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Here’s a look at wig construction, including what they are made of and how they are made. A wig has many uses. For example, in film, TV 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 or thin hair, or simply for fun, fashion and fancy dress.
Basic Wig Construction
Wigs consist of two main parts: the foundation (or the cap) and the hair.
The foundation of a wig is the base material into which the hair is attached. It also creates the wig’s head-like shape and is how the wig is attached to the wearer’s head.
The hair in a wig can be real or synthetic. To attach the hair to the wig foundation, it is either hand-tied or machine sewn. It all depends on how the wig is made.
Types of Wig Foundation
Hair Lace Foundation
- Hair lace is a fine sheer material that comes in different thicknesses and colours from light to dark. This enables a wig maker to match someone’s skin tone. The mesh has a tiny honeycomb structure, and the hair is hand knotted onto this.
- Hair lace is measured in denier (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 called a hair lace wig. A wig that is made with a solid edge instead, is known as a hard-front wig. It is also possible to just use hair lace at the front of a wig.
- A custom-made hair lace wig is the most expensive type of wig you can buy.
- Monofilament is a very fine transparent mesh fabric that individual hairs (human or synthetic) are hand-tied into.
- 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. For example, the monofilament section may be on the crown of the wig and is known as a mono top.
- Wigs with monofilament are generally more natural looking than wefted wigs, as the filament is fine and translucent enough to not show. The hair also appears to be growing out of the scalp and the hair can be combed in any direction.
- Made from rows of wefts (synthetic or human hair) that have been machine-sewn together into a basic 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 ribbons are then sewn together to form the wig’s shape. The ribbons are flexible and reasonably stretchy, allowing them to comfortably fit the wearer’s head.
- A hair lace or monofilament insert can be used with wefted wigs. This is usually along the top or crown, which would then allow the wearer to part and brush the hair in any direction.
- It is lightweight and breathable because of the spaces between the wefts. It’s a very common foundation type and these wigs are also known as hard-fronted.
Other Foundation Materials
Foundations can also be made from thick mesh, silicone or plastic materials.
Features of a Wig Foundation
- 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 sewn into them. These slide into a small section of the wearer’s hair for extra security.
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. For example, judges’ wigs are made from horsehair.
Hair also comes in varying quality. There is good quality real hair and synthetic fibres, as much as there are cheaper options. Of course, this impacts on 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, and is affected by heat, rain and humidity. It may not, however, behave exactly like hair on our heads.
- 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.
- Wigs made from synthetic hair are often made from acrylic.
- Synthetic fibre is 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 is used to make judge and barrister wigs. It gives that distinctive short and wiry white/grey hair found in these types of wig.
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 hair line to a machine-made wig cap.
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 on factory production lines, with China being a big maker 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 and 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.
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 (e.g. 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 food wrap (e.g. Clingfilm) and using sticky tape (e.g. Sellotape) to create a strong template. The hair line is marked on to this with a soft pencil and covered with the tape.
- A foundation lace template is made from the head shape and measurements. 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.
- The wig is styled/cut as required, once all the hair is knotted into the wig. It is then ready for setting and dressing.
Throughout this whole process, fittings with the client are good to ensure that the wig is progressing as required.
- Short video showing the making of a real hair lace wig – from consultation to the finished handmade wig:
So, that’s a quick look at how wigs are made and what materials are used. It’s important as a makeup artist to be able to identify wig materials and hair type, as they need to be treated differently.