No doubt, the Victorians engaged in curious practices and pastimes and the commemorative craft of collecting hair for heartfelt creations was no exception to that eccentricity . The fascination with hair was partly due to its longevity. Flesh and bones would turn to dust but hair kept its color for centuries and remained a lasting memento frozen in time and an ode to a person’s essence.
Hair was held in high esteem during the Victorian era. It was a woman’s crowning glory and snippets of locks were kept in lockets and exchanged by lovers for centuries. There was an intimacy in these romantic tokens that were kept close to the heart. In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff switches his rival Linton’s hair from the locket around dead Catherine’s neck and replaces it with his own, so that they can be together forever. An obsession with death and the afterworld was fueled by Queen Victoria who was the poster child for the cult of death mania in England. She had eight pieces of jewelry made that incorporated Prince Albert’s hair which she wore daily during her lifetime of mourning and she inspired those, crippled with grief, to grasp to a memento mori to fill the holes in their hearts.
Hairwork and elaborate creations were cherished beneath domed glass where a variety of tresses and curls of all shades were braided and looped into wreaths or trees to be kept as a sacred memorial. Generations to follow would add the locks of loved ones and the practice was as common as keeping important dates scribed within the family Bible. The fascination and use of hair included pets. Horse hair was commonly used as a reinforcement material in plaster walls and for stuffing cushions. The more favored four-legged friends were often incorporated into family hair art, often in lesser details among the edges, and also used for needle felting toys and treasures for children.
Hair has lost its lore and value in modern society however there are a few shreds of tradition that endure. Locks are often kept from a child’s first haircut and few romantics still grasp the tradition of keeping a locket inspired by a loved one around their neck. There is a new fascination with crafting with pet hair and many who craft with wool have discovered needle felting and knitting with pet fur is an easy adjustment and adds sentimentality to their creation. Felted cat-hair crafts surged in popularity after the English-language release of Crafting with Cat Hair, the cat crafters’ bible by acclaimed Japanese artist Kaori Tsutaya. The book includes chapters on how to properly collect your cat’s hair, as well as cat-fur facts and fun projects including finger puppets, portraits, feline-embellished scarves, and coin purses.
The Victorian era was about sentiment and emotion for the living and the dead. Hair crafting was an intimate connection between the keeper and the absent loved one that was a binding act of devotion and a talisman of a relationship. Perhaps we could start to overcome our modern day adversity and morbid connotations by rekindling a craft inspired by the fur of our four-legged friends. Whether a lock under glass or a felted cat coin purse, hair crafting is rooted in love.