jewellery made from human hair is a reminder of life and death

Sybille Paulsen pieces made with the hair of cancer patients start conversations.

by Melisa Gray-Ward
01 February 2016, 6:10am

Over the past decade, the fashion world's relationship with sustainability has moved beyond recycling fabrics and favouring natural dyes. Today, consumers and designers are exploring new—and not so new—ways to create and innovate with natural products. German fibre artist Sybille Paulsen had this fixation in mind when she began working with human hair.

Although unusual, her practice is hardly revolutionary. In the Victorian era bespoke adornments and jewellery made from the hair of dead loved ones were a fashionable show of mourning. These symbolic reminders of mortality are often referred to as memento mori, and were a way to immortalise and remember loved ones who had passed in a time when photography was limited.

Today, Sybille's work walks a similar line between adornment and sentiment. For her Tangible Truths project the artist turned the hair of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy into decorative art. These striking pieces became artifacts of the individuals' cancer experience, starting conversations around their transformation. The work set the tone for the commissioned pieces the former architect now creates in her light-filled Berlin studio. i-D caught up with her to ask about life, death and jewellery. 

A piece from Tangible Truths, made from the hair of a chemotherapy patient.

In Victorian times, jewellery featuring hair was a way to commemorate the dead. Tangible Truths, your work with the hair of chemo patients, also asks the audience to contemplate mortality. Did you set out to play with the idea of memento mori?
Tangible Truths began as an art project [focusing] on the theme of transformation. Chemotherapy is a huge process of letting go—the tumour is a part of one's body that has to die and transform. I didn't know about the memento mori pieces when I started, but it fits; death is also a transformation.

Do you ever work with the hair of dead people?
Of course. It does not matter to me. But people are still hesitant when it comes to death. I have a friend whose grandmother died and was thinking about commissioning a necklace. I told her she would need to cut off a strand of hair, which is very easy to do, but she decided she didn't want to. It used to be very popular, but now we are a bit detached from death, and this comes into play. We feel quite awkward around it.

A chemo patient wearing a piece made from their own hair.

Some of your recent pieces include hair from several family members. How have your relatives responded to to your work their hair is part of?
Families are often really happy. This piece I am wearing now [includes hair from] my niece and my best friend. It's nice to have three generations of people in one piece—it's quite personal. I also like the juxtaposition, as originally my work focused on the transformation of those experiencing cancer, but now it is also about other experiences.

What's interesting is that I have had several conversations with people who find it disgusting that I use human hair as a material, but at the same time are wearing leather shoes.

A close up of Sybille's work.

What's the process of making like for you?
It's quite repetitive—like most craft. It's a mixture between design, skill and patience. You need good eyes because you might be working with very thin hair. Depending on the pattern I use, I count the hairs and tie them to weights. Sometimes I need 16 weights but can go up to 64. Each piece usually takes one to two days. But recently I made a piece from short hair which ended up being a metre and a half long. It took me a week and a half to do because the hair was so short, and I would repeatedly go through the process of counting and knotting the hair.

Do you feel the interest in these pieces ties into the wider trend of consumers being drawn back to made-to-order fashion? These feel like the ultimate "bespoke" pieces.
The idea for Tangible Truths was based on my research on rituals. I was tired of this mindless consumption of objects: what do they mean in our everyday life? Are there some that can say more about us other than being a status symbol? Something that has a deeper story than "I just bought it because it's pretty." Maybe you have a wedding band or some family heirlooms, but jewellery is often dirt cheap and many see it as an accessory to make an outfit perfect.

Contemporary jewellery tells a story about yourself. It doesn't have to be profound like those in Tangible Truths, it can be very playful or ironic. It's like the person becomes a gallery for an artwork. Your body becomes a wall, working together with the piece.

Ornaments woven from hair. 

Hair samples.


Words Melisa Gray-Ward

sybille paulsen