, just records their existence and meaning from a sociological viewpoint, from reasearch done in the 1970s and 1980s, judging from the accompanying photos. What if those bracelets are the descendants of Victorian hairwork, created because the sentimental idea was worth keeping, but embroidery floss and safety pins are much easier to use than human hair, weighted bobbins, hairwork tables and the other tools? Just a thought.

1 comment:

Linda said...

Welcome to Blogland! I look forward to keeping up with your guild activities. Come over and visit me at
Your ATAA friend, Linda

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)