By Tabby Gibbs, First Year Student, MPhil Textile Conservation
As we are now well into the second semester, my fellow first years and I have been reflecting on the vast amount we learnt in the first term. One of the things I particularly enjoyed studying was microscopy; the ability to tell different fibres apart through minute differences in their structural appearance is amazing!
My newfound skill was quickly tested when I was tasked with writing a technical object record about a very intriguing object. This black round cap featuring a geometric design in the knotted structure and a bobble on the top was a very different from any hat I had ever seen before.
The first piece of information I wanted to figure out was what it was made of. Initially, from the fibre’s jet-black appearance and thick wiry texture, I had thought it might either be horsehair, as it is one of the only natural fibres with such a strong colour and thickness, or a synthetic fibre. Nylon monofilament, for example, shares many of the properties of horsehair.
The reason I thought it might be synthetic was because the fibres looked quite similar in size and colour at first glance. I took a sample and looked at it under the microscope, but it was so dark I could not see any identifying features at all. When identifying animal hairs under the microscope, you are mainly trying to locate subtle differences of the fibre medulla (a central core of cells) and the cuticle (surface).
Just when I was ready to declare it as a synthetic fibre, I noticed that the hat was not as uniformly black as I had thought, there were some spots where the fibres were brown. Luckily, I discovered a place where I could safely take a sample of a brown fibre, and voila! Through visual inspection I was able to spot an unbroken medulla with no scales on the cuticle and well distributed pigment. This led me to conclude that the hat was made from horsehair.
Once I was sure of the fibre, I wanted to figure out the technique used to make the hat, which was another challenging element. I went through several ideas of what it could be, before I eventually concluded that it was some variation on a knotted-weft wrapping technique, using a combination of single element knots and braiding techniques, whilst the edge is finished using a basketry weaving technique called twining.
Amongst my research, I discovered that the hat shares many similarities with various hats and headdresses made in Korea in the Joseon Period. In particular, it is like the traditional Korean Gat hat, seen in this example from the V&A.
Confirming that the fibre was indeed horsehair allowed me to conclude that the hat was most likely from Korea, and from my research I could potentially date it to the late Joseon Period (late 19th-early 20th Century).
I was really lucky to get the chance to closely examine such an interesting and puzzling object and if I encounter horsehair in the future, I’ll be much better placed to recognise it. If you are interested in learning more about the microscopic differences between animal fibres, there is a brilliant online resource here.
For now, I’m looking forward to my next challenging object and fibre identification!
Thank you to the owner of the hat, Joanne Hackett, for allowing me to carry out detailed study on the hat.
 Majorie Congram, Horsehair a Textile Resource, (New Jersey: Dockwra Press, 1987). 44.
 Douglas Deedrick and Sandra Koch, “Microscopy of Hair Part II: A Practical Guide and Manual for Animal Hairs,” Forensic Science Communications, 6 (2004): 24.
 “Gat, Traditional Headgear in Korea,” National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, Korea, posted February 11, 2014, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.korea.net/NewsFocus/Culture/view?articleId=117541.