For nearly 150 years, the production process at John Boyd Textiles Ltd. has barely changed. From its factory in Castle Cary, Somerset, in the southwest of England, John Boyd Textiles weaves horsehair cloth on the same looms that John Boyd patented in 1872, although the looms are now powered by electricity rather than steam, and before that, by a waterwheel.
As one of the world’s last horsehair weavers, John Boyd Textiles ships its fabric worldwide. “We probably work with about 30 different countries around the world, ” said Anna Smith, managing director and owner of John Boyd Textiles. America and Germany are the company’s biggest markets, both having had horsehair weaving industries.
The Tradition of Horsehair Fabric in the UK
For centuries, up until the Industrial Revolution, horses were an indispensable part of daily life in England. They helped work the land and were the main mode of transportation. For practical purposes, working horses’ tails were cut short, similar to some of the horses depicted by 18th-century painter George Stubbs, Smith explained. And in Victorian times, horse tails were cut fashionably short, she added.
In the UK, horsehair weaving was a cottage industry found mainly in Somerset (southwest England), Suffolk (southeast England), and Scotland: all agricultural areas with an abundant source of working horses, Smith said.
The earliest reference of horsehair being woven and used as upholstery cloth is from about 1750, she said. Horsehair was the fabric of choice for preeminent 18th-century designers such as Thomas Chippendale and George Hepplewhite.
In the early 1800s, John Boyd, a textile merchant from Scotland, visited Castle Cary. Seeing the potential for horsehair weaving, he settled there and began weaving in his cottage. In 1837, the year of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne, Boyd began to expand his business, establishing a factory in 1851.
Up until the Elementary Education Act of 1870 that mandated children between the ages of 5 and 12 to attend school, children worked across all aspects of industry. Boyd’s factory was no different. Children actually sat within each loom, passing up horsehair to the weavers hair by hair.
With the advent of the automobile, Castle Cary’s supply of horsehair lessened, so the company directors traveled by train to London and met overseas horsehair brokers. Up until the 1905 Russian Revolution, John Boyd Textiles imported horsehair from Russia.
Today, the company imports the horsehair differently. “Now it’s mainly Mongolian and Siberian hair, which comes through China—so it’s a bit like the old-fashioned silk route—and it usually takes around three to five months to import the hair,” Smith said. Interestingly, a harsh climate such as Mongolia’s is believed to grow stronger horsehair, she said.
Most of the 12 staff members at John Boyd Textiles are locals, some of whom have worked at the company for nearly 40 years. Smith considers the company lucky to have such a workforce, one that’s also multiskilled and able to cover each other’s jobs.
Training is in-house and covers all aspects of the production process. “Weaving is the most skilled job, so we’d start off with processes like dispatching an order, threading up the looms, warping [arranging the vertical yarn, or warp, on the loom in preparation for weaving], and then they’ll move on to weaving,” Smith said.
“We’re quite small-scale. We have about 30 looms and they each produce one piece [of cloth] a month, so 50 meters [about 54 yards] a month. So it’s the same speed as hand weaving,” she said. “Our fabrics are at least 70 percent horsehair. We don’t mix other fibers into the weft.”
Weft is the horizontal thread, in this case the horsehair, that is woven into the warp on the loom frame. John Boyd Textiles’ warps are made from cotton, silk, or linen.
The looms are one-of-a-kind. “We have a unique picking mechanism, which you won’t see on any other loom,” Smith said. That mechanism does the same job the child workers did prior to 1870, selecting one hair at a time to weave into the cloth. The factory engineers make different “pickers” according to the hairs’ thicknesses.
Most of the machine parts are manufactured in-house or sometimes specially commissioned, although generic parts such as reeds and heddles (where the warp is threaded onto the loom) can be bought from outside suppliers.
Weaving With Horsehair
John Boyd Textiles weaves two widths of horsehair cloth based on color: A black or dark-colored fabric and a narrower white or pale-colored fabric. White horsehair is much more expensive than its colored counterpart because there’s a greater demand for pure white hair, for violin bows, for example.
For horsehair weaving, the hair is cut from live horses’ tails for the same reason that live sheep are sheared for their wool: Hair or wool from a dead animal doesn’t have the same shine or vitality and won’t dye properly, Smith said.
Once cut, the horsehair is cleaned and sorted, just like wool. Up until the 1950s, this sorting, known as hairdressing, happened at John Boyd Textiles, but now it occurs overseas before the horsehair is exported. A hairdresser sorts the hair into different lengths, sending the short horsehair to be used for brushes, sporrans (a pouch worn on kilts), and judges’ wigs, for example. And the longer hair is used for things like violin bows, fishing lines, and rope; of course, it can also be woven into horsehair fabric.
“If you go far enough back, it was used as a stiffener for fabric in clothing, because crinoline was made out of horsehair,” Smith said.
The horsehair is dyed on-demand in small batches on the premises. “It is quite skilled because you’re dealing with a natural material and that does vary a bit in color,” she said. Nevertheless, just about any color can be produced.
Once dyed, the horsehair is pulled through a hackle (a comb with metal prongs) to prepare the hair for weaving. If white horsehair is used, all the dark hairs are taken out by hand. Then the horsehair is combed through before weaving. Once woven, the fabric is pressed, giving it its sheen.
Customers prefer plain fabric for upholstering, particularly for furniture that won’t often be recovered. The original classic plain black sateen horsehair fabric has always been popular, but Smith notes that the company is now producing more colored horsehair fabric—taupe, mushroom, and white—which is quite popular at the moment. The John Boyd Textiles herringbone design is particularly popular as a texture rather than a pattern, she added.
For nearly 30 years, John Boyd Textiles has worked with an embroiderer who uses an old embroidery machine to hand guide the stitching (hand-guided embroidery), often according to historic designs.
Horsehair, the Modern-Historic Fabric
John Boyd Textiles’ customers are mostly architects, designers, upholsterers, and antique restorers, as well as contractors for hotels, restaurants, corporate boardrooms, and the like. And the fashion industry uses horsehair for accessories like footwear, handbags, and belts, or for cuffs, collars, and jacket pocket edges.
Other trade comes from museums and historic buildings: “We do some work for the Oxbridge colleges, as most of them have horsehair fabric on their seats.” Smith said.
In America, horsehair from John Boyd Textiles is in the White House, and Mount Vernon asked John Boyd to quote a price for reupholstering the chairs that America’s founding fathers sat on for the first cabinet meeting, Smith said.
Horsehair is incredibly unique. Not only does it last over 100 years, but “it passes all fire tests, so match and cigarette tests,” she said. “It passes all the acoustic tests, so it’s actually used in quite modern applications for speakers and cinema rooms.” All these qualities make horsehair an attractive multipurpose fabric—enduring for generations, as our forefathers’ furniture attests to.
To find out more about John Boyd Textiles’ traditional horsehair fabric, visit JohnBoydTextiles.co.uk