Guest Post: Hair from Tail to Toe

Ask Fibres is delighted to present the first guest post on the site, written by Mary Jane McIntyre.

At a book launch for “Inside the Museums”  (1) that was held at Mackenzie House on Bond Street in downtown Toronto recently, I saw horsehair upholstered furniture.  Horsehair is a fibre one doesn’t see too often these days.  Mackenzie House was completed in 1858 and although the furniture cannot be traced to the Mackenzie family, it is representative of the time.

Horsehair is the long coarse hair from the mane and tail of the horse (pictured).  It can be cropped from live or dead horses.  The texture of horsehair can be influenced by the breed and management of the horse including diet and climate. (2)  The best horsehair comes from live horses.

Horsehair has had many uses: hat making, upholstery as fabric and stuffing, ropes for fishing lines, fishing mittens, rugs and sieves to name a few.  The horsehair is the weft or cross thread when woven into fabric but can be woven using it for warp and weft for sieves for milk and flour. (3)  Horsehair fabric was originally woven on handlooms where a child stood by the weaver and served him each hair.  In 1870, this child labour ended when the Education Act was passed ensuring all children in England went to school. (4)

Horsehair is a protein and can be dyed using dyes suitable for protein fibres.  Today, the most common uses are for brushes and upholstery stuffing. (5)  Horsehair upholstery long wearing and versatile.  at John Boyd Textiles, weavers of horsehair since 1837 in Castle Cary, Somerset, England, many designs and colours from the late 1800’s are still available and woven on the same looms!  Custom colours are a minimum order of 20 metres.  The width of the fabric is determined by the length of the hair, usually 26 inches (66 cms) or 22 inches (56 cms).

White horsehair from the tail is used for the ribbon of violin bows.  Stallion hair from Siberia is considered the best.  Usually, 150 to 200 hairs are incorporated into the ribbon of a violin bow.  Other instruments in the violin family have a wider ribbon so use more hairs.  Hairs may break during playing so the bow must be rehaired from time to time.  The hairs must be straight and strong.  Bows cost anywhere from $40. to several thousand dollars if made by a renowned bow maker.  The musician rosins the bow to have it move smoothly across the strings.

Where would you come across horsehair in daily life?  Most probably using brushes for painting, either decorative or artistic, and cleaning.  Horsehair brushes are used for sweeping and dust removal, take a look at the horsehair fireplace brush.  Pony hair brushes are used in forensics for fingerprint dusting.

Note from Ali: I used to work in a store that sold Aboriginal and Inuit art, jewellery and gifts from Canada, and once, the manager ordered some supplies to make jewellery, including a skein of horsehair. The horsehair arrived from Ontario held together nicely by the chunk of skin from the horse’s rump. Lovely. One of the most interesting uses for horsehair (to me) is its use in dancehall sprung floors. The horsehair provides padding and shock absorption to the floor, providing a more comfortable dancing experience. Two examples in Canada, are Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom (now hardwood) build in 1929, and Saskatchewan’s Danceland ballroom, a 5000 square foot ballroom, in Manitou Beach.

Danceland’s ballroom is made of 21 coils of horsehair, each about 60 inches long and 6 inches in diameter. The horsehair is twisted tightly, wrapped in burlap and wired. The horsehair is placed underneath the dancefloor, and can give up to an inch and a half during use. Incredible! Have you ever danced on a horsehair sprung floor?

Mes Pantalons Sont Rempli

What’s the origin of the phrase ‘Under your belt.’?

Belts actually come up regularly in English idiomatic expressions, ‘To hit below the belt’, ‘to take a belt’, ‘belt something out’, ‘tighten one’s belt’, ‘the Sunshine belt’. The expression typically means to have learned or mastered knowledge or a skill, consider the fact that a belt is also something you use to secure something, or securely hold your pants up: Jill was proud of getting her botany certificate under her belt. Here, we mean that Jill has completed a course or program in botany, and now possesses that qualification. It’s also used to describe when something is completed, or achieved: Jack took comfort that the fortnight’s dragon slaying was under his belt. And, most literally, it means to have consumed something by eating or drinking: Joe knew the magic mushrooms were under his belt when a magenta platypus started tap dancing nearby.

Interestingly, most early uses involve alcohol, meaning the amount that a person had consumed.  An example below, “At half and hour past eight in the evening, he was carried home with fix [sic] good bottles of claret under his belt and it being then Friday, he gave orders that he fhould[sic] not be difturbed [sic] till Sunday at noon-” (from: 1790‘s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett (first published 1771))

The expression originally meant the amount of liquor one has consumed and, over time, grew to include a meal or food and then experience or knowledge. A citation from a 1954 issue of The Manchester Guardian Weekly describes, “His wife had 135,000 miles driving in the States under her belt[?]but was still failed.”

Scottish proverbs continue to delight us here at Ask Fibres, and an old Gaelic one, d’òrdag fo mo cheios, or in English, ‘Put thy thumb under my belt’ meaning to submit or concede, where a writer mixed the two, saying, ‘My Tongue is not under your belt’, more plainly, ‘You can say nothing of me that will make me hold my tongue’. Strong language!

A Complete Collection of Scotish Proverbs, 1721:

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However, nowadays, tongues under belts would mean a whole different thing, and this is not one of those blogs, so we’re going to leave it there for now!



McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

The Principles of Gaelic Grammar- John Forbes, 1848

1790‘s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett (first published 1771):

1817‘s Ormond, a tale by Maria Edgeworth:



I’ll beam your creel

After looking at the images of the artist Christopher Payne, a photographer who focuses on the dwindling textile industry of the United States, and the processes and people who are part of the shrinking community. To view the gallery click here. There’s an accompanying article called ‘Fruits of the Loom’ After looking at the gallery, come back and read the AskFibres generated glossary, below. Then you’ll finally know what a beaming creel is.

beaming creel- A creel is a frame where multiple bobbins can be arranged where they will supply the threads to a loom. A beaming creel has the threads wound from the creel to a second beam before being used in the warp of a textile. 

Bobbin is what people do when they move their heads to music. Well, in this context, it’s also a tube around which yarn or string is wound.

burling is a finishing process, where knots, nubs, lumps or loose threads are removed

carding- pink piles of wool that look like asbestos or insulation in the piece, carding is the process of combing a large quantity of wool into order. Wool, after it is dyed is a big tangled, kinked mass. The carding machine, a roller with metal teeth combs all the wool into straight, even lines, where it can be spun into yarn, much easier.

knitting machine- much like embroidery, most commercial knitting is done by knitting machine, where thread is knit back and forth to create the knit jersey most of us know as the material t-shirts and the like are made of.

roving is the piles of carded wool, before it is spun into yarn. Roving can also be used to make felt for felted hats, jackets, sheets of felt and so on.

spool- similar to a bobbin, a spool is basically a bigger bobbin

textile twister is a machine that takes multiple threads of yarn and twists them into one, it can also add more twists or tension to a thread, which determines how loosely or tightly it is formed.

wool picker is a machine that picks the wool, not in a choosing sense, but a picking out the threads and clumps to open it up and loosen the chunks, this helps blend the fibre, and colour if you’re working with wool dyed multiple colours.

Nautical Jargon: A Primer

Batten down the hatches!!

You might know what a hatch is, but what the heck is a batten? People who sail? Anybody? Bueller? This expression, “batten (down) the hatches” the ‘down’ is optional, which means to prepare for inclement weather, or socially, what some of us might call a shitstorm. It originates from the nautical jargon. The top deck of a large sailing ship wouldn’t be made of planks of wood nailed to each other, but arranged in a crisscross pattern with diamond shaped holes, the hatches, which would allow airflow to the lower decks. However, when storms or rain were expected, this water would get inside the ships. To prevent this from happening, tarps would be stretched across the decks and nailed down with long strips of wood called battens. So, when bad weather was predicted, the captain would order the crew to, “Batten the hatches!” This kind of behaviour is also acceptable onshore after committing major social faux-pas.

E is for Embroidery

Embroidery, simply, is a decorative style of stitching.

Similar to regular stitching, which keeps the seams or edges of clothing together to construct a garment, simple and more complex stitches can be used in a way to add interest to a piece of cloth. Embroidery has been used throughout history as a way to pattern cloth, and patterns can be in repeat, like a pattern of points or shapes repeated over and over, or more freeform motifs like birds or flowers on a piece of cloth. Embroidery can also incorporate beads, sequins, and other small decorative objects to add sparkle or texture.

AskFibres Embroidery

Similar to cross stitch, embroidery is a more free form way of stitching cloth. As one of my fibres teachers put it, “It’s a way of painting with thread.” Also, check out my handiwork on the left! Embroidery is completed where a piece of fabric is stretched over a wood hoop, and held in place with a second hoop that has a tightening mechanism. This establishes tension over the fabric, making it much simpler to stitch. Simple stitches like a running stitch or back and forth stitch can be used to create more complex motifs, and others like a chain stitch, add visual interest. Because of its labour intensive process, embroidery was usually worn by the wealthier classes throughout history. Embroidery has a history across the world. Many cultures figured out that a simple needle and thread could create stunning patterns on plain fabric. The earliest examples of decorative stitching date to the 3rd and 5th century BC in China. In China and Japan, silk robes were embroidered with real gold thread for royalty, and embroidery has been used to decorate saree fabric. (pictured) 

Examples of embroidery also come from the Medieval Islamic world, examples from the Ottoman Empire, Iran and Mongolia, are well documented. In most societies, embroidered clothing was a sign of wealth, across Islamic states flags, garments, religious objects were embroidered, as objects could be ornamented without disobeying the law of images. In England, work by guilds and professional embroiderers was called Opus Anglicanum, and became famous across Europe. (pictured) This work decorated lots of religious objects, and garments for priests.

Embroidery is usually made on fabric in a contrasting colour, so the pattern stands out more easily. It can also be done in an eye-straining white on white, which emphasizes the texture and pattern. Interestingly, it is one of the few crafts which technology has not altered significantly: It is a striking fact that in the development of embroidery … there are no changes of materials or techniques which can be felt or interpreted as advances from a primitive to a later, more refined stage. On the other hand, we often find in early works a technical accomplishment and high standard of craftsmanship rarely attained in later times.¹ Historical hand embroidery is as fine as it is today, and arguable even finer, as the difference in the way labour is done today and historically has changed significantly. Contrast that with the developments in something like Stonemasonry, where the combustion engine simplified the more difficult tasks of stonemasons, the embroidery needle is the same as it ever was, barring any minor details.²