All about horsehair
There can be no doubt about it horsehair and horsetail, when used as components within a mattress, can seriously be accepted as a high-end upholstery component.
Because of this accepted heritage horsetail and horsehair can be used as part of an overall blend to create a new upholstery product, for example, horsehair and wool blends, or horsehair, wool and cotton blends. The significant properties of pure horsehair will be altered when producing these blends but they do create products that have a place of their own within an appropriate mattress.
When horsehair is blended with wool, for example, the ratio between each component part should be considered: the more horsehair within the blend will be more supportive (to a degree) and the more wool will make the new component part softer. There is no standard blend containing horsehair, each blend will be produced according to the actual specification of the manufacturer.
A thought has to be applied as to the other upholstery components the particular blend will be used with. It will invariably be used as a mid layer offering a bridge between support and comfort. A very good example of this kind of usage can be seen in The Vi-Spring Sublime Superb: this has a mid layer of 1525 gsm blended horsetail and Shetland Isle fleece wool. Another good example of blended usage also comes from Vi-Spring in their Tiara Superb utilising 1200 gsm of horsetail and Shetland Isle fleece wool.
Horsehair and horsetail can be seen as an extremely durable product. There is absolutely nothing that can affect it’s longevity within a mattress. It won’t collapse or settle to an extent that will cause the usefulness to be diminished. When used within a blend these properties are slightly altered. Wool has no supportive qualities whatsoever but when blended, the horsehair acts as a glue to keep the wool fibres stable resulting in another upholstery product with exceptional longevity.
What is the difference between horsehair and horsetail?
Quite simply, horsehair is short and horsetail is long. Horsetail is phenomenally expensive due to a limited supply chain and as such is graded on quality. Where the horsetail comes from will also have a bearing on the overall quality and price. If we look at Savoir Beds for guidance on this – they are the company who significantly use horsetail as a component – we can see that within their Royal State Mattress they utilise curled horsetail. Scrutinising the images provided for this particular model we can see that the horsetail used is predominantly white. This is a significant visual clue to the quality of this product they have used.
When fibres are graded they are initially graded by colour – white is always a premium colour for fibres used for upholstery. The same is true with cashmere, mohair etc but these will be discussed in separate sections. The point to take from this is that white horsetail is premium quality and the source (Latin Americas / Canada etc will also be considered for premium grades. China is the world’s biggest supplier of horsehair and horsetail and no doubt will be available to converters for a lower price than the aforementioned countries.
Will you feel the difference in comfort between white horsetail from Canada and black horsetail from China? No, of course, you won’t, but don’t pay white horsetail prices for black horsetail.
What are the benefits of horsehair?
Aside from the durability aspects as described above, it has to be the ventilation properties that puts this product into a league of its own. Horsehair and horsetail are open celled and ‘hollow’, which makes it the perfect wicking material to dissipate the moisture that accumulates during the sleep process. Moisture passes through the hollow strands so quickly that if you wet horsehair with water and give it a shake, it dries straight away.
Horsehair can actually be a combination of the hair and tail. When horsetail is graded the tail fibres that are too short to be classed correctly as horsetail will be added to the horsehair grades.
Secondary, the analogy we use of horsehair acting as millions of tiny individual springs is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Over time, the product may naturally settle but it will be the individual hairs that are settling into the minute spaces between them, they are certainly not flattening out – quite impossible!
How ‘humane’ is the acquisition of horsehair?
This is quite a thought-provoking question and one that obviously cannot be answered with a degree of ‘absolute’ certainty. Over the years and the more people we speak to, lead us to believe and accept, that the acquisition process is quite humane and ethical. We have also read extensively the views of horse breeders who also state that although the hair produced from (essential) grooming whilst the horse is alive is not enough to provide the industry with it’s total requirement of mane and tail hair, it is what is gained from the end of life that produces the quantity. It has to be said though that Horses are certainly not farmed for the production of hair. Like most animals, bovine as well as equine, there is a value in the skins as well as other parts when they do unfortunately reach the end of life.
How is horsehair utilised within a mattress?
Horsehair is provided to the manufacturer in either rope, loose, or needled on to hessian sheets.
Ropes are supplied ready for the manufacturer to cut to the appropriate weight and carded (combed) to produce a loose tangled mass of hair. When you see a description stating ’hand teased horsehair’ it means that the manufacturer is layering this mass of tangled hair in an even layer within the mattress to form part of the upholstery. This is an extremely highly regarded craft from time served professionals in the industry and commands a high price for utilising this technique. It annoys me immensely when I read descriptions stating ‘hand teased’ when I know full well it wasn’t. This is quite disingenuous to the companies and craftsmen who actually do hand tease the material.
Horsehair needled onto a hessian sheet are provided by the processors to the manufacturers in mattress sized sheets. The horsehair is still loose to some extent but the hessian backing (like sackcloth) provides a manageable substrate to the hair. The main advantage of this method of using horsehair is that the hair is evenly laid within the mattress. Loose laid Horsehair by not entirely specialised artisans may well be laid (teased) unevenly with the possibility of ending up with a clumpy lumpy mattress.
Loose horsehair is pre-carded and all the manufacturer has to do is weigh the hair and tease it (lay it) into an even upholstery layer.
Horsehair does have a certain smell associated with the product, particularly when blended with wool. Certainly not offensive and will dissipate over time. When you are purchasing mattresses of this ilk it is expected that the general maintenance and care of the mattress includes regular airing. Personally, I like the natural smell of wool (lanolin) and horsehair – it is the assurance that all as described is within the mattress.
Are there any allergy triggers associated with horsehair when utilised within a mattress?
It has been our opinion that this is extremely unlikely. Horsehair during the conversion process is steamed at a very high temperature which completely removes the proteins and bacteria that are the cause of allergic reactions (the exact temperature is something we are currently trying to establish which we will post when we do). We have also written to Allergy Advice UK to garner their thoughts and considerations on this subject (awaiting a reply). We have also written to Enkev, a multinational company who specialise in natural fibre conversion for their thoughts (awaiting a reply).
We acknowledge that there is plenty more we can learn on this subject and would welcome the opinions and comment of people in the industry who have either a specific interest in this subject or from persons who are intrinsically involved in the Natural Fibre industry. See more on natural upholstery fibres here.