Wigs: How They Are Made


A wig is an item of postiche that covers the entire head and has many uses. In film, television and theatre, wigs are used to create characters, change the perceived age of someone or provide the right hair for period styles. Wigs can also be used everyday to cover baldness, thin hair, scars and other personal reasons, or to create decoration and interest, or for fun, fashion and fancy dress. Here’s a quick look at wig construction – what they are made of and how they are made.

Wig Construction

Wigs consist of two main parts: the foundation and the hair.

The Foundation

The foundation of a wig is the base material into which the hair is attached (knotted or sewn in). It also creates the head shape and is used to attach the wig to the wearer’s head. These are the main types of material used to make wig foundations – they can be used wholly or in combination with each other:

Hair Lace

  • Hair lace is a fine sheer material that comes in different thicknesses and skin colours. It has a honeycomb-shaped construction onto which hair is knotted or hand tied.
  • It is measured in denier (yup, just like stockings!). Lace used for film/TV is 20 or 30 denier, with the newer HD lace being even finer, making it very easy to tear and it needs handling very delicately. Wigs for theatre are made with thicker lace, as it is more durable and robust.
  • Hair lace is used where a more natural looking wig is required, especially on the front hairline, as there isn’t a hard edge – the front lace goes onto the wearer’s forehead and should blend into the skin and not be noticeable on camera, stage or even to the eye for the finer laces.
  • Wigs made completely with a hair lace foundation is a hair lace wig. A wig that has no hair lace at the front and is made with a solid edge is known as a hard-front wig.
  • A custom-made hair lace wig is the most expensive type of wig to buy.


Wig construction - mono-filament in a wig

A mono-filament element in a wig

  • Mono-filament is a very fine transparent mesh fabric that has the individual hair (can be either synthetic or human hair) hand tied into the mesh.
  • The mono-filament material can be used to make a whole wig, or just in key areas where the hair’s movement is more noticeable e.g. crown, parting, front. This is known as a mono top. It is also cheaper to use just a mono top.
  • Wigs with mono-filament are generally more natural looking than wefted wigs, as the hair appears to be growing out of the scalp and the hair can be combed in any direction.

Wefted Foundation

Machine-made wefted foundation

  • Made from rows of wefts (either synthetic or human hair) that have been machine-sewn together into the shape of a cap. Hence, they are also known as machine-made wigs.
  • Wefted wigs that don’t have an underlying solid cap are also known as capless wigs.
  • The wefts of hair are sewn onto thin cotton or lace ribbons – these are then sewn together to form the wig shape. The ribbons are flexible and reasonably stretchy, allowing them to fit the wearer’s head.
  • The more expensive wefted wigs feature a lace or mono-filament inset at the front and/or crown which allows the wearer to part the wig and brush the hair any direction.
  • Very common foundation type, lightweight and, because of the spaces between the wefts, breathable. These wigs are hard-fronted.

Other Foundation Materials

Foundations can also be made from a thick mesh fabric (see picture below), silicone or plastic.

Other Features of a Wig Foundation

A hard-fronted wig with adjustable band to the nape, allowing for a snug fit, and tape tabs at the side. Hair used could be synthetic or real.

  • Mass produced wigs often have plastic-coated tape tabs for double-sided tape (toupee tape) to be used, allowing the wig to be secured to the head.
  • Wigs usually have an adjustable strap and hooks or Velcro at the nape, which is used to fine-tune fitting at the back of the head.
  • Wigs may have tiny toupee or wig clips in them, to slide into a small section of the wearer’s hair for extra security.

The Hair

Wigs are mainly made from either human hair or synthetic fibre. Horse hair, crepe hair and yak hair can also be used for certain types of wigs.

Hair also comes in varying quality: there is good quality real hair and synthetic fibres, as much as there are cheaper options. This impacts on the look, durability and feel of a wig of course.

Human Hair

  • Human hair for wigs comes from various places, mainly Europe (Spain, Italy and western Russia are common places) and Asia (India and China).
  • The hair needs to be processed, which weakens the structure and can make it porous. Asian hair in particular needs a lot of processing, as it needs to be lightened in order to be coloured.
  • The hair also no longer has a natural supply of oil, and it can become very dry with use over time. It needs caring for to preserve it and keep it from drying out and breaking.
  • Though it may not behave exactly as hair on our head does, it can be washed in shampoo and conditioned, is set and styled just like real hair is, and is affected by heat, rain and humidity.
  • Remy hair refers to hair that still has its cuticle. A lot of hair used in the hair trade has been stripped of its cuticle.

Synthetic Hair

An acrylic wig (made from wefts) on a wig block in rollers being set for a theatre production – the hair has a high shine, common with some acrylics

  • Wigs made from synthetic hair are often made from acrylic.
  • Synthetic fibre is much cheaper to produce than human hair, and can be made in any colour or length, and can be made straight, waved or curly.
  • Synthetic hair looks less realistic than hair (especially the cheap synthetics). For the media, synthetic wigs are used for theatre productions or for background in film/TV, where close ups are not an issue.
  • Synthetic hair cannot be coloured or permed.
  • Some synthetics cannot be styled with direct heat – they will melt on contact with straighteners, tongs, blow dryer etc. However, synthetics have come a long way in recent years and nowadays there is artificial hair that can be heat styled.
  • Acrylic hair can be set with steam and a low heat. For theatre, wigs are set as normal in rollers, then gently steamed (over a kettle or using a proper steamer) and left to dry. Depending on the quality and age of the synthetic, it can be easy to set and style, and it retains it shape and set better than real hair – useful for shows where there is a lot of sweaty dancing!
  • It is tough and durable, plus it doesn’t drop or lose its shape in humidity and rain like real hair does.

Horse Hair

  • Horse hair is used to make judges and barrister wigs. The short white/grey wigs used in the legal system in many countries – horse hair!

How a Wig is Made

Wigs can be made in two main ways: handmade from scratch or mass produced on a production line.

Wig construction and hair lace

The front hairline of a made-to-measure wig. Made from theatre lace foundation (a bit thicker than used for film) and hand-knotted human hair. Hairline has been knotted with a slight widow’s peak

Individually Handmade Wigs

Normally made from hair lace and human hair, and can be made-to-measure specifically for someone.

Hair lace wigs used in big budget film and TV, especially on principle actors, will be handmade by a skilled wig maker specifically for the production. They are more expensive to buy than off-the-shelf wigs.

Sometimes wig makers will make generic stock to hire out to productions, though these will still be based on either an actual head template or typical head measurements.

Mass Produced Wigs

Usually made on a production line, even if there are elements of “hand tied” in the construction. Cheap hair wigs are mass produced in China on factory production lines.

There are some good quality wig manufacturers too: Ellen Willie, Gisela Mayer and Raquel Welch all make good quality and affordable synthetic and hair wigs for personal use.

Wigs can also be made from a mix of the two processes. An off-the-shelf wig can be personalised with a front hairline that is made from hair lace and real hair, giving the wearer a better fit at the front (generally where a good fit helps the wig to be less noticeable). This alteration could be done by a wig maker.

How a Handmade Wig is Made to Measure

A wig made by hand would take about a week to make. Here’s an overview of what a wig maker will do to make a wig from scratch for someone.

  • Start with a consultation about what exactly is required e.g. the hair colour(s), the length, thickness, any parting and what it is for (theatre, film, personal – as this determines the lace used).
  • A head shape and measurements are taken from the client/actor in order to make a pattern for the foundation. A head shape is made by wrapping the person’s head in Clingfilm and using Sellotape to create a strong template. The hair line is marked on to this with a soft pencil.
  • The head shape and measurements are then used to create the template for the foundation lace – the Clingfilm head shape is fixed to a wig maker’s wooden block.
  • The foundation lace is cut to match the head shape, and the pieces are stitched together, creating a base for the hair to be knotted into.
  • The hairline is tacked into the lace using a darker thread (this is removed once the hairline is finished), so the wig maker knows where to knot to.
  • The required hair length and colour is selected. To make a natural looking wig, slightly different colours of hair will be blended, as natural hair is not 100% uniform in colour.
  • The hair is blended using a hackle – a vicious-looking large metal-toothed “brush” that is used to mix hair colours. It also combs out the hair.
  • The mixed hair is then placed into a drawing mat -a double-sided mat with little hooks on it (a bit like Velcro). This makes it easier for the wig maker to take a small section of hair to work with, and keeps the hair safe from being tangled or blown away.
  • The mixed hair is knotted into the lace foundation using a knotting hook, which looks like a small crochet hook. They come in different sizes – larger ones to knot several hairs at once (for the bulk of the wig), and finer hooks for knotting single hairs, usually around the hair line.
  • Once all the hair is knotted into the wig, the hair can be left as is or cut to a style, ready for setting and dressing.

Throughout this whole process, fittings with the client are good to ensure that the wig is progressing as required.

Some of the items a wig maker uses: a cradle to support the wig while on the block, a hackle, a knotting hook and a drawing mat


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