The Business of Sheitels (aka Weave)



A while back we posted a discussion about lace-front weaves used by black women, particularly celebrities. There were points raised about acceptance, the natural versus permed hair debate, etc. But, the conversation didn't get a chance to make it around to production and distribution.

As someone who has done permed, weave and natural, I was interested in this article that focused more on labor/production within the global hair trade, particularly how it traverses cultures. The woman profiled in the story is a maker of sheitels, the yiddish word for wigs that serve as head covering for religious practices. She, an orthodox Jew, runs a business creating sheitels for other Jewish women as well as women in other communities (particularly the black community). She uses women from select South American countries as both a source of hair and labor.

A few excerpts from the article:

She Goes Covered: Following the global hair trade, from the braid-laden Peruvian highlands to the sheitel machers of Borough Park.

(SOURCE: Triple Canopy Mag)

///Helene first encountered sheitels, which Orthodox women have worn since the nineteenth century as an alternative to covering their hair (as Jewish modesty law dictates), in 1995. She had moved to Lakewood, New Jersey from Israel, where most Orthodox women wear headscarves called snoods rather than wigs. Yoni, who is American, had a good job as a fireman in their West Bank settlement, but the schools were subpar and the opportunities limited; they couldn’t envision raising their children there. While searching for a job in the US, Helene came across a newspaper ad posted by a salon looking for people who could “ventilate”; having been raised in France, Helene assumed that the word was derived from ventiler, and that the job would entail blow-drying hair, not tying individual strands into the lace cap of a wig. When she arrived, though, she found herself charged with repairing expensive “American wigs.” Her employer, an extremely religious Orthodox woman, had Helene sign a contract agreeing not to work for any other wigmaker for ten years or else be fined $150,000.///

///The market for human hair is generally limited to places with impoverished populations willing to sell a two-foot ponytail—the product of two years of growth—for twenty dollars. Dark hair comes primarily from South America, India, and Mongolia. Helene says that the ample selection of hair colors and textures in South America—the result of more than twenty-five generations of intermarriage between Europeans and indigenous people—make it the ideal source region. The hair of indigenous Peruvian women is thick, straight, and black—perfect for the lace-front wigs sought by black women, who have come to represent the majority of Helene's business—and is worn in two braids that often stretch all the way down their backs and are plaited with tassels made from Alpaca wool.///

///The world’s top supplier of coveted “remy” hair, which has never been chemically treated and retains its cuticle layer, is the Tirumala Tirupati Balaji temple, which sits on a hillside in the southern Indian region of Andhra Pradesh. A quarter of the fifty thousand pilgrims who visit the temple each day have their hair shorn and offer the tresses to Venkateswara, an incarnation of Vishnu with the power to absolve sins. The temple then sells the hair—more than five hundred tons on average—in an annual auction that reaps up to fifteen million dollars. The shorter men’s tresses are used by chemical companies to make fertilizer and baking products; the longer women’s hair ends up in American and European wigs—temple employees call it “black gold.”///