Knotting for Fashion: the Wigmaker at Colonial Williamsburg

 

The wig shop, or peruch shop, of Williamsburg served the public with a variety of hair styling and hygienic services. In addition to wigs, they also provided hair cutting, bathing, and barbary, and sold soaps and perfumes. Located steps from the Duke of Gloucester Street, The Capitol and many taverns, the shop would have been a convenient stop for those coming to the capitol for business. Today, the Colonial Williamsburg wig shop is run by Master Betty, Journeywoman Regina, and Apprentice Debbie. The three women kindly introduced us to the art of wigmaking by providing us with real hair to practice a simple knotting technique, while discussing the social and craft history of the colonial wig shop.

The accoutrements of the wig shop, including tubs and pails for clients who wished to bathe.

Fanciful, enormously varied, and perhaps downright-ridiculous to the modern eye, wigs were a clear visual marker of eighteenth-century fashion. Not everyone could afford a wig; the yak, goat, horse or human hair used had to be imported before the labor-intensive wigmaking process even began. For those who could spend the money, a wide variety of curls, beads, and colors were available. By altering the style of the wig, the discerning patron could signify their fashion consciousness, or even their occupation. Merchants, judges and parsons all wore wig forms styled to suit their specific occupations. As with any trade that adorned the body, these issues of fashion and consumption tend to overshadow the process of production.

A selection of wig styles in the shop.

For the wigmaker, a quality wig begins with just a knotted few strands, which provide the “building blocks” for the larger structure. Groupings of two to five individual pieces of hair must be tightly and uniformly knotted on a tressing frame. The frame consists of two wooden dowels on a base, wrapped with three spools of thread in a fan-like configuration. It is a simple tool, which we were assured we could easily configure at home for our own wigmaking needs. Though knotting requires a rather straightforward technique, consistency and speed are key to producing uniform pieces. Within our class, we slowly fashioned knots of varying quality, depending on our own dexterity and patience for minute handwork. Within our hour and a half-long visit this was acceptable, but Betty reminded us that if we wished to join her shop, she would expect about twenty identical knots per minute.

Libby Meier knotting hair at the tressing frame

For those confident enough with our own mechanical skill, Debbie showed us how to create netting for the base of the wig, a key skill proving an apprentice’s progression and success in his or her first years at the shop. Before beginning my session, she assured me of the difficulty of the task by showing me her netting scrapbook, in which she documented her own advancement with netting throughout her apprenticeship. It was a wise way to start, as netting proved to be much more difficult than knotting. Somewhat like macramé, the wig maker must weave threads in an intricate pattern around her fingers and dowels to produce each equally-spaced knot. Like learning the steps to a complicated waltz, once you understand the pattern of movement, you can begin to slowly refine your technique.

Trying my hand at weaving wig netting.

While we began only with the foundational basics of wig making, I was struck by how much the environment differed from many of the other craft shops. Like the salons of the today, I could see how this quiet setting might foster social interaction between workers, as well as the clients who might stop in. We did not partake in the processes of styling and maintaining the wig, all steps which would be undertaken in consultation with the client. The wig maker would have to build a personal relationship with his or her clients in order to create a style that would suit their personal aesthetic. While wigs could be cared for to prolong their form, they inevitably required periodic refashioning. This meant that wig makers could expect recurrent contact with their customers, requiring that they produce a quality product and maintain a personal relationship to ensure their repeat business.

Without the dangers of fire and an abundance of cumbersome tools, like, say, the blacksmith’s shop, the wig shop also welcomes visitors of all ages and abilities without hazard. This environment which combines workspace with sustained social contact indeed must have informed the ways that wig makers structured their working habits, and the necessity of maintaining keen craft with interpersonal skills. The nature of the work also lent itself to a wider variety of people. Wig making is largely sedentary, though no less complex, meaning that people in a variety of physical conditions could perform the work. In particular, women, in relatively any stage of childbearing, age or health would be able to do it with minimal strain. For this reason, wig shops often hired women to do piece work, which in turn helped them to earn extra income while maintaining the household.

Samples of unknotted hair of varying lengths and varieties

As modern visitors to the trades shops of Colonial Williamsburg, we arrived with varying levels of mechanical skill and physical strength. For some, wig making felt like a frustrating mess of tangled fingers and stray hair. For myself, I found the low-impact, methodical, and relatively social work of wigmaking to be satisfying. If you agree with me, the Colonial Williamsburg wig shop is currently looking to hire several new apprentices…

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By Lan Morgan, WPAMC Class of 2017

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For many years, the Department of Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg has generously hosted Winterthur students as part of a course in pre-industrial craftsmanship.  Over the course of several days, we students work closely with the tradespeople, trying our hands at a wide range of eighteenth century occupations that bring our studies, quite literally, to life.  Every year, we leave with a deeper understanding of the material world.  This post is part of a series that chronicles our visit in March, 2017.



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