Live Bow Hair

January 7, 2011 at 03:59 PM ·

This goes along with the continuing bow cleaning discussions, I think.  I had a bow rehaired a while back, by Lynn Hannings, a bowmaker of some reputation who happens to be in driving distance from me.  She started talking about how people are now getting hair from live animals.  It's all from China, of course, these days, and apparently has been produced mainly from slaughter houses, horses being an article of food there, as for a good bit of the world.

The live hair, she says, is quite a different article from the hair from dead animals, more flexible, more durable, better sound, longer lasting.  This was a surprise to me, never having inquired into the source of bow hair particularly, but most intriguing.  The bow is fine and the hair is certainly good, though I haven't felt any dramatic difference.

Have others heard of this?  Any experiences?  My impression from Lynn is that the live material is now the hair of choice, so others should be seeing it around.  Lynn, incidentally, sells supplies mail order and does workshops; her Web site is worth a look, also much involved in the pernambuco restoration efforts.

Replies (37)

January 7, 2011 at 05:28 PM ·

Hmmm, it will be fun to see some physicians weigh in on this. ;-)

January 7, 2011 at 05:58 PM ·

Not a physician, but I'm pretty sure that hair, like fingernails and feathers, consists of cells that are already dead. There is no circulatory system in hair, nor any way for the body to supply nutrients or moisture to hair internally once it has grown out of the follicle. So it's hard to imagine how hair from a live horse would differ from hair from a freshly dead horse. I suppose it's possible that conditions in a slaughterhouse tend to degrade tail hair -- perhaps there tends to be some depostion of oil or other body fluids that makes hair less suitable for bows.

January 7, 2011 at 06:04 PM ·

I doubt that the live horses would appreciate someone taking the hair from their tails.  In any event, as has already been stated, hair is dead even on a living being.

January 7, 2011 at 06:18 PM ·

Just for the record, horses have no nerve endings in their hair, so they wouldn't care if you pulled it out.  They'd be okay without a snippet or two.  It's much more humane than docking.

I always tell my students that the horses aren't harmed when we get their hair.  In a way, I'm correct, but I wouldn't ever tell them they are already dead.  Some of those little girls would probably never touch their bows again.

January 7, 2011 at 08:48 PM ·

You shouldn't lie to children. :-)

January 7, 2011 at 09:25 PM ·

"You shouldn't lie to children."

Jonathan Frohnen


Politicians do it all the time, and to adults too!!

But I do agree. They should know the grim truth.


January 8, 2011 at 12:49 AM ·

I can't say about horse hair, but I have sheared sheep off and on for 55 years. We would occasionally be asked to shear one that had just died. The price paid for dead wool was lower than for that from living sheep and it had a different feel to it. I know that the hair is already dead, but it has a living root.  I don't know whether that means anything, I'm just talking.

January 8, 2011 at 05:43 PM ·

Some interesting comments, but no one who's actually run into the live hair, apparently.  Lyle Reedy's description of sheep's wool is pretty much Lynn Hannings' take on the issue.  The problem with the dismissive comments is that Ms. Hannings is pretty well recognized in the bow world as worth listening to, and has the experience and knowledge of a good many years of bow work behind her.  Until she began talking about slaughterhouse hair I had always assumed with no particular evidence that live animals were trimmed to get hair - people trim horses' manes and tails routinely, often very short for show.  And if you're not picky it's actually pretty easy to come with enough hair for a bow locally, as I suppose was commonly done in the past when there were horses everywhere you went.

January 8, 2011 at 06:58 PM ·

If she says it's good hair, then it's probably good hair. My first inclination would be to look for other explanations, such as a difference in the average age or health of the horses; different diet; different breed; difference in the way the the tail hair is protected; different gender (less urine contact); difference in the way the hair is washed; the possibility of having been treated with plasticizers (not a bad thing); something about the transport of the dead horses, or slaughterhouse conditions, which contaminates the hair.

Once these other variables are excluded, I'd be more willing to look at inherent differences between dead hair which purportedly comes from a live horse, and dead hair which comes from a dead horse. If she has a source of hair she likes, that's the important thing.

I can buy nice wood which was cut during a full moon. Was it really cut during a full moon? I have no way of knowing. Does the phase of the moon have anything to do with the quality? I doubt it.

January 8, 2011 at 07:08 PM ·

I agree with David.  What's needed are comparisons between hair harvested from dead horses and live horses controlled for the many variables affecting the overall "health" of the hair, including especially the age and health of the horse.  Human hair undergoes drastic textural alterations as we age, often due to changing hormonal states and demonstrable physical changes in the hair follicles (i.e., size and shape) - as many pregnant woman can attest.      

January 8, 2011 at 07:56 PM ·

 David, the phase of the Moon could conceivably have an effect on the person cutting the wood. Just don't stand too close to the guy :-)

January 8, 2011 at 08:09 PM ·

My fav is whatever hair Josh Henry uses for his professional rehairs.  J

January 8, 2011 at 08:09 PM ·

Sheesh, if the guys would just buy a chainsaw, they wouldn't need to wait until their fangs are long....

January 8, 2011 at 08:12 PM ·


Maybe if you found a nice little pony they would let you play with their hair while still attached to their rump?

January 8, 2011 at 08:15 PM ·

Don't forget that they can go poo-poo with little warning...

January 8, 2011 at 08:17 PM ·

some people pay good money for a nice mud/manure bath

January 8, 2011 at 08:27 PM ·

To each his own. I was just trying to look out for people's fiddles, and the luthiers who have to clean them. :-)

January 8, 2011 at 08:33 PM ·

Oooo touche (with little mark over the e)  better save the reaaaallly live hair for the fiddlers with the massive rosin build-up, methinks that the hot mud could help out a bit

January 8, 2011 at 09:07 PM ·

I've used horsehair from pretty much every supplier in the USA, from suppliers in Canada, and a number of suppliers straight from China. I go through more than one hair bundle (500g) of hair every month, and high quality hair is something that I look out for.

There is a lot of good and bad hair out there that is sold as "bow hair." There is also a lot of marketing nonsense that is applied to the labeling of hair. I consider labeling of bow hair as stallion (male) or mare (female) to be creative marketing, and I would put the "live" hair under the same category. Personally, I think that the horsehair that is labeled and sold as "live" is a PC-marketing/enviro-ploy to be able to charge more for the hair.

I've used the "live" hair before--most recently, about 2 years ago, and found that while it was good hair, it was certainly not the best I've ever used. I had no complaints about the hair, and neither did my customer base, but I've found more consistent hair that my clientele loves from other suppliers.

There are only two suppliers (that I know of) of the "live" hair in the US. I've spoken with one of them about the "live" hair. Paraphrasing his words, the hair does not necessarily come from living horses, but there is much less delay in processing and much more control over the actual source and processing of the hair. The "live" hair is intended to be a premium hair, but on the supplier's website, there is actually no claim that the hair comes from live horses.

For more about hair processing and selection, read this article.

Josh Henry, Bow Maker & Restorer

January 9, 2011 at 04:22 AM ·

Well, I've always been known to take things a step or two beyond any sane limits. This thread has got me thinking a bit.

I think I will start a Locavore movement in bow hair. I will grow my beard to the appropriate length, and harvest it to see what it can do for bow hair. I suspect it will not have adequate characteristics, as it is not straight by nature, however it may result in some 'bow vibrato'. Too much vibrato has been recently discussed as a possibility being a mark of genius on this forum, so this may prove interesting.

If that fails, I do have some relatives that does some rodeo activity, and they may be able to harvest from a variety of equine types. I also sponsor my grandson for riding lessons, and the barn where he rides is loaded with Arabians. Although Mongol steeds tend to have the coarsest hair, there may be some combination of composite bow and other hair that is satisfactory (I know, a composite bow is not locavore friendly, however you make the bow once, but rehair for the lifetime of the bow).

I'll have to let you know how things work out!

January 9, 2011 at 09:32 AM ·

Interesting question.  I would have assumed there would be no difference between live and dead sources - not as far as the hair itself is concerned.  However, while both are dead there are several other factors.  Some observations from a bio person (but really no knowledge of bow making at all!). 

1. Hair is dead - but it is not beyond decomposition.  Hair taken from a live horse is as old as it took to grow.  Our hair grows about 1 mm a day.  If this is the same for the horse the hair in your bow might be a few weeks old at the horse-end to months at the other end.  I guess bow makers use the butt end!   Presumably live-horse hair goes to market promptly but maybe that is less likely to be the case for dead horse hair - it could have been stored for months or even years and during that time there will be some deterioration.

2. While the hair itself is dead, the roots secrete oils that work their way out on the hair - for example this is called lanolin in sheep.  Hair from dead horses might be washed considerably more harshly than those from live ones - removing this protective oil.

3. It would seem to me a far more important factor would be the species of horse used for the hair!  Actually, thats a question - is there a type of horse that produces the best kind of bow hair?

January 9, 2011 at 02:06 PM ·

2 points:

  • Hair and fingernails continue to grow for days, and sometimes weeks, after a human, or sheep, is dead (defined by absence of blood circulation and brain function)
  • The perceived differences in hair texture from 'dead' and 'live' animals is more likely to be due to the presence or absence of secreted oils and fats than to the hair fibre itself (which is dead).  The secretion process requires energy, and this shuts off pretty quickly when oxygen supply is curtailed.

January 9, 2011 at 05:41 PM ·

Josh Henry's comments are right to the point, I think.  I raised the issue as a matter of interest, without having inquired into the details, so Josh helps to fill in the rest of it.  His point about uncertain sources is particularly important, I think, for hair and other materials, and especially from China.  To take his point a step further, if you want to do a controlled experiment then you need to be present when the hair is removed from the horse, and keep track of the hair afterward.  This raises an interesting question - whether there are sources locally for suitable hair for bows, from live animals, and what treatment is required to make the harvested hair usable.  It seems unlikely that Chinese horses have nicer hair than American horses, but I could be wrong.  After all, there seems still to be no real substitute for pernambuco.  On the other hand, I've been using Baker's rosin, homemade in Florida, and it is a distinctly superior substance, not that I qualify as a real expert.  And indeed, how would we survive without such esoteric discussions?

January 9, 2011 at 06:27 PM ·

MYTH: Hair and nails grow after you die.

FACT: Dead bodies dehydrate and skin retracts, creating the appearance of hair and nail growth.

January 9, 2011 at 06:44 PM ·

Don't forget the loosening of bowel

January 9, 2011 at 07:48 PM ·

Dehydration would not account for this type of observation:

Then again the data are old. 

January 10, 2011 at 01:03 AM ·

Published in 1896!  Why, you may have cited the source of the original rumor!  To quote Dr. William R. Maples,  renowned forensic anthropologist:

It is a myth that fingernails and hair continue to grow after death. What really happens is that the skin may retract around them, making the hair and nails prickle up and jut out more prominently.

I know, I was disappointed, too.  It would have been the only time I got to have long fingernails.

Reference: William R. Maples, Ph.D. and Michael Browning, 1994.
Dead Men Do Tell Tales. (p.39) Doubleday

January 10, 2011 at 10:53 PM ·

 The generally accepted biology is that visible hair is dead i.e it has no biochemical activity.  Thus whether the animal from which it is harvested is alive or recently dead, logically makes no difference, except to people with a marketing bias.... 

January 10, 2011 at 11:33 PM ·

Perhaps you did not read very far up the topic.  Earlier I made the point that dead hair decays.  Hair from a dead animal could have been stowed for many years until the market was prime.  One would certainly expect (though of course it would not be guaranteed) that hair from a live animals would be consistently younger (at least on average).  That is assuming, of course, that hair, unlike wood, does not improve with aging with respect to bow making.

No one has addressed my other question in the same post: what about the type of horse?  surely some strains give better bow hair than others....

January 11, 2011 at 12:26 AM ·

Elise Stanley wrote "...No one has addressed my other question in the same post: what about the type of horse?  surely some strains give better bow hair than others...." 

The vast majority of bow hair is processed in China, but much of it originates from other parts of the world. There is hair supply coming from China, as well as Argentina, Canada, Siberia, Mongolia, and other places. Horses are not raised exclusively for bow hair, and so when the horse has lived a full, productive life, the animal is put to sleep (ok--slaughtered) and the various parts are used in other industries (leather, glue, dog food, bow hair...). When I was researching for the article for Strings Magazine referenced above (Oct.2010 issue), I did ask several suppliers if there was a specific breed of horse that was used. Their answers were all the same--there are many actual horses and breeds represented in a bundle of bow hair. In the sorting and processing of the hair, the sources (and breeds) are often mixed for consistency of thickness, elasticity, and color. Most often, the workshops that process the hair only get the tail dock, so the actual breed of the horse is probably not even known. So to actually answer your question--I don't know what the actual breeds of horses used for bow hair are.

Regarding you other comment "Hair from a dead animal could have been stowed for many years until the market was prime."  ... This is an unlikely scenario. The major importers/suppliers of bow hair are associated with small processors in China, and the importers/suppliers dictate to them what kind and quality of product to supply. The processing workshops buy in bulk what they need when they need it, process it, and then sell it to the importer. I'm sure the workshops do try to stay ahead of the demand, but to have something around, stored for years, does not make business sense. If there isn't immediate profit in something, it won't be done.

Josh Henry, Bow Maker & Restorer

January 11, 2011 at 01:14 AM ·

Shame on you Josh, for injecting reality into our fantasy world. I will soon be selling "angel hair" for bows. Yes, it comes from real angels. The documentation is solid and certified, but mysteriously disappears from my nightstand by the time I wake up in the morning.

January 11, 2011 at 01:32 AM ·

David, for your information, angel hair is best used in varnish brushes...

January 11, 2011 at 01:41 AM ·

"Don't forget the loosening of bowel"

Especially with conductors ... (during performances ...)

January 11, 2011 at 01:46 AM ·

I find that the hair from a beautiful blonde female virgin (there are few left), aged about 20, and alive and kicking, works best, as it gives that extra sexy sound.

January 11, 2011 at 02:52 AM ·

Oh, so you want some of my hair Peter?

But I lie, I'm not blond.

January 11, 2011 at 03:25 AM ·

"Oh, so you want some of my hair Peter?

But I lie, I'm not blond."

OK, but do you qualify on the other points?


I did know a violinist once who sounded as though the live horse was still attached to his bow hair!! It was a tail I don't think he would like repeated ...


January 11, 2011 at 03:55 AM ·

This thread is turning into a dirty novel. I might be hyper-ventilating....need to go find a paper bag.

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