Saturday, December 30, 2017

Horse hair

Recently, a friend pointed out that, despite the many topics I've covered about hair, I've not once mentioned horse hair. I'm rarely around horses, so it just didn't occur to me.

As I combed (ahem) the internet looking into it, I found that horse hair is much more prevalent in my immediate surroundings than I would have thought.

For instance, horse hair is often used in concrete. Its fiber adds strength. It's also used in mortar. The walls of my house date to the 1950s and are made of plaster -- horsehair might just have been sheltering me from storms all along.

Horse hair is used for all kinds of things - pottery, fishing line, fabrics, paintbrushes, jewelry... Until synthetic fabrics came along, it was the goto for padding in furniture, not a bad choice since horse hair is more heat resistant than human hair. According to, the hair would be stripped from the horse's mane and crimped with a hot iron. (A horse's mane grows as much as 1-1/2 inches per month.) Called "Horse-hair Curlers," people used to have jobs doing this kind of work.

Horse hair is also music to our ears -- violin bows are made of it. The quality of horse hair used in a violin bow is exceedingly important. For the upper strings, only white hair from a stallion is used. Why? Black hair is coarser, used for the lower strings like the cello and bass. The hair for string bows comes from the tails of horses in really cold climates such as Siberia, Mongolia and Canada. I learned all this, and eight other facts about the horsehair on a string player's bow, at a post at Colorado Public Radio here.

It was in reading the comments at the above post that things got even more interesting. Since horse hair is often procured from slaughterhouses, for some the use of horse hair is a "cruelty to animals" issue, with alternatives constantly being sought. As I scrolled down the comments, this pungent remark stuck with me, made by Kamrooz Sanii: "We must realize that only the hair from male horse is useful because those from female horse is not since the female urinates constantly on its tail." There you have it.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Hawaiian hair leis

On a recent trip to Hawaii, I visited the Kaua'i Museum and discovered again the power of hair, existent historically in so many different cultures. For the people on the island of Kaua'i, a person's hair, as well as bone and nail clippings, were carefully guarded as they were believed to carry a person's spirit, or mana.

The Kaua'i people made leis out of hair, called lei niho palaoa, described in the museum exhibit thus:

This lei worn by men and women of high rank consisted of up to 1,000 strands of plaited (braided with 8 hairs) human hair from which hung a pendant carved in the shape of the tongue of the god Ku. It signifies the wearer speaks with authority.
The interpretive plaque went on to explain the talisman-like significance of the lei niho palaoa.
The hair of a highly regarded person was often used to create the strands of plaited human hair (this included hair from enemy warriors that were highly respected). The men would wear the lei niho palaoa into battle as protection.
While the pendant pictured here is carved of whale ivory, other pendants were made of pearl shell, wood, or stone.