The mention of woven horsehair conjures visions of strict Victorian furniture – and while it is true that it was widely used in the 19th century because of its beauty and durability – it’s often overlooked by designers today. I think that’s unfortunate, because a dash of woven horsehair permeates a room with a historical narrative only a dash of Fortuny can rival.
John Boyd Textiles Limited, weavers of the worlds best known horsehair fabric, have been in business since 1837. The company’s original factory is still in operation today – with some of the original wooden looms – after 175 years. They’ve largely mechanized the process, but the raw materials, weaving techniques, and finished cloth are exactly as they were when the firm was first established. I was first introduced to it on a project I worked on with the late Mark Hampton, and have loved it ever since.
I know some of the history of JBT, but I decided to ask Alan Kerns (the showroom floor manager at Donghia where the fabric is represented in New York’s D&D building) to spend a few minutes with me talking about how it’s made.
Alan explained. “First thing you’ll notice is that the finished cloth is narrow, 22″ – 26″. That’s because the horse’s tail hair from which it’s woven top off around 30″. It’s ‘tip and tail’ cut to a uniform length of around 28″ before weaving. The warp is typically cotton, but silk and linen have also been used. The original ink black cloth has a uniform color because only the hair of black horses (which are over-dyed black for consistently) are used. The other common strie colors are made by mixing white, grey and brown hair together and over-dying them with another color – blue for example – which results in subtle color variations.”
And as for the bright colors? “A Japanese firm inquired about the possibility of bright colors. John Boyd Textiles created the new palette by bleaching white tails, subsequently over-dyed with vivid shades of green, pink and orange. They’re still adding new colors and patterns every year.”
I’ve heard designers say they don’t consider using woven horsehair because it’s too narrow; they don’t want vertical seams every 25 inches. I’ve wondered why not cut it into 12 1/2 inch squares (or 6 1/4″) and seam the strie blocks back together perpendicular to each other. It’d make an incredibly chic basket weave pattern (I’ve experimented – with a little persistence you can successfully steam the seam allowances open.)
And here’s some important FYI. There’s no harm done to a horse when their tails are cut. Plow horses originally had their tails shorn to stop them from accumulating mud in the field, and weavers decided to utilize the resource for weaving. And It’s a renewable resource – a horses tail grows back 4-5 times in a lifetime.
John Boyd Textiles Ltd. available in New York through Donghia
(worldwide showroom representation through JBT website inquiry)