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.

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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.

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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:

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Image by Fox & Rose Photography
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Image by Fox & Rose Photography
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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:

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Image by Hannah Zimmerman
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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!

Hannah

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