Tools of the Trade: Braided, Twisted and Tied / Horsehair Know How
Traditionally, there were three basic ways to work horsehair: twisting, hitching, and braiding or plaiting. Ropes are mostly twisted. Bridles and quirts are hitched, and belts and hatbands are either hitched or braided.
— From Trappings of the Great Basin Buckaroo by Jeff Sailors
As with building anything from a natural material, the first - and often most tedious - step is preparing the raw material. Obtaining and cleaning the hair is the first step for horsehair artists. Mecate makers often struggle to find sources for enough horsehair to keep up with orders. A lot of the hair being used today comes from Mongolia via China. Tail and mane hair have different properties. Tail hair is considered stronger, but most mecate twisters prefer mane hair for its softness and finer texture.
After the hair is washed and dried out, the individual hairs are "picked" to mix them up in random fashion. Rope maker Frankie Dougal talks about the importance of this step, "If it isn't picked just right, it doesn't spin well. You'll have knots and all kinds of problems." Picking can be done by hand or by use of innovative machines.
After the hair is "picked" it is spun into strings or strands, the building blocks for all twisted articles. Mecates are the most commonly made items from twisted hair. The equipment used to do the twisting ranges from very basic and homemade to highly mechanized.
As the twister twists, you feed this hair out and it makes one strand. You'll twist maybe six of those single strands, and then you'll take three of the single strands and you'll twist them back together, around each other, in the opposite direction. And that holds them together. And you twist three together, then you twist three more together, so now you have two strands of three each. Then you double those two strands in half so that you have four strands, and then you twist them the opposite way, which is the way you twisted the single strands to start with. And when you twist them back together, those four, it twists back together real tight and then you have a finished product. That's called a mecarty.
— By Horseman and gearmaker Randy Stowell
Mecates range between 5/16" and 1" in diameter and 17 to 22 feet in length. The larger and longer ones are used as reins with hackamores and snaffle bits, the shorter and smaller ones are used on bosals. Mecates are also used as lead or tie ropes.
The hitching is easy. You have a front hitch and a back hitch and that's all there is, but it's when you start doing a pattern that it gets difficult.
— By Horsehair hitcher and horsewoman Toni Schutte
Endless front and back half-hitches provide all that is needed to create intricate geometric patterns in hitched work. The longer and stronger tail hair is best for hitching, and many craftspeople dye white hair bright colors to give their patterns more depth and interest. Virtually all hitching patterns are based on the diamond. Hitchers continually look for design ideas in everything from restaurant carpets to Navajo rugs. Many use graph paper to help them visualize and draw new designs. Creativity within the tradition is flourishing.
As with rawhide braiding and horsehair twisting, the first step after obtaining and cleaning the raw material is to turn it into strings, sometimes called "pulls" by hitchers. The fewer the number of hairs in a pull, the finer the work and more square the patterns.
Hitching is done over a core or "warp" of cotton or nylon cord, metal or rawhide. Flat pieces, such as belts and hatbands, are hitched over a dowel. When finished, the dowel is removed, the piece wet, then pressed flat under high pressure and allowed to dry.
More than a generation ago, horsehair hitching was taught to prisoners as a means for them to pass the time. The association with prison work remains today, especially among older cowboys.