To Make a Wig

When you tell a new acquaintance that you make wigs for a living, you usually have to repeat yourself. And then come a few seconds of blank staring until you clarify “like for theatre, or cosplayers, or reenactors, and our biggest client is Santa.” Most people have never even considered wigmaking as a viable career option for anyone. It’s one of those things that obviously must happen in the world for us to have things like the Lord of the Rings movies or Les Mis on Broadway, but not one that springs to mind when you think of theatrical careers. After they realize what I’ve said, there are two kinds of people: a) the ones who don’t need to hear about your creative line of work, ever, thank you very much. They generally continue with a few seconds of blank stare before going about their business with a vague “Isn’t that interesting?” And b) the ones who want to hear all about it. Here’s for you:

There are many kinds of wigs, but the kind I make are custom fitted and hand-tied–the same kind that are used in films, television, and on Broadway. If you’d like to see more examples (or explore getting one of these babies for yourself), check out Custom Wig Company‘s website. I linked right to our client gallery, but there are even more pictures if you hop around to different sections of the site. I took the pictures in this blog back in July, when I was making my own historical wig.

We always say the invention of Saran wrap is the greatest leap-forward in wig-making technology in a century.

The first step to any custom wig is, of course, a good fit. This ensures that the wig is comfortable, doesn’t constrict, and will want to stay on the head with minimal pinning and gluing. To get a good fit, we take (or clients take themselves) a head wrap by covering the head (only the hair part, of course!) in Saran wrap, and taping it down with clear tape and drawing on the hairline in Sharpie. The tape means that the Saran wrap will hold the form of the head once it is removed. This allows us to get not only the measurements of the head, but the shape, which is much more important for a good fit. It also allows us to follow a clients hairline exactly, which will help the piece look more natural on them. We can easily modify the hairline to add a widow’s peak, or bring up a receding hairline if desired. We then find a canvas head block that fits the wrap as closely as possible and pin the wrap to it, padding out any areas that don’t quite fit with tissue paper until we have a block the exact shape of the client’s head.

The foundation of the wig is made of two or three different materials, depending on the needs of the particular project: a heavy netting called vegetable (veg) net, a stretchy netting called caul net (we only include this if the client has very long or curly hair that may change significantly in volume depending on how they prep it to go under the wig), and a very fine mesh called wig lace which disappears against the skin around the hairline. There are different grades of wig lace like heavier opera lace and gossamer film lace, but we usually use a middle of the road weight, light enough to disappear very well, but sturdy enough to last for years. Since I have very short hair, and never plan to grow it much longer, there was no need for caul net in my wig, so the back and top of the foundation are made of three pieces of veg net, which are draped right on the head and carefully darted to be as form-fitting as possible. First a back piece:

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Then a strip from ear to ear across the top of the head:

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The first two pieces get folded up at the edges and hemmed. We stitch the entire foundation by hand with the same ventilating needles we use to tie hair. This allows us to build the entire wig without ever removing it from the head form, which could distort the fit. The needles are really tiny bent hooks with sharp points. They catch the thread or hair in a fishing-hook-like barb, and are just about as fun to pull out of your skin if they get stuck. The final piece of veg net (which we would make out of caul net if required), is a football-shaped piece that fits between the first two:

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I generally sew around this piece and up and down the darts in one seam that ends up looking like the feed on a heart monitor.

The lace is the final piece of the puzzle. It gets placed very carefully across the forehead, just below the hairline so that it will lie as flat as possible against the skin. From there, I took darts in at the seam between lace and veg net, being very careful to make sure they didn’t extend beyond the hairline. This gets sewn the same way as the rest of the foundation.

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These are all the different hairs I used to create a color that is similar to mine, though a bit lighter and more coppery. It is 16″long human hair in three different shades ranging from light ashy brown to auburn. Some is very straight and smooth, and some has a courser texture that will make it easier for the wig to hold curl.

Since the wig is very long and thick, much of the back is wefted–meaning that I sewed on strips of hair. I attached the hair going up, since it will always be styled in updos. That way, the heavy hair wants to go where I need it to be, rather than pulling against the styles. Since I was wefting with just the base color, I tied a bit of other colors in between the rows so that they would blend.

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From here, it’s all tying. First the edges of the back, so that it looks nice with the hair swept up off the neck. In the first picture you can really see the difference between the blended color and the ashy weft.

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Here's the progress so far, braided to keep it out of the way.
Here’s the progress so far, braided to keep it out of the way.

Next I tied the rest of the veg net:

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Each knot is a tiny cow hitch made with 4-8 hairs in the back and just one or two strands in the front in order to create a seamless-natural looking hairline with knots so small they are practically invisible and the hair appears to be growing from the wearers head.

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Something about the little sideburn areas on any wig makes them take longer than almost any other section. The only thing that takes (or at least feels) longer is tying all the teeny tiny knots as you close in on the very center of the hairline. This is where most viewer’s eyes will be drawn, so the knots must be tiny and absolutely perfect.

Here is the completed wig all combed out.

The first event that I used this wig for was the 1822 wedding in July. Here it is in the roller set that became my 1822 updo:

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My boss Heather combed out and styled the wig beautifully. We were in such a crazy rush that day that we didn’t get any pictures, but here are some from the day of the event that show it off well:

Image by Fox & Rose Photography
Image by Fox & Rose Photography
Image by Asha Ananda

You can see even more pictures from the day at my post about the event, which is linked above.

The wig has since done several other things for me, including my normal 1816:

Image by Hannah Zimmerman
Image by Heather Fleming

And 1790s (I only have pictures of this one on the block after I styled it, but I wore it for the Sleepy Hollow event at Historic Tunnel Mill:

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Next year I’ll be adding early 1840s, 1872 and 1880 to its repertoire! If you want to read more about making, styling and caring for wigs, check out Custom Wig Company’s blog Words of Wigsdom. And like us on Facebook to see all the cool things we do!



As you may have realized by now, I really enjoy adapting clothing from fashion plates. Sometimes I follow them very strictly, sometimes I use them as more of a jumping-off point for my ideas. One of my favorite online resources for Regency costuming is the magazine Ackermann’s Repository, which is available in its entirety on Internet Archive. Ackermann’s is more properly called The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures and Politics, and was published by Rudolph Ackermann between 1809 and 1829. As you can see from the title, it is a very generalized magazine, which makes it a great resource for many aspects of Regency culture. Each issue includes serialized stories, news articles, meteorological reports, manufacturing news, reviews of new music, book recommendations, images of interesting places around the world, information about fashionable architecture and furnishings, and two women’s fashion plates, in addition to many other interesting things. There are also occasional embroidery patterns, especially in later issues.

I often use the 1814, 1815 and early 1816 issues of Ackermann’s as research for my interpretation at Locust Grove. Though it was published in London, women of the time were extremely diligent about communicating new fashions with their far-flung friends and acquaintances, and a new issue of a periodical could reach Kentucky within three months of publication.

I fell in love with this bonnet from the March 1815 edition of Ackermann’s from the moment I saw it for its sheer over-the-topness. I knew I had to have it. And what better to go with my yellow and white striped pelisse than a fabulous white feathered bonnet?

Now, let’s be honest, I have very little experience in millinery, and had no idea how to make that amazing cornucopia shape. After a few minutes of pointless poking around on the internet, I decided to just go for it. I made a narrow base for the hat crown from buckram, then built the rest out of millinery wire and hope.

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Before putting on the main fabric–silk satin in this case–I mulled the bonnet with cotton flannel. Mulling helps smooth the lines of the buckram form, and protects the delicate fashion fabric from the scratchy buckram and wire. It wasn’t until after I started mulling the crown that I realized what shape I should have cut the flannel into for it to fit smoothly, but I decided to keep the  original shape because the darts gave extra padding, and I figured the all-wire form could use as much padding as it could get. I sort of wish I’d put another layer of flannel on over the first one, but Kentucky gets extremely hot in the summer, and I didn’t want my head to cook.

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I only mulled the top of the brim, and wrapped the excess flannel around the edge to protect it. I didn’t use glue anywhere on the bonnet, because I hate working with it, so I used a sort-of pad stitch to secure the flannel smoothly to the buckram. Yes. I was watching some extremely period appropriate Dylan Moran stand up while doing this.

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All of the fashion fabric was ruched, which makes covering the bonnet nice and easy, since you don’t have to worry about getting the fabric to lie perfectly flat. Although you could probably argue that getting nice, attractive gathers is just as tricky. The brim cover was a single piece of fabric, gathered into the crown on both sides. The first piece I cut was a bit too short in a few places, so I was forced to cut a new one.

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Now, I had originally planned to cover the crown by cutting out a full circle of the satin and gathering it down, but remember how I had to cut a second brim piece because of being silly? So the full circle was not to be. Instead, I had to cut two quarter-circles and sew them together, so I was covering the crown in a cone of fabric. Although the bonnet is finished now, and I do like it, I am considering getting another piece of satin at some point and taking it apart so I can “make it up better” as Lydia Bennet would say. It definitely doesn’t have the amount of ruching I was hoping for at the moment.

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I would normally have wrapped the edge of the satin around the buckram base, but since everything was gathered, I wanted to reduce bulk inside the hat as much as possible, so I just folded it under itself and whip-stitched it to the wired edge of the buckram.

Here it is as I was putting it together. You can see that the satin has very little gathering at the top of the cone, though it will get a bit more of a ruched look when I add the bands around it.
The bands and ties are made of silk batiste.

IMG_0885 IMG_0886I made the bands by cutting wide strips of the batiste, and folding them in half. Instead of sewing them into a tube before attaching them, I sewed both edges together as I was sewing them to the bonnet. Then it was just a matter of arranging the band into a pleasing pattern of apparently-random gathers and subtly stitching them in place. I ran a gathering stitch under where the other two bands were going to go in order to get as much ruching as I could out of not enough fabric.

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Final step–feathers! I ended up trimming the craziness down around the base of the feathers, then I curled the tips. For these feathers, I just used my fingers to carefully bend the feather bit by bit along the top half until they curled up like the ones in the plate. My bonnet has only two enormous feathers, though the plate seems to have three.

Here’s the finished bonnet from all angles:

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And here it is on my head:

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I’ll freely admit that my plumes are not nearly as out-of-this-world as the ones in the fashion plate, but baby steps, huh? There should also be a strip of lace along the edge of the upper brim, and I swear I had that piece of lace. But somewhere in the months since I got it, that single yard of lace seems to have wandered away into the ether. I am hoping to find it eventually, but if not, I’ll get around go getting a new piece. Because this bonnet obviously needs more floof. Maybe I’ll do that whenever I finally cover the crown the way I’d originally intended. If that’s the case you can expect a post about that sometime in the next ten years…


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