Horsehair has made many appearances in unlikely places throughout time. When you think about it, using their long tail strands makes sense. We already use wool from sheep and alpacas in garment making. However, horsehair has become largely a thing of the past. In the few creations that still are in circulation, hair is harvested from tail clippings which usually come from when horse is about to be shown and they need a trim. The trimmed strands are then sent off to be cleaned and then used in a variety of ways, many of which are noted below:
String Bows for Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass
Traditionally, the bow of a string instrument is made from horsehair. An archetier, or bow maker, uses between 150 and 200 tail strands in each violin bow, and more for the larger instruments. Although synthetic bows are available, the sound just isn't as "sweet" and string players prefer a horsehair bow.
Horsehair was commonly used as a 19th century sofa-filler. It was abundant, cheap, and easy to find before the days of memory foam. The curled hairs were preferred as they were thought to be stronger, more resilient fibers that gave a bounce when packed closely together. Unlike wool, horsehair does not compress or form lumps, so a sofa or chair that is filled with horsehair clippings would rarely need to be adjusted. In some places, horsehair is still used as a mattress stuffing.
A variety of brushes are made from horsehair and are still being produced today. Paint brushes made with horsehair work wonderfully with oil paint as they pick up more paint from the pallet than a synthetic brush. Most oil painters prefer horse and other natural hair brushes over synthetic options. Hair brushes, shaving brushes, and tooth brushes have also been made from horsehair. You can still commonly find scrub brushes or shoe-polishing brushes made from horsehair.
Beginning in ancient Egypt, horsehair wigs - as well as other animal hair wigs - became fashionable. These wigs were favored by 16th-century aristocrats as head lice was often a problem. People would shave their heads to reduce the risk of attracting lice and because they desired a covering of some kind the horsehair wig became a popular solution. In the 18th century horsehair wigs appeared in English courtrooms where they are still seen today.
Horsehair fabrics were popular in the 19th century due to their luster, durability, and strength. If you have ever held a horse's tail, you will notice how shiny and thick the strands are compared to other animal hair. Horsehair weaving is quite expensive to produce as the strands have to be separated and many tails must be trimmed to acquire a sufficient amount to make a sheet.
The hair is woven in a loom, much like cotton or linen, and is most often used in upholstery coverings. There may very well be a horsehair-stuffed sofa out there that is also covered in horsehair fabric.
Although horsehair is not as popular of a material any longer, you can see how important it once was. Its shine, strength, and availability made it an amazing material to work with and for those reasons, it still is used in some items today.
image from flickr.com