Here we look at wig construction, including the foundation and hair. A wig has many uses. For example, wigs are used in media productions to create characters, change someone’s perceived age, or create period hairstyles. Wigs also conceal baldness or thin hair or are adopted for fun, fashion and fancy dress. Ultimately, it helps to understand wig construction when working in the media, as you will come across wigs all the time.
Parts of a Wig
Wig construction is straightforward as they have just two main parts, namely the foundation (or cap) and the hair:
- A wig foundation is simply the base material of any wig. It is head-shaped and the hair is sewn-on or machine attached to this material. The foundation is pinned/attached 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 – it all depends on what type of wig is being made.
Other Features of a Wig
- Tape tabs – mass-produced wigs often have plastic-coated tabs for double-sided tape (toupee tape) to be used. It allows the wig to be attached securely to the head, particularly for those with no hair.
- Adjustable strap – wigs often have an elasticated strap (with hooks or a Velcro to fasten) situated at the nape. It is to fine-tune the fitting at the back of the head. The strap also 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 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.
- The thickness of hair lace is described as “denier” – just like stockings. A 20 or 30 denier lace is suitable for television and film. However, high definition filming requires even finer lace. It 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 best when a natural-looking wig is required. It is especially vital 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 entirely from a hair lace foundation is called a hair lace wig. If a wig has a solid edge at the front hairline, it 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 fine, lightweight and smooth mesh fabric.
- It is transparent, which allows the wearer’s skin colour to show through it, creating a more natural finish to the wig.
- A 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. However, it is more likely to be situated in key areas where the hair’s movement is more noticeable, like the crown or the parting. The rest of the wig can be a wefted cap or a hand-tied foundation.
- Wigs with a monofilament element are generally more natural-looking than 100% wefted wigs. It 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 in the crown area.
- The monofilament top (mono top) allows for parting in any direction and gives more options for styling flexibility.
- A monofilament parting (mono part) allows for a parting in any direction and creates the look 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 fit the wearer’s head comfortably.
- 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. It is usually inserted along the top, the parting or the crown. It allows the wearer to brush and part the hair in any direction.
- A hair lace front can also be added to a wefted cap, creating a softer, more natural-looking hairline at the front of the wig.
Types of Hair Used in Wigs
The hair used in wigs comes from either human, animal or synthetic sources. It can vary in quality – there are good quality 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 (including Spain, Italy and western Russia) and Asia (India and China).
- The hair needs to be processed, which weakens the structure and can make it porous. Asian hair particularly needs a lot of processing, as it needs lightening first to then colour.
- Hair no longer has its natural oils – over time, it can become very dry and damaged. Therefore, it needs careful handling to preserve it and keep it from drying out and breaking.
- Hair can be washed in shampoo and conditioned – and is set and styled just like hair-on-the-head is. It is also affected by heat, rain and humidity. However, it might not behave exactly like the hair on our heads due to the lack of natural oils and the processing it goes through to be ready for wig making.
- Virgin hair refers to hair that has not been processed and still has its cuticle.
- 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. Therefore, it is more expensive than hair stripped of its cuticle – and lots of hair used in the hair trade has been stripped of its cuticle.
- Synthetic hair is made of man-made fibres. It is designed to give the overall appearance and feel of real hair.
- Man-made 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, particularly 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. It can also 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 usual 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. It also retains its shape and set better than real hair. It is helpful for shows where there is a lot of sweaty dancing!
- Man-made fibre 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/curls, as first manufactured.
- Horsehair is very thick and coarse.
- It takes a long time to style but is good at staying in shape.
- Horsehair 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 horsehair).
- 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 a good material for creating the big wigs of the 1700s. It is excellent for adding volume.
How a Wig is Made
Wigs can be made in two main ways – handmade from scratch or mass-produced on a production line. They can also have a combination of the two.
Individually Handmade Wig
- Handmade wigs are commonly 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. It 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 typical head measurements and have various hair colours and lengths. It ensures the wigs are as helpful to as many productions as possible.
- Mass-produced wigs are made on a production line, even if there are hand-tied elements in the construction. There are several stages to completing a wig, from washing and disinfecting the imported hair to making the wefts that are then sewn together.
- Cheap hair wigs are mass-produced on factory production lines, with China being one major supplier of these types of wig.
- Some manufacturers make good quality wigs. For instance, Ellen Willie, Gisela Mayer and Raquel Welch all make good quality, affordable synthetic and hair wigs, mainly for personal use.
- Ready-made wigs can be bought off the shelf or via mail order.
- Wigs can also be made from a mix of man-made and handmade. For example, an off-the-shelf wig can be personalised with a front hairline made from hair lace and real hair. It would give the wearer a better fit at the front and, consequently, helps to make the wig less noticeable than a hard fronted wig.