Most people know that horsehair was traditionally used for stuffing sofas, mattresses and the like, but did you know that horsehair was also woven together with a cotton warp into fabric?
In 1800 in the town of Castle Cary in the UK, cottage workers began to weave horsehair cloth using hair taken from live horses whose tails had been cropped as per the fashion of the time. The bundles of tail hair were then washed through in the local pond until they were ‘cleansed’, then dried ready for weaving.
In the early 1800s a traveling textile merchant called John Boyd recognised a potential market for horsehair fabric and settled in the town where he began weaving the cloth in his cottage. Such was the demand for his product that in 1837 he had begun to employ local people to staff his now established business. The cloth he produced was hard-wearing and versatile with a distinctive sheen and lustre was so popular that by 1851 Boyd was able to move his operation to a specially built factory. By the turn of the century, the horsehair fabric was so popular that the factory had become one of the main employers in the town and even built cottages to house his workers.
Initially, the fabric was woven by hand. First of all, the cleansed horse tail would be drawn through the teeth of a large comb to remove any tangles. The hair would then be placed in vats of dye; dried and then detangled again until it was ready for weaving. A weaver would then stand at a loom all day with a small child sitting inside the loom holding the horse tail, and passing the hair to the weaver. However, the Education Act of 1870 put paid to the employment of children by ensuring that they all went to school. As a result, Boyd developed and patented mechanical looms. In place of the child, a mechanical picker teased one hair from the horse tail and fed it into the loom.
Although John Boyd died in 1890, those same mechanical looms are still in use today, although 70 percent of the horsehair is imported from the Far East where working horses with cropped tails are still in use. His fabrics and the tradition of horsehair weaving continue and John Boyd Textiles Ltd is now one of only two surviving horsehair weavers in the world.
There is still great demand for the fabric today, and it’s used for upholstery, wall coverings and interior décor and has also been seen on the catwalks in couture fashion house collections worldwide.