Here we look at the different wig types, including what the caps and hair are made of. A wig has many uses, of course. For example, wigs are used in media productions to create characters, change someone’s perceived age, or create period hairstyles. Wigs can also be used to conceal baldness or thin hair, or adopted for fun, fashion and fancy dress. Ultimately, it helps to know how wigs are made when working in the media, as you will come across wigs all the time.
Basic Wig Construction
Wigs consist of two main parts, namely the cap (or foundation) and the hair.
A wig cap is simply the foundation of any wig. It is the base material on which the hair is attached. The foundation also creates the wig’s head-like shape and is used to attach the wig to the wearer’s head.
The hair in a wig can be real (human or animal) or made from synthetic hair. The hair is attached to the wig foundation either by hand or machine. This all depends on what sort of wig is being made.
Other features of a wig can include:
- Tape tabs – mass-produced wigs often have plastic-coated tabs for double-sided tape (toupee tape) to be used. This allows the wig to be secured to the head.
- Adjustable strap – wigs often have an elasticated strap with hooks or a Velcro strap at the nape. This is used to fine-tune fitting at the back of the head. It ensures the wig fits snuggly into the nape.
- Toupee or wig clips – wigs may have tiny clips sewn into them. They look like tiny combs and simply slide into a small section of the wearer’s hair.
Types of Wig Cap or Foundation
Hair Lace Foundation
- Hair lace is a sheer material that comes in different thicknesses and colours from light to dark.
- Colour options enable a wig maker to match the lace to someone’s skin tone.
- The mesh has a tiny honeycomb structure and the hair is hand-knotted onto this mesh.
- Lace is measured in denier – just like stockings. A 20 or 30 denier lace is often used for television and film. However, high definition filming requires an even finer lace. This makes it very easy to tear and, therefore, it needs handling very delicately. Wigs made for theatre need a thicker lace, as it is more durable and robust.
- Hair lace is used when a natural-looking wig is required. This is especially important for the front hairline. As the front lace goes onto the wearer’s forehead, it should blend into the skin and not leave an obvious edge. The lace should not be noticeable on camera or stage, or even to the eye for the finer laces.
- A wig made completely with a hair lace foundation is called a hair lace wig. A wig that is made with a solid edge at the front hairline is known as a hard-fronted wig.
- A custom-made hair lace wig is the most expensive type of wig you can buy.
- Monofilament is a very fine, lightweight and smooth mesh fabric.
- It is also transparent, which allows the wearer’s skin colour to show through it, creating a more natural finish to the wig.
- The monofilament can have either human or synthetic hairs used on it. The hair is usually hand-tied into the fabric, which allows the hair strands to move more freely.
- Monofilament material can be used to make a whole wig, though it is more likely to just be used in key areas where the hair’s movement is more noticeable, like the crown or the parting. The rest of the wig can either be made from a wefted cap or a hand-tied foundation.
- Wigs with a monofilament element are generally more natural-looking than 100% wefted wigs. This is because the hair on a mono section appears to be growing out of the scalp. Likewise, the hair can be parted and combed in any direction.
- A monofilament crown (mono crown) creates the appearance of natural hair growth at the crown area.
- The monofilament top (mono top) allows for parting in any direction and gives the most opportunity for styling flexibility.
- A monofilament parting (mono part) allows for multi-directional parting while creating the appearance of natural hair growth.
- A wefted cap is made from rows of thin cotton or lace ribbons that have wefts of hair sewn onto them. These ribbons are then machine-sewn together to form the wig cap shape. Hence, they are also known as machine-made wigs.
- The rows of ribbon are flexible and reasonably stretchy, allowing them to comfortably fit the wearer’s head.
- It is a lightweight and breathable cap because of the spaces between the wefts.
- It is a very commonly used cap foundation. Hence it can also be known as a standard wig or a classic cap. Wefted wigs that don’t have a solid lace area at the top of the cap are also known as capless wigs.
- A monofilament insert can be used with wefted wigs. This is usually along the top, the parting or the crown, which would then allow the wearer to part and brush the hair in any direction.
- A hair lace front can also be added to a wefted cap, creating a softer more natural-looking front to the wig.
Types of Hair Used in Wigs
Wigs are mainly made from either human hair or synthetic fibre. Horse and yak hair can also be used for certain types of wigs.
The hair used in wigs comes in varying quality. There are good quality real hair and synthetic fibres, as much as there are cheaper options. Of course, this impacts the look, durability and feel of a wig.
- 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.
- 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.
- It can be washed in shampoo and conditioned, is set and styled just like real hair is. It is also affected by heat, rain and humidity. It may not, however, behave exactly like hair on our heads due to the lack of natural oils and the processing it goes through to be ready for wig making.
- Remy hair refers to hair that still has its cuticle and is sewn into wigs in the same direction as natural hair would grow. It is good quality hair and, therefore, is more expensively priced than hair that is stripped of its cuticle. A lot of hair used in the hair trade has been stripped of its cuticle.
- Manmade fibres are used to make synthetic hair. It is designed to give the overall appearance and feel of real hair.
- Synthetic fibre is cheaper to produce than human hair. It can be made in any colour or length, and can be made straight, waved or curly.
- Synthetics can look less realistic than hair, especially cheap synthetics. For instance, it can be very shiny. Cheaper-looking synthetic wigs are used for theatre productions or for background artists in film and TV, where close-ups are not an issue.
- On the other hand, good quality synthetic hair can be difficult to distinguish from real hair and can have benefits over poor quality human hair.
- Synthetic hair cannot be coloured or permed.
- Some synthetics cannot be styled with direct heat – they will melt on contact with straighteners, tongs, hairdryers and so on. 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 low heat. For theatre, wigs are set as normal in rollers, then gently steamed (over a kettle or 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 its shape and set better than real hair. This is 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 as real hair does. Once washed, it will retain its original shape or curls, as first manufactured.
- Horse hair is very thick and coarse. It takes a long time to style but is good at staying in shape.
- Horse hair is used to make judges’ and barristers’ wigs. It gives that distinctive short and wiry white/grey hair found in these types of wig.
- It is also good hair for making footmen’s wigs.
- Yak hair comes from yaks! These big beautiful beasts are from the Himalayan region and have long coarse hair, though it is not as coarse as horse hair.
- The texture of yak hair makes it ideal for making facial hair. It has the coarseness and fuzzy look needed but can also be easily styled.
- It is also good to use in wigs that need a fuzzy look. For example, for an older person with wiry hair, a wig could be made from a mix of European and yak hair.
- Yak hair is good for using in the big wigs of the 1700s. Again, it can be blended with European hair, but it is excellent for adding volume.
How a Wig is Made
Wigs are made in two main ways, namely handmade from scratch or mass-produced on a production line. It is also possible to add a handmade element to a mass-produced wig. For example, you could add a made-to-measure front hairline to a machine-made wig cap.
Individually Handmade Wig
- Normally made from a hair lace foundation and human hair.
- Hair lace wigs can be handmade to fit anyone’s head measurements.
- Hair lace wigs used on big-budget films and TV programmes, especially on principle actors, will be handmade by a skilled wig maker. This helps the hair look more realistic than an off-the-shelf wig, as it is a perfect fit. The hair colour in the wig will be as per the hair designer’s wishes.
- Sometimes wig makers will make generic stock to hire out to productions. These wigs will be based on a selection of typical head measurements and have a variety of hair colours and lengths. This ensures the wigs are useful to as many productions as possible.
Mass Produced Wig
- Usually made on a production line, even if there are hand-tied elements in the construction.
- Cheap hair wigs are mass-produced on factory production lines, with China being one major supplier of these types of wig.
- There are some good quality wig manufacturers too. For instance, Ellen Willie, Gisela Mayer and Raquel Welch all make good quality, affordable synthetic and hair wigs for personal use.
- Wigs can also be made from a mix of the two processes. For example, an off-the-shelf wig can be personalised with a front hairline that is made from hair lace and real hair. This would give the wearer a better fit at the front and, consequently, helps to make the wig less noticeable than a hard fronted wig. This alteration could be done by a wig maker.