Hi varlings, this is something I get asked about a lot.
Us costumey-types are more than a little prone to buying wigs (I know I for one could be Princess Mombi), and unfortunately there’s no shortage of individuals and businesses out there who’ll happily take our money only to send us cheaper fibres assuming we won’t notice.
Here’s what I find the easiest way to test what wigs are actually made of when they arrive on my doorstep.
The Vertical Burn Test
This is a technique I was taught when I was working in film costuming to test textiles, but it works just as well for wigs. It does involve fire, so be sure to read my notes on safe practice and use lots of common sense. If you are a younger reader please get assistance from an adult or guardian!
- The wigs you want to test.
- A match, lighter, taper, or other source of flame.
- A metal sectioning clip, bulldog clip, or similar.
- A clear work area to test in. In my houses, the safest places have usually been the kitchen sink or the laundry tub, as I can easily remove any flammables that might ignite (fabrics, oil, cleaning fluids, etc), and if I drop the fibre it will land on tiles rather than carpet.
- Good ventilation (in case of fumes).
- Ideally you should also wear safety gear, like goggles, gloves, and an apron. Didn’t we learn from all those other times we made cosplay happen and hurt ourselves?
- Once you’ve cleared your area and are looking safe and swanky, you’ll need the wig you want to test.
- You don’t want to be putting the whole wig near fire, usually just two or three strands is plenty. So from the back of your wig, preferably underneath, pick out a couple of strands of hair and snip them off. (NOTE: Taking them from the nape area is less noticeable.)
- Clip the strands at the top in a wide metal bulldog clip or similar instead of holding them in your hands. (NOTE: some fibres flashburn and you can wind up with molten fibres stuck to your fingers.)
- Hold it over the sink/basin/tub, then use your firestarter to ignite the bottom tips/ends of the strands.
- Watch it burn.
- Take note of the speed, colour, and odour of the burn, and residue left afterwards.
Wig Fibre Types
Now you know one way to test what your wig is made from, these are varieties fibres you might be working with and the responses you’ll be looking for. Please keep in mind that these methods often doesn’t work on wigs that were designed for mannequins or dolls. They use different grades for synthetics and treat them differently than wigs for wear, and their natural fibre wigs are nearly always blends (so not all the hairs in the wig will be the same fibre anyway).
A proper human hair on lace base wig is expensive. The manhours are insane, the hairs have to face the right direction, they’re knotted onto the lace by hand in a spiral to match a natural crown… Even the “dodgy cheap ones” can still be thousands of dollars, and the film-grade ones cost as much as an SUV. So if you see one advertised on eBay for $85, it’s a straight giveaway that it’s probably not human hair.
Human hair will burn extremely quickly (often in a flash) with a flickering orange flame and turn to a dark ash that acts like fine powder when crushed. It smells absolutely horrific, like something died. If you’ve ever burned feathers, yeah, that smell.
Some wigs will contain hair from other animals (angora mohair or roving, for example), which may burn more slowly, but will still smell horrid. Their ashes are sometimes more like tiny black spheres than powder depending on how they’ve been treated.
Kanekalon / Toyokalon / Modacrylic
These fibres can look and feel very real to the touch. They turn to ash like human hair, but will burn moderately slowly, and without the odour of real hair – it actually has quite a “clean” odour, not a strong smell at all, which makes it very easy to tell apart from the other wig fibres (which all smell quite nasty in their own ways, really).
The fibre will likely be very fine, like spider’s silk, and feel more like cellophane than hair. It burns quickly with a blue flame and smells pungently like burnt paper. It leaves a “fluffy” ash that can be either black or white.
Nylon / Polypropylene
They look and feel the same, and being plastic (yep, you guessed it) both will melt and liquefy.
Nylon will rapidly burn then start melting and curling up into a gel that drips and blisters. It smells like burning celery or broccoli. When cooled the drips amber and darken, and become solid beads.
Polypropylene will make a black smoke, and smells like sweetish oil. It will drip black beads that begin tacky and then turn hard.
If you still can’t work out if your wig is nylon or polypropylene, take another little bit of the wig fibre and place it in bowl of water. Nylon is porous and will sink, while polypropylene will float.
Saran / Katsilk / Vinylidene Chloride
It looks and feel oily before you’ve even done anything to it – like a Barbie doll’s hair. When you hold it to flame it will mostly dissipate, but there will be faint melting.
I’m yet to test a Futura wig, so I’ll have to raincheque that one.
I hope this tutorial helps you in your wigventures! Of course, one of the easiest ways to avoid these problems is to use reputable dealers and suppliers whose products are consistent. I tend to order from Arda Wigs and have friends who swear by Cosplay Wigs, but there are plenty of awesome companies out there if you’re looking for something locally or in a specific style.
Got a Question? Want me to cover a certain topic? Leave me a reply below.
Until next time, SEW SAY WE ALL!