Many of the textiles we use every day are made with natural fibers. Plant-based fibers like cotton or flax (linen) are popular and common and silk or wool, that come from animals are also used regularly. And we make textiles from less common fibers too like camel, yak, coir, pina, and more. These materials illicit lustrous and smooth textures and densities in our minds and there's even something about the rarity of, say, Vicuna fiber that we find extra appealing. So why is it that human hair, a protein fiber just like wool or alpaca, seems so outrageous in popular western culture? Perhaps if we embrace this material which just so happens to be renewable and…everywhere….we might discover some exciting possibilities.
"Two Vicuñas" by Ivan Mlinaric is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Studio Zsofia Kollar (Netherlands)
In addition to the natural plant and animal-based fibers mentioned above, we make plenty of synthetic, manufactured fibers too and the processes that are utilized to create things like polyester, nylon, neoprene, acrylic, and others are incredibly toxic, contributing to the fashion and textile industry’s reputation as the second most polluting industry in the world. Clearly, we need to determine new modes of production, sourcing, and supply if we want to make the urgent changes this earth needs.
While contemporary designers like Zsofia Kollar are making products like sweaters and upholstery using human hair, there is a rich history of utilizing this material across time, space, and industry.
Kyoto’s Higashi Jongan-ji Temple from 1895 used ropes made from human hair in its construction for the material provided an incredible strength needed to complete the job.
Due to its high protein content, human hair has been an acceptable (although, this fact seems debatable according to our research) raw ingredient used in the production of soy sauce. A factory in Hubei province in China processes human hair into edible amino acids for the household vinegar. It is also used in the production of bread, however worth noting that many governments have banned its use.
Higashi Hongan-ji, Rope made from human hair
In traditional Indian and Chinese agricultural practices, human hair is used as a fertilizer, mixed with organic manures due to its high nitrogen content.
Human hair has been used for suturing by ancient cultures such as the Mayans and the Romans. The practice continues today in certain places and although less ideal than modern surgical suturing practices, the material does provide a natural, clean process.
Victorian Hairwork Bow Brooch with Heart Pendant
And hair has been used in many cultures decoratively in fine art, embroidery, and funerary objects. As well as symbolically for gestures of love, power, politics, marriage, luck, and prestige.
Other contemporary designers such as Studio Swine, Pareid, Ellie Birkhead, and more are utilizing human hair in modern consumable, design objects.
Studies have shown that people find products made with human hair unappealing. It reminds them of other people, it feels dirty and disgusting, and they anticipate it would be uncomfortable or ugly. So let's take a closer look at this material as a textile production fiber to better understand if those hesitations hold true.
Did you know…
Human hair has a strength-to-weight ratio comparable to steel
Human hair can be stretched 150% before breaking
Human hair is anti-allergic
Human hair is biodegradable
Human hair is lightweight
Human hair can absorb oil
Human hair can be sourced locally, anywhere in the world.
And what about the fibers we use every day without question.
Did you know that…
Cotton uses 20,000 liters of water to process just 1kg of usable fiber
63% of fibers on the market have been produced with or treated with hazardous chemicals
Garment workers put in an average of 96 hours per week
Fewer than 11% of fashion brands offer recyclable products; everything else goes to landfill
Washing, solvents, and dyes used in manufacturing are responsible for one-fifth of industrial water pollution
If you’re interested in learning more about the many uses and benefits of production with human hair in textiles and beyond, check out the Human Material Loop project. And, keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to donate your own.