A wig – short for periwig – an old English word for the long, often curly, flowing headpieces worn mainly by men in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – is a head covering made of real or artificial hair. They have been worn in one form or another for thousands of years.
How wigs are made today differs unrecognisably from wigs made at the dawn of recorded history. Here, you’ll find the answer to the question: how are wigs made?
A Short History of Wigs
Wigs have been worn since times of antiquity, starting perhaps with the Ancient Egyptians who shaved their heads but didn’t want sunburn. The ancient Assyrians, Greeks and Romans also wore wigs, and the quality of one’s wig was a symbol of wealth and status, hence the modern-day term ‘bigwig’. The richest in ancient Egypt even had wigs made from finely-spun silver!
It was reported that Julius Caesar wore a wig to hide his baldness and the use of wigs in Ancient Rome was relatively common. With the fall of the Western Roman Empire around 500 AD, the use of wigs declined and they weren’t widely reported again for another thousand years.
Come the sixteenth century and the popularity of wigs returned, thanks largely to royalty. Elizabeth I wore a wig, and the wigs of the French and English kings and nobility were extraordinarily ornate, not to mention very heavy. When considering how wigs were manufactured in the nineteenth century, they required an incredibly complex process of manufacture, meaning they remained available only to the wealthiest in society.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the 20th century, in the 1960s, when synthetic wigs became available that they were worn more widely as general fashion items. Today, wig making is a multi-billion pound global industry and here, we’ll answer the question ‘how are wigs made?’
Types of Wigs
There are lots of different types of wigs and they can broadly be broken down into four main categories.
Monofilament – these wigs are light and durable and they replicate the natural way the hair moves from the scalp.
Lace-Front – lace-front wigs are incredibly natural looking and create the illusion of a perfectly natural, albeit hand-constructed, hairline.
Hand-Tied – hand-tied wigs can either be synthetic wigs or custom human hair wigs and each hair is sewn to the mesh by hand. They are versatile and very light.
Wefted or Open-Cap – This type of wig is usually synthetic and the most affordable. They are perfectly suited to the occasional wearer but aren’t very versatile.
Synthetic wigs are constructed from man-made fibres such as polyester, nylon or acrylic and they are treated through a number of complex chemical processes to ensure they have the look and feel of natural human hair. The benefits of synthetic wigs is that they come in virtually any colour shade, they retain their style easily and are bought off-the-shelf so they are cheaper than custom human hair wigs.
The downsides are that there is little versatility, i.e. you can’t go from straight to curly using the same wig and often can’t be heat-treated.
Custom Human Hair Wigs
These wigs use human hair with an invisible hairline so they are as realistic-looking as natural hair. They are much easier to customise than a synthetic wig and can withstand treatments from blow dryers, straighteners or curling tongs. They also last much longer than synthetic wigs but are invariably more expensive.
How Wigs are Manufactured
The process of how custom wigs are made and how synthetic wigs are manufactured is virtually identical and both methods are specialised and complex. First, a master wig maker will measure the client’s head. Then, using a simple method of cellophane and masking tape, they will make a cast of the head that sits on a head-shaped block of wood or canvas.
The outline of the cast is drawn onto the block, which is then covered with a fine silk mesh held on with pins. This preparation ensures the final product (which can cost many thousands of pounds for the best quality wigs) is a perfect fit.
Preparing the Hair
This is the most important aspect in the process of how wigs are made. In consultation with the client, the wig maker will choose the hair to be used and ensure it is all facing in the same direction from the root to the tip, ensuring the cuticles are all intact. Once the wig maker has the hair they need, it’s bound together in bundles and run through a hackle – a kind of upturned comb with very long, pointed needles – to remove short hairs.
It’s at this point that the hair is closely inspected for nits. If any are found, the hair is boiled in a solution of acetic acid and combed through with a nit comb, the same way your parents did when there was a nit outbreak at school. The answer to the question ‘how do they make wigs’ is now starting to come together.
For synthetic hair wigs, the length of hair is chosen by the client and it goes through the same binding and hackling process as natural hair.
Sorting the Style
After the hackling, the hair is washed and disinfected and then rinsed through a number of times to remove all shampoo and disinfectant residue. It is then either left to dry naturally or in an oven at around 80°C – 100°C. Some wig makers will hackle the hair again at this point and it’s now that the hair is curled, waved, coloured or styled to the client’s wish.
How are wigs manufactured? This is now the most important and time consuming element of the whole process. It’s called knotting. The wig maker uses a needle to attach the hair to the base and a professionally-made, full wig from an expert requires up to 40,000 individual knots, all done meticulously by hand.
When the wig is complete, a last row of knotting is done to finish the edges and the inside of the wig is treated with a hot iron press to secure each knot in place to prevent any from falling out.
Now you know how wigs are made but a more important question for the client is how long does it take to make a wig? Wigs at the affordable end of the scale can take as little as a month, but for the finest quality wigs from the best wig makers in the world, a wait of six months to a year is not unheard of.