The Art of Hitching Horse Hair

Jeannie Watt 2Hey everyone and happy Wednesday. Today I’m going to toot my own horn and discuss a western craft I love.

I’m a hitcher. Not the kind that marries people, but rather the kind that makes custom cowboy gear out of twisted and woven horsehair.

Hitching is an ancient art and I don’t think anyone has truly nailed down where  or how long ago it started. It has been kept alive, however, in the Montana Penal system, where inmates have been creating hitched horsehair belts and headstalls (bridles) for well over a hundred years. If you visit Deer Lodge, you cabelt detailn see some beautiful hitching in the prison gift store, along with other crafts created by the inmates.

I learned to hitch in 1993, at a time when so few people were hitching, that most knew each other by name or reputation. The art re-surged during the 90s and I was lucky to have been riding that wave. I’ve shown my pieces in western art and museum shows and have been invited twice to show at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko.

So how do yhairou hitch? First you get some decent tail hair. Tail hair is different from mane hair—it’s courser and longer. Mane hair is used for the tassels and also can be twisted into ropes called mecates.

I cheat and buy violin bow hair. It’s alretied hairady cleaned and of equal length. I get it in black, brown and white. The white I dye on the stove, using plain old Rit dye, to create the not-so-natural colors.

To make a string, you count out 9 hairs if you’re using black or brown, because the hair shafts in these colors are thicker, 10 if you’re using white. You flip half of the hair around, because one end of a strand is naturally thicker than the other and this gives you a uniform thickness, and knot it. Then you split the hairs over your hand and twist. Unlike human hair, horsehair doesn’t unravel. As long as twistingit has a knot in both ends, it stays put.

After you have enough strings, you can start hitching. To do this, you fasten two long rolls of twine (I use mattress tufting twine) to a dowel, attach to the twine however many horsehair strings you need to cover the dowel, and then start weaving the horsehair over the twine in half-hitch knots—thus the term hitching. It’s essentially weaving in the round, since you turn the dowel and continue to weave around and around it, until you reach the desired length. Once you are done

100_3920
All designs are woven in using different colored horsehair strings.

—a zillion weeks after you start sometimes, you pull the work off the do

wel. It comes off as a tube of horsehair and string, which is then dampened and pressed flat in a big steel press. After that you attach leather and…viola…work of usable art. And hitched horsehair is durable. People are still using horsehair gear made in the 1940s or earlier.

It takes a while to complete a project. When hitching a 1 ½ inch belt, I can finish ¾ to 1 inch in an hour, depending on the complexity of the design I’m weaving—and I’m fast.

Here are some of my finished pieces–

These are belts that I designed and made for my family. My belt is the grey and blue one on the end.

scan0010

 

This is a checkbook cover with a hitched insert of a brand.

checkbook

 

This is my master work—an old-style headstall. I’m still working on the reins. This took 240 hours to complete and I displayed it at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The strings for this work were very delicate–only 5 black hairs, and I worked it over a single twine.

big heastall

 

And this is the Michael Martin Murphy headstall—yes, he bought it, while it was on display at Cowboy Poetry and he was performing there! I was so stoked when I found out.

mmm

 

And that’s my craft. I’ve so enjoyed sharing with you today, and if you’re ever at a western event, keep your eyes peeled for people or horses wearing hitched horsehair. They’re out there.

Glorifying the Wilderness Experience

So many things drove the westward expansion of the 1800s. The lure of a better life. Cheap land. Adventure. The railroad. Art.

Art?

Home in the Woods by Thomas Cole (1847)

Wait a minute. How did art drive the westward expansion?

In the mid-1800s, a new wave hit the artistic community, a desire to show nature in it’s most glorified state. Known as the Hudson River School, this movement focused on dramatic landscapes painted with romanticism and wonderful uses of light and detail to make the subject even more attractive than it might usually appear. It derived its name from the original locales that were painted–such places as the Hudson River Valley, Catskills, Adirondack, and the White Mountains. As the movement grew and inspired a second generation of painters, however, the ladscapes they painted encompassed wilderness areas from as far away as South America and Syria. The themes of the paintings fit so perfectly with the American persona of the time. Themes of discovery, exploration, and settlement. And for a growing number of east coast citizens, the appeal came in viewing untamed lanscapes and idyllic nature scenes so different from the bustling cities to which they had become accustomed.

Thomas Cole is considered by most to be the father of the Hudson River School, but it was his prize pupil, Frederic Edwin Church, who became a true celebrity. Some of the finest works from the Hudson River School were painted between 1855 and 1875, and Church’s works consituted the majority. His paintings are truly stunning. I must admit that I fell in love with them myself. Here are a few of my favorites:

Niagra Falls (1857)
The Natural Bridge - Virginia (1852)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twilight in the Wilderness (1860)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You really have to see larger images to do them justice.

In the 20th century, the term luminism was coined to describe this style. It is characterized by attention to detail and the hiding of brush strokes so that nothing distracts from the vision of nature being depicted. Artists in the Hudson River School for the most part believed that nature in the form of the American landscape was a manifestation of God. Therefore they painted highly realistic yet idealized renderings of what they had seen on their travels.

Often, they visited such dangerous, hard-to-reach places, that they could only carry a sketch book. They depended on these sketches and their memories to reconstruct the images they had seen once they returned to the safety of home.

In my current work in progress, my heroine’s mother was an art teacher back east who was greatly influenced by the Hudson River School. It is her dedication to this style of art that drives her to leave her safe city life to search out her own wilderness to paint. This, of course, eventually leads her to Texas.

What type of art speaks to your heart? I’ve always preferred realist landscapes that capture the glory of God’s creation. That’s probably why these paintings gripped me so completely. What about you? Do you have a painting or print in your house that you just adore? What painting would you buy if money was no object? I’d love to hear about it.