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Thoughts on horse hair (part one)

In this article I want to consider the final material to go on the bow, the hair. Usually, no one questions its provenance but being ‘in the trade,’ I wanted to find out more about it, in particular, how ethically it is sourced.

Bow hair comes from many parts of the world. Various countries in eastern Asia supply much of it, but other countries contribute too including Canada, the USA, Argentina and Australia.

The hair I use comes from China and I was keen to find out as much as I could about its origins and the welfare of the animals who supply it. The almost total inability to discover any answers to these questions has prompted this article.

Reports vary in their opinions. Jhang Jianggai of Xinyuan Haiyang Musical Instruments stated in the Strad Magazine* that the Chinese hair suppliers prefer hair from live animals because ‘if the animals are already dead, then the hair won’t get any nutrition.’ My own enquiries with suppliers suggests that this is not the case. Indeed, it hardly seems to make any difference whether the horse is living or has been killed recently; by the time the hair has reached the bow repair shop, it is probably several weeks old. It lasts well for months, and many players I know use the same hair for a year or more without breakage or noticeable problems.

In any case, the idea that horse hair often comes from dead horses doesn’t worry me; I prefer live horses to keep their tails which they need for hygiene and for communicating. As with many animals, ears and tails are used by horses to convey feelings and reactions.

This Chinese hair, which I have been using for almost two decades now, is quite thick and strong. Probably around 30% of what I buy ends up on the workshop floor as waste. What is left is very high quality and I am inclined to think that horses providing such good hair must be well fed and maintained.

On the other hand, the conditions in which horses are sent to the abattoir and the methods of their slaughter are causes for concern among us animal lovers. And it is on this subject that there seems to be no information available from some of our most important hair-supplying countries, including China.

I aim to write more on this subject in the future as more information becomes available and will be in regular contact with equine welfare charities for their input. But in the meantime, I will continue to offer my customers the horse hair that they are used to. But for those who are especially concerned, I am pleased to offer an alternative.

Synthetic hair has had a bad press, largely because of traditionalist views. It does not claim to be superior to horse hair; inevitably it is different, but different doesn’t mean better or worse. It is stronger than horse hair, lasts longer and is not subject to changes in humidity and temperature. It is also completely uniform throughout its length so there is no weakness towards the 'older' end as with horse hair.

Why not give it a try? I invite anyone interested to give it a go next time they have a rehair from me. If they don’t get on with it within a month, I’ll rehair their bow in horse hair free.

*Strad Magazine, ‘Receding Hair Lines?’, October 2013, p.11 (Accessories)

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