Thursday, July 26, 2012


“Gimme head with hair
Long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming
Streaming, flaxen, waxen”

Hair, the musical opened on Broadway in April 1968 and ran for 1,750 performances.  A London production ran for nearly 2,000 performances.  I saw Hair in Washington DC and I must say it was a revelation.  Perhaps it is not so controversial today, but profanity, nudity and political rebellion certainly was at that time.  Still, many of us can at least hum the tunes, if not totally successful with all the lyrics.

Hair and textile history?  Well, the point is that hair is an animal fiber, often termed interchangeably with fur or wool or kemp depending upon the species of animal.  For instance, “my cat has a beautiful fur coat but the cat hair all over the furniture is driving me crazy”. 

As you can see from the diagram, wool, hair and kemp are morphologically different but all arise from the epidermis of the skin, this includes human hair.

Today, we are not discussing hair as a textile fiber but the use of human hair in quite a different way.

Since ancient times a woman’s hair was regarded as one of her most attractive
physical attributes.  Hair styles reflected the fashion of the day.  Curling, straightening, dyeing techniques have been employed both professionally by stylists as well as in the home. Great care was taken  in selecting brushes, combs and other accessories for the lady’s vanity or dressing table.  These accessories were often costly and carefully kept safely in elaborate boxes, or fabric envelopes.  Very popular were embroidered fabric liners or embroidered bags.

From Victorian times to the mid 1900’s a common accessory for the vanity was a hair receiver.  These receptacles can be identified by the center hole in the lid into which hair taken from combs and hairbrushes was “poked”.  Usually round, but may be square in shape, some were footed and were made form a variety of materials: porcelain, metal, glass and celluloid.  Celluloid is a tough thermoplastic compound, which was used to replace ivory.  It was easily shaped and used for dressing table sets, dolls, picture frames, buttons and buckles.  Unfortunately it was flammable and was subsequently replaced by Bakelite and Catalin.  Both are usually referred to as Bakelite, however Bakelite was produced in only 2 colors, black and brown.  Used for appliances, pot handles because it did not melt.  What we refer to as Bakelite colorful jewelry was actually Catalin, which was produced in a glorious rainbow of colors.

                                                             Celluloid hair receiver

So what happened to the hair from the receivers?  Some may think it was used in Victorian hair work called Pointe Tresse, using fine hair for embroidery and mourning wreaths. But this required straight hair (usually cut) and not tangled from combing.  Actually, the hair was used as stuffing for pin cushions and often to stuff ratts.  Ratts were made from stuffed netting and inserted as part of the woman’s hair style for fullness.  I guess the women could then truthfully say that their style was not a wig but “all their own hair”

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Needle - A Simple Tool

“The Praise of the Needle” is one of a series of “praise “poems written by John Taylor in 1693.  Somewhat humorous in tone he emphasizes the importance of needlework as a skill in 17thC England.
“To all dispersed sorts of Arts and Trades,
I write the Needles praise (that never fades)
So long as Children shall be got or bourne,
So long as Garments shall be made and worne,
So long as Hemp or Flax, or Sheepe shall beare,
 Their linen-woolen fleeces yeare by yeare;…..
Yea, till the world be quite dissolu’d and past;
 So long at least, the Needles use shall last."

Early man in northern climates relied on animal skins for warmth. Excavations of early cave dwellers indicate that animal pelts were “sewn” together for clothing.  Actually, the skins were pierced by sharp bones, shells or horn and then laced together.  These early needles did not have eyes, although some had hooks, which were useful in lacing.

The bronze age yielded silver, tin, lead and gold.  Once the process of making iron was known, the ordinary woman could have iron needles, which also had no eyes ( a closed hook carried the thread). 
Throughout textile history the needle has not significantly changed its shape.
The first fine metal needles are said to have been created by the Chinese for their elaborate silk embroideries, which along with the silk cloth were considered very desirable trade items.
Iron needles were all hand-made until the 19th C and there are accounts of German needle-making centers that supplied England and Europe.  In 1563 England passed an importation act that included banning the importation of needles and manufacturing centers grew in England.  One town famous for its needle-making is Redditch.  Iron was replaced by steel for needles as iron needles could only be hammered to a certain strength.
An article in the 1843 edition of The Penny Magazine describes the steps in the hand-making process.   Bundles of wires, 3 inches in length, were pointed on each end, the center was flattened and the eyes were punched, The needle ‘”twins” were halved and sent to be cleaned and polished.  There was great health issues associated with hand-manufacturing as the grinders that polished the eyes and points of the needles inhaled much of the particles of the steel as well as the stone dust of the polishing wheels.  Also, much of the sorting and polishing was done by children. The needles were sorted by size and separated into piles called “companies”. 14 pounds of wire could yield more than 48,000 needles, which were packaged for sale. In 1861 Redditch and nearby villages made 520 tons on needles. 

In time machines provided the labor.  In 1826 a stamping machine was used to create the eyes and by the late 1880’s machines did all the work.  Today needles are made from steel wire, which is cut, heated and straightened and pointed and then fed into a die to create the eyes.  Finally, as in times before the double needles are separated, polished, tempered and sorted. 

Various sized needles, including a curved and large upholstery needle, needle threaders. Victorian velvet pin and needle cushion filled with emery to keep pins and needles sharp and a needle book of felt with embroidery in the shape of a small girl.

Once needles were manufactures in great quantities, thought was given to packaging.  Packages and boxes of English needles had a portrait of Queen Victoria for many years and are now becoming quite collectible.  At the turn of the 20th C  lithographed illustrations were featured on needle packs.
Other collectibles are needle cases and needle books.  As needles were once quite expensive sewers were concerned for their storage.  Cases of mother-of-pearl, ivory, and enamel were popular, some lined with silver or gold.  Brass needle cases were especially popular.  Collectors today label brass needle cases as "Averys" after one leading  19thC needle-maker, although there were several  large manufacturers , all making brass cases as well. The cases were so elaborate and popular that they were patented   More information on brass needle cases can be found in Victorian Brass Needlecases by Horowitz and Mann. Today cases can be found made of various materials. I have many wooden needle cases in which I keep various types and lengths of needles.

Speaking of needles, where is the eye in a sewing machine needle?  Why, at the point! This adaptation made the interlocking stitch made by the machine possible.

“ She wrought so well in Needle-worke, that she,
nor yet her workes, shall ere  forgotten be.”
John Taylor

Friday, July 13, 2012

Antimacassars - From Indonesia to Your Grandma's Parlor

What a funny word, antimacassar. The dictionary separates it into anti + Macassar. Macassar is an oil formerly used as a hair dressing. Antimacassar is a small cover on the back of a chair, sofa, etc. to prevent soiling. So, in effect, this textile is against spots made by hair oil. One would have thought a better name could have been created in the name of marketing, but apparently homemakers knew exactly what it meant and what was the function of the textile.

So, to begin.  Macassar oil was used by men in the last half of the 19thC as a hair “smoother”. Oils from exotic plants were extremely popular during the Victorian and Edwardian era and were used for cosmetics and home remedies of every description. The district of Macassar (also spelled Makassar) is found on the southwest coast of the Indonesian island of  Sulawesi. The hair oil was made from the fruit of the bado nut tree and was exported in vast quantities.

To protect their parlor furniture, women fashioned decorative “doileys”, usually using heavy cotton thread to crochet covers for the back of the head rest and often made matching covers for the chair or sofa arms.  These continued to be made long after that particular hair pomade lost its allure, but was replaced by other hair products.  Remember those Brylcreme commercials? 

Patterns for antimacassars could be found in women’s needlework magazines, or obtained through mail order well into the 20th C.  One of the most popular patterns was the pineapple, perhaps because the basic shape of the crocheted fruit lent itself to the contours of the furniture.

These sets can still be found in thrift stores, vintage textile shops, and, of course, through the internet.

Friday, July 6, 2012


Molas are highly embellished cloths created by the Kuna Indians  of Panama.  The word “mola” (meaning “cloth” in the Kuna language) can refer to the panel itself or to the traditional woman’s blouse made from these panels.

The Kuna fled from the Panama mainland to the coast, Comarca San Blas, and to the San Blas Islands during the Spanish conquest.  Only a small number of the islands are occupied (about 45 out of over 300 islands in the archipelago) and until recently were consider fairly remote, although women canoed daily to the mainland to secure drinking water until 30 or so years ago when water was piped to some of the islands. Interestingly, the Kuna are considered to be the only indigenous Indians never to have been conquered.

Molas are made by layering cotton fabric, which is indigenous to the area, not obtained through trade, and using a reverse appliqué technique to create elaborate designs. The panel may contain as few as two or three layers of different colored cloth or many, producing a rainbow of vivid color and pattern. The panel is then further enhanced with surface appliqué and embroidery. The reverse appliqué technique is more often associated with Hawaiian quilting or Tivaevae bedcovers of the Cook Islands or Tifaifai of Tahiti.  The notable difference is the intricacy of the mola designs.  Also note, the Polynesian people were taught the technique by missionaries and the cloth was not indigenous to the region.  There is no clear understanding of how the Kuna adapted this laborious technique of surface embellishment. The designs reflect the way of Kuna life in the jungle and sea.  Geometric designs are often seen as well. 

In the 1960’s with help form Peace Corps volunteers a mola-making co-op was formed to offer a source of income to the Kuna women.  Today, there is quite a market for this product and the co-operative in Panama City exports these textiles as well as selling them to tourists.  Once a tourist market is established there is often a simplification in the actual product and, as with any tourist purchase, molas may vary in quality.  The higher the number of layers, the higher the quality of the stitching, the extent of surface appliqué and embroidery, naturally, the higher the price.

These are two very simple examples of mola panels, quite small, probably intended as patches for a shirt or pockets of a jacket.  Very tourist, inexpensive but quite vibrant and charming, nevertheless. Note that the appliqué of the main motifs (the birds, branches and flowers) is surface.  On the smaller panel the lime green flower petals are reverse appliqué and there are simple embroidery stitches, stem, button-hole and straight, in contrasting colors on each.