Horsing Around: Identifying Horsehair in Historic Textiles

Published on: Author: sarahfoskett 4 Comments

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.

Hat side view. Photo taken by author, November 2021.

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[1].

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[2]) 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[3]. This led me to conclude that the hat was made from horsehair.

Hat fibre at 200x magnification, showing a continuous medulla. Taken with a Zeiss Axioplan Microscopy Camera, by author in November 2021.

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.

The structure of the side of the hat. Taken by author, November 2021.

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[4], 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.


[1] Majorie Congram, Horsehair a Textile Resource, (New Jersey: Dockwra Press, 1987). 44.

[2] Douglas Deedrick and Sandra Koch, “Microscopy of Hair Part II: A Practical Guide and Manual for Animal Hairs,” Forensic Science Communications, 6 (2004): 24.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “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.

4 Responses to Horsing Around: Identifying Horsehair in Historic Textiles Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. What a fascinating read, Tabby, and such an unusual object. This is opportune to read now as I was examining a sample of horse hair canvas from a tailored jacket yesterday – something I know viscerably to be ‘horsehair’, but proving it was a challenge under microscopy, appearing so opaque and black. It fitted more with coir which I knew was obviously incorrect! I shall re-examine the sample tomorrow using the references you mention above. Thank you!

  2. The example you show could also be a Yao shaman’s horsehair hat from either S W China or N Vietnam. If you search web for ‘Yao horsehair hat’ you should find some examples. I have one myself. Check Instagram for Slow Loris as he sources and sells from time to time – that was where I got my hat from.

  3. Second attempt to leave a comment.

    This horsehair hat could also be a Yao shaman’s hat from either S W China or N Vietnam. I have one very similar which is Yao as well as another Yao horse hair hat in a completely different style. Check out Slow Loris’ Instagram pages as he may have an example and certainly lots of Yao textiles and if you search the web with ‘Yao horse hair hat’ you will see examples. I found this one on Slow Loris Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/p/BEB8n4NKwlR/
    I am also aware of examples of dog’s hair weaving by Taiwanese aboriginals examples on the British Museum collection on line.

  4. Thank you both very much for your comments. Pamela, that information is fascinating, I will definitely start following this Instagram for help with future identification! I imagine dog’s hair is very challenging to weave, I will look up those examples on the British Museum Website.
    Very best,
    Tabby

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