When you think of the process of making a wig, perhaps you picture a soulless factory with an automated production line, pumping out synthetic pieces somewhere in an industrial park — probably not a tiny, unassuming shop on a leafy Paddington backstreet.
But it’s here, behind what looks like a regular salon, that the team at Raoul, London’s oldest surviving wig-maker, has crafted thousands of human hair wigs for NHS alopecia and cancer patients since it opened in 1899. Even now after 123 years, it is changing the game: this time by revolutionising the way donated Afro hair can be used to create life-enhancing pieces for its clients.
The team is so in demand that it’s hard to pin director Caroline Shallow, who runs the west London shop, down for a call on their latest innovation. Fine-tuning a method called wefting, where single rows of hair are delicately woven together, the team has helped offer more diversity in hair that is now able to be donated to charities such as Little Princess Trust, and natural looks that can be offered to those in need.
‘The wefting technique which we use is not a new technique from the world of wig-making,’ notes Shallow. ‘But we have adapted and used it for natural, unprocessed Afro hair to create a robust structure which enables longevity.’ The wig-maker has been tweaking and moulding the technique for the past year, perfecting the method. ‘The hand-tied method [where strands are secured on to the base of a wig meticulously by hand] is used around the crown and the sides of the wig, giving a natural overall finish,’ says Shallow. ‘This minimises the damage which can occur because of the tension created within the wig-making process.’
Previously, Afro-textured hair had been shunned in wig-making, especially in factories, as the hair couldn’t withstand the processing needed to mass produce wigs and often the staff weren’t familiar with working with the unique texture. This also meant that until last year, Black people were not able to donate hair to Little Princess Trust, the UK’s only children’s specialty wig charity. Phil Brace, the trust’s CEO, said: ‘While we have always provided Afro-style wigs to Black and mixed-race children, we had been unable to make wigs to the same quality from donated Afro-textured hair.
‘The combined efforts of different partners, including the amazing team at Raoul wig-makers, saw fantastic progress and we are absolutely delighted with the results,’ continues Brace. ‘This means we can now offer even greater choice to all of our wig recipients, and be truly inclusive to all our hair donors.’
While big, bouncy curls are common in wig-making, other popular Black hairstyles such as short, cropped TWAs (teeny, weeny Afros), locs and cornrows are now being created using real Afro-textured donations. As Shallow says: ‘This improves the future of wig-making as it enables the recipient to have the choice of using a texture which is identical to that of their natural hair.’ For children longing to feel themselves after illness, this is the most incredible gift.