Many people want to know why I started to make this work and where I got the idea from. I am not the first person to sew with hair (see links on the lower right); people were using human and animal hair to sew with thousands of years ago--it is surprisingly strong (and abundant!). Chinese women during the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) embroidered images of the Buddha with their hair to show their piety. It is still a popular art form in some parts of China today. (Check out Professor Wei Jingxian--he has done the portraits of all 43 American presidents in hair!!! WOW.)
The best known hairwork in Europe and America, however, was the mourning jewelry and pictures which gained in popularity during Georgian and Victorian times (Queen Victoria of England made mourning jewelry extremely popular). Saving the hair of dead or departed loved ones and wearing it on the body was an incredibly intimate way to remember loved ones. Many of the women who were skilled in this specialized art came from a small town in Sweden called Våmhus, and they traveled all over Europe to take orders and sell their work to combat the extreme poverty that they were experiencing in the late 18th to early 19th centuries (more here). Hairwork made by the Swedish women and others was called "tablework;" the hair was plaited using a special table with a hole in the center and bobbins to weigh down the strands of hair (similar to bobbin lace and Japanese Kumihimo). The results were gorgeous bracelets, necklaces, rings, earrings, brooches, and wreaths.
I started working with hair in 1998 when I had a bad bout of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or ME for you readers in the UK). I was enrolled in the sculpture program at the Massachusetts College of Art, but I just didn't have the energy to go to the studio most of the time. In my "collection of interesting things," I had a ponytail of hair that my mother had saved from a haircut. I discovered that I could easily knot the ends together to make a long "thread," which I collected on a spool. My mother taught me to sew when I was little, so it was a logical next step to try to sew with it. I drew some simple forms onto heavy paper and then pierced hundreds of holes for the needle to go through. The drawings became more and more complex over the years; the three-dimensional forms that were represented by many of the drawings were, in my mind, containers for memory: rooms, houses, fortresses.