Whenever sorting and treating comb waste, lots of us know that there is a whole industry around untangling.
There’s no distinction, it all gets mangled up, says Tarlo.
It’s likely to be a mishmash of hair from many Asian countries, while the finished product invariably passes through China on the way to its final destination. Consult the many online hair glossaries, blogs and tutorials and you’ll be ld that Chinese hair is the coarsest, that Filipino hair is similar but much shinier, that Brazilian hair is fullbodied with a beautiful bounce and Indian hair is versatile with a natural lustre. Also, definitions are as varied as they are vague. Thence at the opposite end of the scale is standard hair -often used as a more marketable term for comb waste. Usually, Chinese or otherwise, a lot of sleek and shiny hair extensions start life as hairballs, collected from combs and plugholes. In Myanmar women were given 100g of hair in the morning and another 100g in the afternoon. Villagers will also come in to buy mounds of the comb waste to take home, untangle and sell back to the hair brokers. Go online in search of a wig or hair extensions and you’ll be presented with a dizzying spectrum of choices.
Pure Mongolian hair.
Finest remy hair from India.
Luxury virgin hair from Brazil or Peru. Sleek European weaves. Very rarely will you see hair from China advertised -even though that’s where plenty of Undoubtedly it’s from. Of course, it’s painstaking work, and very labour intensive -5kg of hair takes around 80 labour hours to untangle she says. Tarlo visited workshops and homes in Myanmar and India, where she saw dozens of women sitting on the floor untangling other people’s hairballs and after all sorting them into bunches depending on their length. All this hair gets amassed, passed from trader to trader, until it ends up in ‘hairuntangling’ workshops in parts of Bangladesh, India and more recently Myanmar -countries where wages are low and people need work.
China is the biggest exporter and importer of human hair and harvests huge amounts from its own population, as Emma Tarlo discovered on a ‘three year’ quest to untangle what happens to hair once I know it’s no longer attached to our heads. I know that the US and Israel -until 2004, hair from India was a staple supply for wig makers in Orthodox Jewish communities across Europe North London went to investigate if the hair might be considered kosher. In China the hair is typically put in a chemical bath to remove the cuticle completely, Tarlo explains. The issue with comb waste is that hair is mangled up -the scales point in different directions causing it to tangle and knot. Like prize pony tails, by the end of this process it can look fantastic.
You wouldn’t know what a journey that hair was on.
This resolves the tangling but the lack of a cuticle results in somewhat lower quality hair, she says.
Like the scales of a fish, the outer layer of a hair -the cuticle -has scales, all of which point in identical direction. Next comes the processing. Quite a few of these plaits came on to the hair market but traders worried their source of long hair combings from men’s plaits will run out if men no longer had long hair. Therefore an order went out that men must cut off their plaits and some had their hair forcibly removed by the Revolutionary Guard, when the Manchu dynasty was overthrown in China in 1912. It was now that Indian hair became important to the industry, says Tarlo.