Woven Strands: The Art of Human Hair Work at the Mutter Museum

As per Peta Coyn’s suggestion at her artist talk at Lesley, I made my way to Philly this past summer in order to see The Art of Human Hair Work at the Mutter Museum. It seemed serendipitous that this show would be happening as my attempts to research this topic and era of craft had been less than fruitful. The exhibit did not disappoint!

The collection consisted of four different types of hair work: Gimp Work, Palette Work and Dissolved Hair Work and Table Work. The gimp work is used to create three-dimensional works by wrapping the hair around fine wire. The wire is then shaped into tableau-like scenes, flowers, or chains. The artists then compile their three-dimension objects behind glass, either in a shadow box or a bell jar for display.

Gimp Work
Gimp Work

Palette Work was used more for making mourning jewelry, broaches and pictures in the 19th century.. Single strands would be flattened without any overlapping and set with a sap-like material called Astragalus gummifier. Once the hair is dried in sheets, it is then cut out using templates in order to create designs and glued to ivory or milk glass and then set behind glass.

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In order to paint in depth scenes with human hair in the 18th century, artists would grind the hair, much like creating a pigment, then mix the hair particles with gum arabic making it viscous and able to paint onto ivory. This pigment was often called, Sepia. Below you will see and example of this work.

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The last process used to create artwork from human hair is Table Work. This process refers to the various ways in which hair is braided and curled while using a intricate system with a table, wooden dowels and lead weights. After much trial and error trying to work on my own hair pieces, I can see why this table mechanism was so important and helpful to the artistic process.

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This show was spectacular. To see how intricate and beautiful these works were was inspiring. The artists used what they had in order to create beautiful trinkets to remember their loved ones and pay homage to them. This artwork was not only made in order to mourn; however, but also to keep a family record of those who were still living.

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