Friday, 6 December 2019

The art of wigmaking

Interior of a wigmaker's shop.  From Art du perrruquier, 1761

According to one 18th century source it took six men six days to make a wig.  There were several distinct processes involved:  buying and selling of hair; cleaning, sorting, and weaving;  mounting the hair on wig blocks, curling and styling the finished wig.

The Trade in Hair

  The wig trade involved an incredible consumption of human hair.  Colbert considered prohibiting its import, but the perruquiers successfully argued that the export of French wigs brought considerable net gain in revenue to the kingdom. In effect, French wigmakers had already acquired a Europe-wide reputation. The renewed statutes of 1718 gave the Corporation of Barbiers-Perruquiers, a monopoly of the "sale and resale of hair": wholesalers were obliged to take their bales of hair to the bureau of the corporation to be examined. At the beginning of the 18th century there were already fifty such marchands de cheveux.   A Paris directory of 1692 lists some of their names -  Pelé, Vincent, Potiquet, Rossignol - these last two living slightly ominously "sous la galerie des Innocents".
Nicolas de Blegny, Le livre commode des adresses de Paris pour 1692, p.39-41.

 All these merchants had hair-cutters -"coupeurs"-  who toured the villages of Normandy, Flanders and Holland, returning with  six, eight or ten livres in weight of hair at a time.  When sufficient hair was amassed it was sent to  Paris and other centres, in consignments of 50,60 or 100 livres. The length was set at 24-25 inches ("pouces"); the shorter the hair, the less if was worth. The price varied between four francs and 50 ecus a livre,  the most valuable hair being  blond or white.

Hair from southern Europe was considered inferior; the best hair was the cheveux de pays from Normandy.  England supplied little: "the people, who are comfortably off, do not readily consent having the hair of their women and girls cut". Women's hair preferred over men's.  The best hair was neither too fine nor two coarse, so that it would curl well.  Various methods were used to bleach the hair using eau limmoneuse noix de galle and bismuth. The term "cheveux vifs" was used for hair that had been cut from its owner's head, whether they were alive or dead.  "Cheveux morts" was collected from combs, or had fallen out as result of some illness, whilst"cheveux naturels" referred to naturally curly hair.  According to Jean-Paul Marana, writing in about 1700: "Since wigs have become  accepted, the heads of the dead, and those of women, sell dear; it being fashionable for sepulchres and women to furnish the finest ornament to the head of men".(p.32)

Preparing the hair

Wigs were made in a variety of different colours;  grey could be mixed in with the hair, or white wigs made.  Many styles also included horsehair stiffening, which was used particularly in the new shorter style wigs which became fashionable in the 18th century.

The hair first had to be cleaned. Small bundles, the width of a finger, would be rubbed with flour or bran to remove the grease. The hair would then be carded to separate it into  different lengths. At this point it was rearranged in larger parcels, which were tied together using a long string (fil de pêne).  The next process was curling. The hair was  first wetted; grey or white hair might be  treated with a mixture of Prussian blue to prevent yellowing.  Strands would then be rolled round curling pins or "biboquets", small cylindrical rollers of wood or pipe clay and the bundles boiled in water for about three hours,  then partly dried in a small charcoal oven. 

From Art du perruquier (1761):  hackle for carding, wigmaker's vise
and a cylindrical oven for drying curls

At this point a further stage of processing was required to restore the hair's natural moisture.  The parcels of hair would be sent off to local bakers - or in Paris gingerbread makers - who would cover them with dough and bake them alongside their bread and cakes to allow them to absorb the moisture. (In 1705 a brief attempt was made to regulate this casual use of bakers' ovens, but the idea was soon dropped as impracticable)

Once the biboquets had been removed, the hair would be re-carded and arranged in packages of different lengths.  It was now ready to be used to make the wig itself.

Constructing the wig

From Art du perruquier (1761):  wooden head, 
and coeffe in various stages of construction
The wig was constructed using a sculpted wooden head of an appropriate size.  A caul of  ribbon and cotton or silk mesh - the coeffe - would be created and secured to the blockhead in order to provide a base onto which the hair could be stitched.
 From Art du perruquier (1761):  tressing frame, 
various knots and a paper pattern for a wig
The most labour-intensive and intricate part of of the process was to weave the hair, a task usually performed by women workers known as "tresseuses".  A small loom or "tressing frame" was used which consisted of two upright posts set in a block of wood and supporting three (or six) silk threads, tightly stretched to form the warp.  A few strands of hair were woven  at a time, interlaced between the silk threads using over-under motions.   The secured strands would then be slid tightly together to create the length of weft required.  Here is a clipping from a video of the Wig Store in Colonial Williamburg which shows exactly how it was done.

So prepared, the rows of hair would be sown onto to the caul, often with the aid of an elaborate paper pattern.  It was then a question of putting the final touches on the wig, which would be trimmed, combed, curled pomaded and styled.  It was  expected that the wig owner would return regularly to  for cleaning, repairs and restyling - hence the close links of the perruquiers with barbers and, later in the century, with the new profession of hair dressing. 


For a clear description of the wigmaking process in English:
Thomas K. Bullock & Maurise B. Tonkin,  The Wigmaker in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg, (First published 1959, Gutenberg ebook 2018)

Video showing wigmaking at Williamsburg:
Colonial Williamsburg: Wig Shop

Contemporary French sources: 

Art du perruquier, in the series of Descriptions des Arts et Métiers, faites ou approuvées par messieurs de l'Académie Royale des Sciences , 1761

"Perruque", Encyclopédie article
Exhibition of plates at MIT Libraries:

 "Perruquier", Dictionnaire raisonné universel des arts et métiers. Vol. 3 (1773), p.436-441.

See also:

Alfred Franklin, La vie privée d'autrefois : Arts et métiers : modes, moeurs, usages des parisiens du XIIe au XVIIIe siècle: Les soins de toilette , 1887, P,62-65.

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