A Forgoten Case: A Restored Hairwork Picture

A fascinating, unique and noteworthy artefact was identified in a hidden corner of the museum: a framed hairwork picture on glass. Although the artefact certainly cannot be numbered among the category of archaeological artefacts the likes of which are usually treated at the AMI Restoration-Conservation department, the necessity of its preservation motivated the decision to carry out conservation and restoration treatment. The question that arose was how did this intriguing artefact come to the museum? AMI staffers have indicated that the artefact came from Vodnjan. A report from 1949 was located at the AMI Documentation department from which we see that curators Boris Baćić and Štefan Mlakar, in an arrangement with the authorities supervising the E. Rismondo estate in Vodnjan, took possession of five crates of books, a number of ethnographic objects, and medieval archaeological artefacts from the local church of St Michael. It is assumed that the hairwork picture in question was one of the cited ethnographic objects. This object only resurfaced decades later, like the forgotten case in a detective story; preserved in adherence of best restoration practices, the provenance of this nineteenth century gem can now be sought out.


Artefacts fabricated from organic materials such as human hair draw our attention because of their fragility, their intimate nature and their sentimental value. They are crafted with the outmost care, using very sensitive and personal material.

In the seventeenth century mourning jewellery was manufactured exclusively for members of the social elite and reflected the social status of the deceased, serving as a permanent memento mori (“remember (that you have) to die”). In the eighteenth century objects made of hair (pictures, sculptures and jewellery) become widely popular and spread from England to other European countries. This is the period known as sentimentalism. Mourning jewellery from this period is no longer defined by its economic, but rather by its intimate and emotional value. Various forms of this jewellery in the eighteenth century reflect changes in attitudes towards death. The focus of mourning is no longer the deceased and their glory, but rather the grieving and their grief. A new iconography is developed in the nineteenth century that is characterised by a small repertoire of elegiac motifs: landscapes and gardens, scenes, solitary trees (the willow and cypress in particular); graves decorated with urns, grieving women in pseudo-Antiquity period caps and floral ornamentation. It should be emphasised that this stereotypical iconography is associated with the semantics of grieving and with friendship. Even more frequent than the use of the hair of a deceased loved one in mourning objects is the use of the hair of living persons for the fabrication of keepsake gifts, presented as an eternal sign of friendship, remembrance or romantic love. 

In the nineteenth century hair was used in the manufacture of jewellery across Europe, but was also used in creating works of applied art. The diversity of objects created using hair appears limitless, from simple locks of hair inserted into medallions, very complex wreaths fabricated of locks of hair woven into floral forms, to miniature pictures on ivory traced out in sepia paint and finely cut hair.

Rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, brooches, amulets, cufflinks and watch fobs made of hair are often richly decorated with gold, enamel, pearls, semi-precious and precious stones of all kinds – the opulence of the material served to demonstrate the sense of friendship or love. 

The popularity of objects made of this material was not limited to jewellery alone. Pictures with floral motifs were manufactured, and three-dimensional bouquets, also made entirely of hair, were exhibited under glass domes on Victorian tables in drawing rooms. There is even a life-size portrait of Queen Victoria made entirely of human hair. It is known to us that Queen Victoria did in fact have a particular taste for objects made of hair and was fond of wearing jewellery fashioned from hair. Following the death of her beloved husband, the Prince Albert, in 1861, Queen Victoria wore a lock of his hair in a brooch attached near her heart to the end of her life.

Originally this jewellery and decorative objects were crafted by artists and were sold in specialised shops and orders were placed through catalogues. The fabrication of hairwork objects quickly became a popular pastime activity among women of the Victorian period, to such an extent that magazines of the time published free templates with instructions for “do-it-yourself” hairwork projects. Courses were organised in England and America to teach young women this skill. Practically every man of this period received a watch fob made of the hair of his fiancé, wife, sister or mother; hairwork bands are, namely, numbered among the most common objects of this kind in the nineteenth century.


There are a number of hairwork fabrication techniques, each used to manufacture a given type of object (applied art, pictures or sculptures).

The palette technique involved cutting hair into shapes and gluing it directly to a surface such as thin parchment (vellum), ivory or glass. Individual locks or strands of hair were used to form fine lines, while finely chopped hair could be scattered on a surface treated with adhesive to create a desired texture. This created floral type design motifs. Individual locks or strands of hair were used to form fine lines, while finely chopped hair could be scattered on a surface treated with adhesive to create a desired texture.

Table work involved working on a special braiding table with a hole in the middle, where hair was braided using bobbins and weights into a complex lace network, often adorned with gold and pearls. This type of work was particularly arduous: the hair was cooked in water and soda for fifteen minutes, then was sorted by length into bunches. The majority of jewellery of this kind required very long hair – fabricating a bracelet, for example, required strands with a length of from 50 to 60 centimetres. Sometimes the hair was shaped around a wooden mould to achieve a desired shape. The moulds were crafted by local woodturners. The mould would be attached in the hole at the centre of the worktable. The hair would be wound around a series of bobbins and held by weights to keep the braid straight. When the work was done and the mould/form was still in place it would be immersed in a pot with water and cooked for fifteen minutes, then dried before the object was carefully removed from the form. Only then was it ready for mounting by a goldsmith.

The sepia technique (working with sepia paint) involved finely chopped hair mixed with an adhesive or ground to a powder with a mortar and pestle and dissolved in distilled water, yielding a brown pigment that was applied to ivory, glass, or fine parchment. Sepia paint could be used to draw out the details. This technique was usually used to depict miniature landscapes or scenes related to death and mourning.

The floral motifs technique involves the fabrication of hairwork flowers by wrapping the strands around a rod, using fine wire to hold the strands in place. Variations in the sizes of the rods, the quantities and colour of hair used, and the incorporation of beads yielded a diversity of flower, leaf and tendril shapes and sizes, which could then be combined to form decorative bouquets and wreaths.


Because of the different nature of the material (organic, human hair) the restoration of the hairwork picture was both a great challenge and demanded a conscientious approach above and beyond the standard treatment of archaeological objects. Conservation and restoration work was preceded by a chemical analysis performed at the Istria County Materials Research Center (METRIS). A sample of the adhesive used to attach the hair to the glass substrate was subjected to a chemical composition analysis using the Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy method (FTIR). The test established a high correspondence of the FTIR spectrum of the sample with that of gum arabic. The artefact was disassembled following the analysis. Taking it apart was necessary on account of the differences in materials – the wooden frame and the picture mounted on glass – given that different materials require different conservation and restoration processes.

State of Preservation  

The glass substrate of the picture is cracked in a few places, with two small fragments of glass missing, and parts of the hairwork drawing have become separated from the glass on which it is mounted. Previous repairs are visible on the picture where glue has been used to adhere fragments of the glass. Also visible are traces of the re-adhesion of parts of the hairwork drawing that had become separated. It is also evident that some parts have dropped off, that in one part of the composition the position of the hairwork drawing has shifted and that some parts of the drawing are entirely missing. The most significant damage to the wooden frame was observed on the lower part of the ornamental strip: several fragments of the ornament have fallen off. Smaller areas of deterioration are also evident on the outer edges of the laths, where the paint has worn off.

Interventions on the Glass Base

The fragments were cleaned of dirt (dust) with cotton swabs immersed in ethyl alcohol. This procedure was done with great care on account of the sensitive nature of the material with which the drawing is made. The fragments were then carefully turned over onto their back (reverse) sides so that the drawing on the front would not be damaged in the course of gluing. Two missing sections of the glass base were replaced with new glass. The procedure to cut the glass in this intervention is the same as the procedure when cutting glass to fabricate stained glass or the Tiffany technique. Previous repairs effected with cyanoacrylate glue in an attempt to restore parts of the drawing (hair) that had come undone to their original position was a source of great difficulty as the glue had set on the hair from which it was exceedingly hard to remove. After a few unsuccessful attempts to remove the glue using various solvents (hot water, ethyl alcohol, acetone), pads soaked in a cyanoacrylate glue remover were placed on the surfaces from which the glue was to be removed. The results of this procedure were satisfactory – most of the old glue was removed and the hair preserved. We have already noted that hair is a very sensitive material; consolidation was consequently the logical next step in our work. A consolidant solution was used to reinforce the bonding of the hair with the glass base and also restored the vibrancy and gloss of the drawing itself. In order to facilitate the reconstruction of the drawing and to make the retouch as precise as possible, the condition as found was sketched out on tracing paper in black colour, and the missing sections drawn out in red colour. The 1:1 scale drawing on tracing paper was placed under the glass mounted picture and the reconstruction was then drawn out with a thin brush. The retouch was executed in sepia colour ink, in a very light nuance, lighter than the original drawing.

Restoration Work on the Ornamental Wooden Frame

The wooden frame was cleaned with a soft brush, after which the remains of dust were removed with a brush soaked in a mixture of ethyl alcohol and distilled water. A significant number of small cracks were observed on the frame’s ornamental strip – it was coated with flax oil to “feed” and restore the lustre of the wood. An impression was taken from the frame following cleaning and consolidation using a two-component vinyl polysiloxane silicone – a two-component epoxy blend was placed in the resulting mould. Once the epoxy blend of the rebuilt missing sections had dried they were positioned at the appropriate places. The rebuilt sections and the original sections that had fallen off were glued to the frame’s ornamental strip using wood glue. The spaces between the original surface and the rebuilt sections were carefully filled with a two-component epoxy blend aesthetically unifying the decorative relief of the frame. The rebuilt sections were retouched, the substrate painted in black oil paint, and the relief in gold colour. The wooden frame was coated with a final protective layer of restoration wax, which provides the wood with the necessary protection and lustre. The frame was then turned on its back and the picture inserted. The two were joined very simply – small nails were inserted in the existing holes such that no further damage was done to the frame. For extra protection rubber bungs were placed at the corners.


Hairwork Picture on Glass

Date: 19th century

Location (collection): Archaeological Museum of Istria

Fabrication technique: Palette technique

Dimensions: 44 x 44.5 cm (w x h)

Description of the artefact: Picture mounted on glass with a floral decorative motif fabricated entirely of hair, used to frame two portrait photographs. A lavish branching heart-shaped wreath is executed in elongated leaves, branches and flowers encircling two oval photograph frames placed centrally, above which is a ribbon into which a message or the names of fiancées/spouses were printed. The ribbon is borne in the beaks of two doves in flight. The picture has a wooden frame of rectangular form. The front is adorned with stylised vegetative ornaments. The inside and outside edges are simply profiled, while the middle is decorated with a ribbon of stylised flowers similar to tulips, beneath which are geometric forms, circles and rectangles alternating on the substrate. The surface of the frame is dark brown. The prominent parts of the ornament in the central strip are emphasised in gold colour.


ADELE, L. 2013. Labor of Love: The Art of Hair Work in the 19th Century. <https://thevictormourning.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/ laboroflovetheartofhairworkinthe19thcentury/> [30.4.2016.].

BUCK, R. D. 2000. Utvrđivanje i opisivanje stanja umjetnina. Vijesti muzealaca i konzervatora, br. 3/4. Hrvatsko muzejsko društvo. Zagreb. 94-102. 

DAVISON, S. 2006. Conservation and restoration of glass. Oxford, The Conservation Studio in Thame.

HOLM, C. 2004. Sentimental Cuts: Eighteenth-Century Mourning Jewelry with Hair. Eighteenth-Century Studies 38/1. 139-143. https://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/eighteenthcentury_ studies/v038/38.1holm.html [30.4.2016.].

KOOB, P. S. 2006. Conservation and care of glass objects. The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning.

PETROVIĆ, M., ZUBIN FERRI, T. 2016. Sentimentalni rezovi iz 19. stoljeća – Restaurirana slika izrađena od kose na staklu. Histria archaeologica 46/2015, Pula. 281-296.

VINLUCCHI, S. 2000. Vitrum la materia, il degrado, il restauro. Edifir, Firenze. 25-27.

 A FORGOTTEN CASE: A Restored Hairwork Picture 

Exhibition  Carrarina 4, Pula

 Window to the Past 18.05. - 18.07.2017.

Exhibition and text author: Monika Petrović

Organizer and publisher: Archaeological Museum of Istria

For the organizer and publisher: Darko Komšo

Editorial Board: Darko Komšo, Adriana Gri Štorga, Katarina Zenzerović

Set up & graphic design: Vjeran Juhas

Photographers: Tanja Draškić Savić, Monika Petrović

Technical set up of the exhibition: Monika Petrović

Translation in Italian: Elis Barbalich-Geromella

English translation: Neven Ferenčić

 Proofs: Adriana Gri Štorga, Milena Špigić, Katarina Zenzerović

Print: MPS Pula

No. of copies: 700

 Pula, 2017.

Typo3 site by Ulisys d.o.o. , 2010.