Up there with my obsession with hand painted De Gournay wallpaper, I have long held an obsession with Horsehair upholstery. I realise these two things don't necessarily go together in most people's minds, but horsehair upholstery is probably one of the most durable, and most luxuriously beautiful upholstery fabrics you can use in Interiors. Nothing made with modern fibre technology can match it in my estimation. It was the indoor/outdoor/ commercially rub test rated fabric (in terms of durability) of its time.

Photograph: Lisa Linder

So I have had this post, ready to roll out, for about two years now so that I can make all my readers also suitably obsessed with this miraculous stuff. Of course, to illustrate the post I was going to provide an anecdote about my own horsehair upholstered items - two side chairs that I purchased at Scammell's Auction house locally at an estate sale. They were upholstered in their original Victorian era black/brown horsehair, had nailhead trim, and elegant lines. And they sold for $600! A bargain. Unfortunately though I had a busy week and... forgot to put in a bid. Sob. So no happy snap of them in my house.  Yes, I have kicked myself ever since....


1920's Danish chairs with horsehair upholstery, nailhead trim and with a cuban mahogany base

But let's rewind a little and talk about horsehair. It's not commonly used at all these days for a variety of reasons. Used by Thomas Chippendale, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Edward Lutyens on their upholstered pieces it was the height of fashion for around 150 years in Interiors.

Lutyens Napoleon chair upholstered in woven horsehair

The decline began as fashions changed -when it was used originally in Georgian and Victorian upholstered furniture it was of course in its natural state. Therefore you had a colour choice of the shades that a horses' tail came in, which were rather dull. Dyes at the time were not very colourfast, and were not able to successfully change the colour of the hair, so black was usually the default colour. It was slightly funeral, stuffy and not very exciting.

Photograph: Nick Brown

Horsehair for upholstery began to decline at the start of last century (it reached its zenith around the time Queen Victoria died) with the advent of modern fabrics, and a change in the colour palettes used in interiors. Horses were also replaced on our roads and farms with modern machinery, which meant that horse numbers in general declined, and with them the cheap source of the horse hair (the hair is cut from the tail, no horse is harmed/ killed from this).

Photograph: Nick Brown

Eventually horse hair was only used in upholstery as the stuffing. Gradually this too has been replaced by modern foam. However, modern foam, just like modern fabric technology, has not been able to successfully replicate the nature of the natural product. Horse hair has a natural spring to it. It will bounce back to its original position in a way that foam does not (as it degrades over time being a plastic). High quality upholstery is still stuffed with horsehair, but it is fairly prohibitively expensive. It is most definitely not, however, something that you'd put out on the kerb for the rubbish collection 10 years later. It would most definitely be a lifetime purchase.

My horsehair samples from a client job many years ago in reds and greens

But back to the use of it as upholstery. One company in Somerset, England kept up manufacture, on the original mill machinery to produce horsehair upholstery. However, in keeping with the times they revolutionised the actual product, using modern dyes to colour it in bright colours, adding in embroidery and patterns and producing a very beautiful, durable and unique product.  This company is John Boyd Textiles, which dates back to 1837, and is the last surviving mill producing horsehair fabric in England, and one of very few, if not the only one, left in the world. The main market for the company is not for use in interiors, but interestingly for use in soft form handbags that are then sold into Asia where they are highly prized. Germany has a flourishing industry producing these bags, and this is where much of John Boyd's fabrics are sent to. Closer to home it's been used extensively in commercial Interiors for upholstered walls, and on banquette seating and upholstered pieces. The natural lustre and texture of horsehair make it an appealing product for subtly luxurious interiors.

Photograph: Lisa Linder

There are a few quirks particular to the fabric - it comes in very narrow widths (57cm, normal width in fabrics are 1.2-1.4m), which means an experienced upholsterer is required to piece it together successfully when used on larger items. It's also quite eye wateringly expensive. It will take a day to weave 2-3 metres of horsehair fabric, which coupled with the difficulties in sourcing the actual horse hair itself explains the costings. If you can purchase an item already upholstered in horsehair, consider it money in the bank.

Photograph: Lisa Linder

Sadly at this point in time I have no upholstered horsehair items in my possession. One day I'll use one of the beautiful, jewel toned horsehair pieces for something though, and in the meantime I'll be haunting the auction rooms looking for my lost chairs (and if you are the fortunate buyer of them in Adelaide, well lucky you!).

Images source from John Boyd Textiles, English House and Garden Magazine, and Country Living Magazine

31 comments:

  1. That is really interesting Heidi. Until just a few years ago, my knowledge of horsehair upholstery was mainly informed by early last century's British mystery writers and their descriptions of drawing rooms inevitably being 'populated' by those ubiquitous horsehair sofas. I really didn't know what they were but the writers in my mind, thought that owning one was really significant to the plot(!) - they were usually in country houses, manors and such like. There was a segment a while back on the British Escape to the Country show ( I know, please don't judge me too harshly!!) featuring the Somerset company. I started looking for even small pieces of furniture but haven't had any luck at all! Great post, thank you, I love learning about the history of furniture making! Hope you're having a lovely weekend, Ewa.

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    1. I remember reading about horsehair sofas as a child in books too Ewa, and never knowing what they meant! I wish I'd seen that episode of Escape to the Country. I often watch it too! And my guilty pleasure is reading Country Life magazine, mostly because i love looking at the real estate sale photos at the front!!
      Keep your eyes peeled for horsehair upholstered furniture. If you're looking for just normal furniture stuffed with horsehair then try squishing the arm or back - if it kind of makes a scrunching noise, then you know it's horsehair. No noise is foam. Glad you enjoyed the post! x

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  2. I like horsehair a lot but my first encounter was in my first reno in London where the plaster came off and there was this thing that looked like hair and I was getting carried away and screamed thinking somebody buried a body behind the walls ( it was a old house ) but then the builder calmed me down saying it was horse hair. Odd. Anyway I am so sorry to hear about your auction mishap - I lost a bid on a separated piano bench in horsehair thinking no one would want it but it was sleek and one of those useful things to perch things around the house or at the end of the bed. I am still considering horsehair for my settle you would be happy to hear but i just haven't had time to get around to it! x

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    1. That's the funniest story!! I think they used to use hog bristle a lot in old plaster, but anything that would cause it to stick to the brick/ lath was used back then. Your builder must've found it very funny!!
      That's such a shame about the piano bench - sounds ideal as a useful thing around the house... and yes please do consider the horsehair settle! The colours they now come in are beautiful, and one with embroidery on it would be even better x

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  3. Fascinating post. Didn't know horsehair was/is used as the covering fabric for furniture. Many years ago when we lived in Cambridge, an Australian friend took upholstery classes there as a hobby. Back then you could pick up genuine old 18th and 19th century chairs that were in fairly poor condition for about 10 pounds. She bought three and at classes stripped off all the stained and/or worn out coverings and upholstery, repaired any damage to the wood and restored it, replaced worn out base webbing, stuffed them with horsehair and then covered them with fairly traditional fabrics, one of two in silk velvet with metal studs along the bottoms, and buttoned the backs. They were all stunning when finished and would probably have cost a lot of money in antique shops or from stylists. But she was able to do it very cheaply through the classes, using fabrics and other materials they sourced. All done very traditionally and authentically. Really beautiful. Though have to admit they were designed for women wearing crinolines who probably sat stiffly upright in their whale-boned corsets. They weren't as comfortable as modern furniture with upholstery using down or foam cushioning.
    How scary for Naomi thinking there was a body behind the walls! I'd have freaked out too! Pammie xxx

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    1. What an interesting course that would be to do P! But yes, old upholstered chairs do tend to be for people with smaller frames, that would sit upright rather than lounge around. I sat on a Recency sofa yesterday and it was rock hard, so definitely not something we'd associate with comfortable sitting these days... x

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    2. Not sure if it would be available nowadays. At that time there were so many different high quality classes available quite cheaply in all kinds of things. But that was years ago. My Aussie friend was really into classes. Her husband was a PhD student but on full salary from his Oz company (heaps of dosh compared to most of us who were eking out a living on meagre scholarships and part time low paid university jobs - saving as much as possible for travel) and she'd decided not to take a job while there. Remember at her instigation we did days of yeast cookery classes, other bakery and also Cordon Bleu. Was great fun and completely hands on. We even learnt to bone and stuff a duck (have never done it since - think I've lost the art without a teacher at shoulder) for Christmas - we each made our own - so froze mine and it was perfect for that Christmas with guests.
      Some of her chairs had no arms as they needed to be open so as not to crush the enormous skirts of olden days. Pammie

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  4. Very informative post Heidi. I was completely ignorant about horsehair fabric. I have always assumed that it was only ever used for the stuffing. Thank you.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post Judith - it's such a beautiful fabric in person, but definitely something you don't see about commonly nowadays.

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  5. Such an interesting post. I have seen horsehair stuffing removed from chairs and discarded, so many upholsterers could not be bothered to clean and reuse. The modern foam is deplorable as it breaks down so quickly. Even rubber is a thing of the past because of the cost. As much as I like the look of feather stuffing the plumping of cushions is laborious. It seems handbags and shoes made from pony hair is now very prevalent and expensive, amazing how trends change.

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    1. That's terrible Lillian!! Modern stuffings are just no where near as good as the original stuffing. It's such a shame that upholsterers take and throw away the original padding. Agree with you about down cushions in seats. They are a pain to constantly fluff. I often specify a feather wrap over foam seats in new upholstery so that you get the best of both worlds. x

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  6. I was lucky enough to have a very smart and knowledgeable mother who said that the best child-proof and divine dining room chair fabric is horsehair! And it is! Completely bulletproof!! And ever so elegant!

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    1. Penelope your mother was most definitely a very clever woman! I often specify indoor/ outdoor fabric for dining chairs for clients with small children, but the natural product is always best, and horsehair is certainly a lot more luxurious looking than the modern fabrics and of course bullet proof as you say! x

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    2. After I made this comment.....along came the new World of Interiors.......(omigod it is as big as the september issue of Vogue used to be......over an inch thick!) In it....a divine bench covered in brown horsehair....Yay! A resurgence! As anything I adore; it will "come back"; and in my mind has always been very very in!

      Aha!!!

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    3. I meant to add.....of course, horsehair is very expensive, indeed! I am using almost ALL indoor outdoor fabric for all my clients with children (or grandchildren!); and the new ones are unbelievable!!! chenille.....velvet....everything! It is quite great.....I love all of it!!!

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    4. That World of Interiors is definitely giving the Vogue September Issue a run for its money!! I agree with you Penelope, that if you just stay true to what you love it all comes back. I try hard not to look at fads and fashions for that reason and just go with what I love. I'm often struck at the estate sales when you have the life's collection of a person with taste that it really does just transcend time. Something to think about when pondering the latest in interiors... like Chevron print or gold polkadots or geode shaped side tables etc etc..

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  7. Hello Heidi,

    Very much enjoyed reading your post on this wonderful fabric. My English Regency dining room chairs are upholstered in black horsehair which is both durable and appropriate for the age of the chairs. I love it so much and it is very forgiving - just wipe clean!

    I felt your pain when reading you lost out on your auction chair. Been there myself!

    As for modern upholstery, I once upholstered my sofa with a very durable fabric that has (so far) stood the test of time - hemp fabric. Have you had any experience with it? I'd highly recommend it.

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    1. Oh you are SO LUCKY to have a beautiful set of Regency chairs with horsehair still on them. It really is the most durable stuff, and perfect for a dining chair.
      I haven't ever seen hemp fabric around here... I will have to keep an eye out as that does sound really intriguing. It's always good to learn something new, so thank you! x

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    2. It is insanity. I hope it is not in England nor Europe. Hemp is somehow related to Marijuana.....it is not allowed in the US. CRAZY!! We allow chemicals that will kill all of us.....and hemp is not allowed. It is a wonderful fabric.....wears better than linen. Maybe I will start growing in my back garden! ridiculous!!!

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    3. Hello Penelope Bianchi,

      My sofa was upholstered here in California with fabric purchased from a local upholstery fabric shop so I'm not sure what you mean when you write "it is not allowed in the US".

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  8. Dear Heidi, this is so fascinating and informative. I had read mention of horsehair sofas in English novels, but had always assumed the horsehair referred to the stuffing only, and I had no idea it was used to make the covering as well! I am curious to know how it feels against the skin - similar to sheep's wool or more wiry? I would love to have indoor-outdoor fabric covering on my dining chairs and sofa! They have been destroyed by my children over the past few years!

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    1. It feels a little like very fine woven fishing line, if that makes sense? Kind of smooth and slippery, but still textured as well. I can't recommend indoor/ outdoor fabric on things that kids use more highly. Being able to just wash out the stains is a miracle. They really are good at destroying things! x

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    2. Excellent description of what it feels like!!!

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  9. I had no idea it was a fabric as well as a stuffing for upholstery, so interesting. I have a set of chair seats that tie on to a set of French chairs we inherited, they are stuffed with horsehair but need a new fabric. I've been delaying because I'm planning on redecorating my dining room in the next year, but they are amazing, quite slim but so comfortable and dense.
    The chairs came from my husband's family home in Vienna they are precious, but sturdy. I would never get rid of the horsehair stuffed cushions I can't imagine finding something comparable.
    Hope you come across another set of chairs to bid on. XOX

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    1. My bet is that the stuffing in your chairs is hog hair. All the Europeans and the finest American upholsterers stuffed their seats with hog hair. Or a mixture of horse and hog hair. The horsehair covering is very smooth and lovely. Not like the stuffing!

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    2. What wonderful family pieces to have Dani! They'll reupholster up beautifully, and you won't need to do anything to the stuffing - it'll keep on going on. They probably are a mix of hog and horse as Penelope says. The hog hair is shorter, so often used for stuffing. I'll look forward to hopefully catching a glimpse of them on your blog, they sound lovely and it's always nice to have a family piece that ties you to your past. xx

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  10. Well thank you for the education tonight Heidi!! I had no idea that horsehair was woven into a fabric! I can imagine that it would be a very durable material. It is incredible to think about how much our society relied on horses in general not so very long ago, and how these days you hardly see them at all. I always love seeing the police horses trotting down the road here in Sydney.

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    1. So true re the change from Horses for centuries to machinery now. I just think it's interesting that often modern fabric technology still can't match the original material. I always love seeing the police Greys as well x

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  11. I had no idea! This is so interesting. I have seen a few pieces over the years in antique stores where the tags make a big deal about horse hair and I always thought it was gross and rude! Haha I'm so glad to know that it's the tail and the horse isn't hurt.

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    1. Oh, Stephen..as you know.....we love animals.....and would never want to recommend anything that would cause suffering! Now the artificial horsehair is indistinguishable from the real thing.......so it is even better! And the price has come down a bit!!
      Thank you for your post about our Ellie.....I almost got to see her again.......sob.

      What about Teddy?

      Penelope

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    2. If you see a bit of original horsehair upholstered furniture snap it up Stephen! This stuff is like gold these days. x

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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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