In earlier times horsehair was not considered a luxury material, although its fascinating elegance and hard wearing qualities made it a favourite for covering upholstered furniture.

In 1760, Thomas Chippendale had the chairs of his library, salon and dining room covered in horsehair. George Hepplewhite, in his catalogue, described horsehair woven in reps, satins and damask, and recommended the use of horsehair covering for his mahogany chairs. Later Victorian middle class families valued the durability and practicality of this robust and easy to clean material, as did the 1st Class travellers on the colonial railway systems of the time.

Since then it has found its way into palaces, both presidential and royal, stately homes, opera houses, cathedrals and classic houses around the world. Favoured by top interior designers as a covering for antique or quality reproduction furniture, it has also been used as a wall covering, on doors and screens. The combination of fine leather and coloured horsehair weaves transforms utility into attractive accessories in the form of handbags, brief-cases, wallets and belts.



Weaving of Horsehair Fabrics

Horsehair was woven in hundreds of small factories throughout Europe up until the early part of the 20th Century. The advent of the motor car dramatically reduced the amount of work horses required and thus the availability of the raw material (the long tail hair). This and the introduction of more flexible synthetic fibres saw a dramatic decline of this once flourishing industry. Today only a handful of mills still exist that can manufacture this unique fabric.

The horsehair fabric is a combination of the long horse tail hairs, which are individually drawn across a cotton thread warp. The natural restrictions of the hair length also dominates the width of the woven fabric to approx. 67 cm.

The fabric is closely woven, firm and slightly stiff - consisting of 68% Horsehair and 32% Cotton, and due to the resilience of the horsehair provides ideal characteristics for the upholstering of furniture.
Horsehair is now sourced from overseas, mainly from China. There are three basic selections: Black hair, Natural White, and Grey (which is a natural mixture of browns, whites & greys). Natural white hair can be coloured with light-fast dyes to achieve a multitude of fashionable colour-ways. However full length natural white hair is very rare and expensive as its other main uses are for violin bows and judges wigs.



Elegant Designs

One of the most traditional horsehair weaves is Sateen. Plainly woven, the hair is on the face of the cloth and the cotton war p on the reverse. Since the hair is the strongest of the two fibres, and on the upper surface, this makes the material extremely durable. Horsehair is also woven as Repp, a similar plain weave, but the proportions of hair and cotton are equal on the fabric surface giving a matt finish.
Simple damask and stripe designs are traditional and still popular for horsehair fabrics. The lattice, diamond, medallion and star shapes reflect the classical patterns of the 18th century. The woven damask patterns introduce subtle variations in the reflection of light on the finished fabric, and it is partly this quality that makes horsehair fabrics look sleek and sophisticated.

Horsehair fabrics are very durable, and have a lustre unequalled by any other fabric. The famous English architect and designer Sir Edwin Lutyens used horsehair fabric on his own favourite Napoleon Chair (see here). It lasted for over 50 years despite constant use.