Is Victorian Hairwork Akin to Kumihimo?

So, in one of those brilliant ah-ha moments, my day job as a museum curator collided with 52 Lasers. Have you ever heard of Victorian Hair Jewelry?  Made from braided, woven or otherwise intricately arranged stands of hair, it was popular in the 19th century as a way to remember loved ones.  It was made into necklaces, earrings, watch fobs, brooches and they even would make hair wreaths for the wall.  Kim Poovey’s Victorian Hairwork Pinterest board shows good variety of examples.

16 strand set up from Mark Campbell's 1867 book

16 strand set up from Mark Campbell’s 1867 book.  Look familiar?

16 strand set up.

My 16 strand set up from Week 15

How is hairwork like the kumihimo I made back in week 15?  The original tools are nearly identical.  In doing research on the hair jewelry at the museum, I stumbled across the book “Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work, Dressing Hair, Making Curls, Switches, Braids, and Hair Jewelry of Every Description” by Mark Campbell, published in 1867, and now available for free thanks to Project Gutenberg.  Flipping through the book, the patterns look exactly the same.







And the “braiding table” could have easily been a marudi (which modern kumihimo disks were derived from.)  I will admit I’m not the first person who had the ah-ha moment – when I was looking for examples for this post, I saw that the Victorian Hairwork Society sells marudai for this exact purpose.

Most hair work in the Victorian period was done by professional that also made other forms of jewelry

Most hair work in the Victorian period was done by professional that also made other forms of jewelry.  Image from Mark Campbell’s book

I love it when parts of my life collide.  With the tools being so similar, though, I was curious if they had similar origins.  According to    author of Love Entwined, “European colonists in North America brought a tradition of making decorative objects made of human hair with them.”  Internet sources say the roots of this tradition are fro Scandanavia, (but they don’t site resources, of course!)  The most detailed account is half way down on this page; it tells the birthplace was Vamhus, Sweden.    It appears they already did braiding (so no solid start date), but a financial crisis forced them to sell their wares to the world.

Most sources (again, on the internet) cite the first mentions the origins of of kumihimo in Japan’s Nara Period (645-784 AD). Generally, very little is known about the history of kumihimo – the braids were not considered significant.  The theories seem to agree it came from finger loop braiding, and that it likely came from mainland China.  There are whispers that there is research that has connected Japanese kumihimo with European braiding, but I wasn’t able to locate the original theory or the author.  I found interesting write ups on the the history of kumihimo here and here.

Hopefully this wasn’t “tldr” – I fell down the braiding internet rabbit hole of research.  It would be fun to try some of the hair braids in a modern kumihimo disk. (Horse hair is a good and Victorian-approved substitute if you aren’t ready to part with your own just yet!)

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