There is a natural product that we grow ourselves that can be used to make clothes, ropes and even building materials – much of it is wasted on a daily basis. But maybe not for long. An emerging wave of designers is harnessing the power of human hair to tap into issues of circular economy, identity and beauty through provocative objects and compositions.
“It’s extremely lightweight, flexible, oil absorbent and high in tensile strength – and requires no additional energy, earth or water to grow,” Dutch designer Sanne Visser said via video call. Having recently completed a residency at London’s Design Museum exploring the recycling of human hair, Visser is presenting a new show for this month’s London Design Festival (LDF). Titled “Extended” consists of eight mirrors hanging on ropes made from hair collected from hair salons and hairdressers in West London.
Visser embraces rope making as a technology across its projects with hair, to emphasize its strength and use as sustainably as possible, without the need for other materials. She sorts the excess collected hair by color and length, sterilizes and washes it, then sends it to the spinning who turns the strands into yarn and thread using a traditional spinning wheel. Visser then inserts the yarn into her rope machine to make different types of rope, which have been used to create dog leashes, mesh bags, shoulder straps, and hammocks.
Using traditional rope and wheel crafting, Visser makes everyday items such as bottle holders out of human hair. attributed to him: Saint Viser
When Visser started working with human hair six years ago, the hairdressers I called to order waste scraps were skeptical. Many said no. However, as she builds up a handful of businesses – and as new initiatives touting the reuse of excess hair grow – it’s getting easier. One such initiative is the Green Salon Collective (GSC), which works with hairdressers across the UK and Ireland to recycle hair. GSC collaborates with manufacturers or designers (including Visser) to transform hair into new things and products – from hair shafts (cotton or nylon tubes filled with hair clips used to prevent oil from spreading on seas and beaches) to building materials.
The latter sees GSC working with architecture and design studio Pareid on an installation also in this year’s LDF, consisting of two tangled, hair-covered columns in a salon in West London. The hair used in the project titled “Chiaroscuro 1”, is coated and applied as a surface covering.
Titled “Chiaroscuro I” by design studio Pareid, it combines two intertwined columns of human hair. attributed to him: Andy Kate
Pareid is keen on creating a completely immersive space using human hair and has experimented with using it as a binder for clay bricks. Prototypes don’t look quite as pretty, but: “We are drawn to things that might be considered ugly or unattractive at first,” Bared Hadeen Charbel’s co-founder, Bared Hadeen, said in a video call. “Waste like human hair has a kind of poor quality – it has that element of confrontation.”
Confrontation and challenging perceptions have also been key to the work of Alix Bizet, a French stylist who works with poetry to address issues of racial identity, societal experience, and marginalized beauty. “I found out, as a black person, in the community that there is good hair and bad hair – and that’s where the project began. Looking at this discarded material, we can learn a lot about the community,” she said on a video call.
In a 2020 project called “Afro Hair Futurity,” Bizet created crown-like headpieces from Afro hair, which were presented along with audio files of interviews with people talking about their personal and professional experiences with Afro hair. For previous projects such as “Exchange” (2016), “Hair Matter(s)” (2016), and “Hair by Hood” (2017), Bizet made clothing including hoodies from felt human hair; In workshops with London School students at “Hair by Hood,” the stylist sparked discussions about how culture and identity relate to hair, and the role hair salons play in societies. Other projects explored the impact of gentrification on African hairdressers in Peckham, south London, and how to decolonize museum collections by collecting more diverse stories about poetry. “My goal is to design for diversity and diversity, and to give vision and empowerment to all poetry narratives, including African poetry,” Bizet said.
Returning to LDF, Anouska Samms – who uses human hair to explore identity on a familial level, as well as interrogate mythology and symbolism – will display some stunning ceramic pieces infused with poetry as part of a collective display of unfamiliar forms. These come from her ongoing “Poetry Series” (2019-2022), which uses human hair — mostly collected through Instagram callouts — to create sculpted clay and weaving pots, as a way to reflect on relationships between mothers. “I’ve always been made fun of for my hair,” Sams recalls in a video call. “It was just voluminous, curly and ginger. My mom and grandmother are gingerbread, and I belong to a long line of red-haired women.”
In Bizet’s project “The Future of Afro Hair” headdresses made of afro hair are shown. attributed to him: Baudouin Pullman
Sam’s Big Hanger Weaving, “Big Mommy” (2022), weaves together strands of red human hair (some synthetically dyed) with cotton and yarn. Through it, Sams hopes to point to a long tradition of weaving associated with both the woman and the idea of birth and creation. Meanwhile, her earthenware pots touch on the ancient relationship between pottery and women: in prehistoric societies, women were the primary potters.
Using excess hair is different from using other waste materials, such as plastic bottles. Hair is an intimate human material and a sustainable resource that can be harnessed in practical and innovative ways. Although initiatives such as GSC offer the potential to expand their use, some designers are quick to point out the importance of retaining personal narratives and connections.
“Hair is living fibres,” Bizet said. “Just because we collect it as discarded material, it does not mean that we are free to use it without considering the ethical aspects. This fast-paced capitalist world of using hair as a new fiber removes its identity. Through sterilization, hair will lose its human side and narrative.”
Like Bizet, Visser is keen to connect businesses that use human hair with the people who have donated it. She hopes that her “stretching” mirrors will eventually find a home in each of the eight salons and barbershops from which she collected the hair. There, regular local customers will be able to see the mirrors hanging on the wall and know that it was their hair, most likely, that made it happen.
Above image: Terracotta figurine decorated with ginger hair as part of Sam’s “Hair Series”.