The Science Bit: An Introduction To The Grimoire of Hairdressing

Pamper day. Time to amble into my favourite hair salon for a cup of tea and a natter.

By eleven I was sat in my favourite hair emporium, earnestly discussing tresses.


Look more closely.

A steaming cup of tea in front of me, my hairdresser and I were engaged in earnest conference about layers, lengths, weight and movement. There is a language of physics which accompanies hair.

For hair can be in possession of any number of properties. It might be curly, straight, or wavy depending on the complex building blocks of each strand, It might be dry or lustrous, light or dark, blonde, brown, red, grey. It might be long, mid length or short, thin or thick, plentiful or sparse.

You try constructing a decision tree around that lot.These hairdressers, they have to be a cross between the white-coated physicists in the local research lab and the crazy ladies you meet reading tea leaves in the bottom of cups in cafes.

Mixed with a solid understanding of what hair is and how it works, there must be a sprinkling of fairy dust, a savant clairvoyance, and it must all be sealed with style.

I listed my impossible demands and ended with the incantation to the goddesses of hair: “I trust you. Just do your magic and make it look wonderful, please…”

A student took charge of washing my hair, but she was watched like a hawk by another member of the coven. Make sure you apply conditioner lower down, the observer cautioned. Work it in carefully. This is how you comb it out: use this implement, this comb, this finisher….

I was mesmerised. My hairdresser is Sophie and she’s An Important Hairdresser. Thus, small twittering minions were clearing courses of action with her, rather like officers coming to ask permission of Wellington to advance at Waterloo. “The lady wants a graduated bob, but she says she wants to keep it long,” a tremulous redhead  stammered reverently. Sophie dispatched her, agreeing a compromise with all the wisdom and clout of Boudicca.

Somewhere a buzzer sounded. Someone said: “is that mine?”

“No,” rejoined Sophie firmly, not faltering from an instant from a piece of precision snipping, “’s mine.”

She never said how she intended to deal with the buzzer. They all had them: timers which dictated just how long they should spend on each section of an appointment. It was like being a car on Henry Ford’s production line, only with a cup of tea.

Jessie J appeared on the television screen. Oh, I thought, pop music. But no: they were researching someone’s style. A woman had come in for a Jessie J style and the internet was down, so they put her song on the telly and took mental notes. Someone said: “It’s a classic Cleopatra…”

“Yes, but her hair’s got a lot of body…” commented another.

I was struck by the earnest professionalism of these people, to whom it seemed hair was life itself.  We educationists are rarely so focused; and when we are it is because, like my hairdressers, we love the core product to distraction.

Hair – the science bit – makes me laugh like a drain.

Take one strand of hair. On the outside is a layer of flat round ’tiles’ laid like roofing slates, one over the other. It’s called the cuticle. It is ordered, and structured, and if you treat it properly it makes a head of hair gleam.

It shields the cortex, bundles of keratin proteins in rod-like structures which thread underneath. Once again, the rods are rigidly structured and organised, like rows of soldiers at boot camp.

And at the centre is a complete shambles. The new recruits who haven’t a clue. On occasion, the shambles forgets even to exist.

It’s called the medulla. It’s just this disorganised set of loosely connected cells at the centre of the hair. After all the structure, into the centre of the hair a little chaos falls.

Humans have less shambles than the rest of creation. While many species have at least half of the width of a hair shaft taken up by medulla, man’s takes up only one-third. But not always. This come-as-you-please feature may be large in one hair from a scalp, and non-existent in another.

One wonders what that medulla is for. Why would creation introduce a chaotic chamber at the centre of one of our most prized features; one which only troubles to appear on a random basis?

I considered, briefly, discussing the perplexing business with Sophie: but as she was already handling a number of disparate operations, I feared that if  I added another my hair might end up the wrong shape.

Better to watch, silently, and learn just a few pearls of wisdom from the science, the art – nay, the the grimoire  – of hairdressing.

Picture source here


45 thoughts on “The Science Bit: An Introduction To The Grimoire of Hairdressing

  1. What? Not one ‘Have you been on holiday yet?’ I stopped going to one hairdresser because she sniffed. A hair cut went something like snip, sniff, snip sniff… The one I have now is a scream. She laughs at herself, so that’s good. She has the blackest of black hair, from a bottle, because her latest beau is Italian and he won’t look at anyone without black hair. Being a hairdresser carries a lot of responsibility. Especially when the customer only wants something that she can wash and leave….. I can’t cope with lots of hair. Never have been able to!

    1. The secret of every good hairdresser is reading the tealeaves to find out what we really desire, isn’t it, Myfanwy? To be able to do what we ask, precisely, to achieve a picture of oneself that matches our inner image. Tough gig.

  2. Wonderful post, Kate!
    I’ve gone to the same hairdresser for ever and ever. My tips (we tip our hairdressers on top of the fee here) I am certain have helped pay for her children’s education. She knows me and did me up proud for the girls’ weddings and she cried at the birth of Kezzie and makes time for me whenever I call desperately in need help. She is a scientist, a counselor, crafty and kind and knows every inch of my hair. Thanks for the post.

    1. Ah, Penny, you have summed up the kind of person who holds our reflection in their hands. If we find a good hairdresser they are a constant through our lives. I can just envisage this warm, pragmatic soul.

  3. A good hairdresser is a lifesaver. Mine tames the madness, gives me a style and a colour I can manage and really just gives me one less thing to worry about.
    It’s weird to think that I’ve been going to Jane for longer than most of her junior staff have been alive …

  4. A hair by any other name….

    ‘Tis but thy hair that is my enemy;
    Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
    What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
    Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
    Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
    What’s in a name? that which we call a hair
    By any other name would comb as sweet;
    So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
    Retain that dear perfection which he owes
    Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
    And for that name which is no part of thee
    Take all hair myself.

  5. Or, with apologies to David Reuben, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Hair* (*But Were Afraid To Ask): 🙂

    The shop where I have my hair and nails done is a multi-purpose operation (also offering facials, massages, body wraps and the like), yet seems a bit more “relaxed” than the place you’ve described. However, I must agree that the miracles wrought there nearly always amaze and dumbfound me (she of the fine, the straight, the stubborn hair and possessor of 10 thumbs when it comes time to deal with it)… Thanks for a fun post!

    1. You are welcome, Karen: I love that site. The idea that the hair should be part of the periodic table is novel 😀 Your shop sounds lovely. Just the ticket for a refreshing makeover…

  6. I love my stylist. I am mostly a frumpy thing, but I love my hair, and Elisha, skinny, sweet, blonde and trendy Elisha, treats it well. She’s also got that elusive blend of professionalism, alchemy, and co-conspiracy that makes a magical hairdresser.

    If she marries her South African boyfriend and goes home with him, my haircuts are going to get very pricey.

    1. Ah, Cameron, now I am torn! I want Elisha to find happiness, honestly I do, but I am very keen that you do not lose her. Perhaps the boyfriend could be persuaded to settle in America instead? It seems a very small adjustment to make, in order to keep a formidable talent anchored to your shores…

    1. Also, please tell Big Al that the lizard was in rare form last night. For the first time, rather than freeze when it saw me, it bolted. I didn’t realize those things could move so dang fast. Like it was shot from a cannon. 🙂

      1. May you and your hairdresser grow old together, Andra 😀 I shall relay the latest episode of The Charleston Toilet Lizard forthwith. I wonder if it is feeling a mite bolder? One more step towards world domination….

  7. Some hairdressers are pros ~ rather like Michaelangelo who coaxed the statue from the stone. Others hack away at locks as if they are chopping firewood. 😯

    Glad you enjoyed your visit to the salon, Kate. Thanks!

    1. Oh, I fear the firewood kind. We have met a few recently – we left our old salon where the whole family went for ten years, because it got rather expensive. It’s amazing what people can get away with by putting a sign over the door and buying a pair of scissors.

  8. I agree with Nancy. I go to a barber because as a rule they can cut well. Hairdressers have failed me time and time again. With my dead straight hair (some have called it Chinese hair) you notice each and every mistake…

  9. Am I alone in farther disliking having my hair cut?
    My hairdresser emigrated and that was a difficult time, but now I have another one who understands curls…. so a quick trim every six weeks or so and that’s me done 🙂

  10. I looked up the word, “grimoire”…fabulous, Kate. You are so capable of taking the most overlooked aspects of life and teach me something I may never have thought interesting. Now I know it’s my medulla that needs a bit of a.m. discipline. 😀

  11. Enjoyed this so much – I’ve been with Rose since forever. She works from home so the salon is teeny but the gossip is legenday! Glad you had some play time 😉

  12. And yet when it comes to hair we are not all created equal! I’ll not complain about mine, but just say that I’m limited in what can be expected from my salon’s magicians…my sister-in-law grows such beautiful tresses she is frequently “shorn” just to provide hair for Locks of Love. And i agree with Penny and tip my stylist well…I give him rather impossible tasks…like “please take a few yeas off” and he does what he can! Debra

  13. a hairdresser who cuts in a way to leave you with hair you can manage and not look like a bush in a windstorm or a pancake that is 3 days ols is an absolute treasure

  14. I find hairdressers’ fascinating, I’ve never met a really skilled one though and I hate having my head touched so I just do my own. It’s like a little corner of womandom where I’ve never been invited. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    1. Wow. I’d love not to have to depend on someone else. One day someone will invent a machine like the one Professor Potts invented in Chitty Bang Bang. But more successful. Until them, I am doomed to pay extortionate amounts to hair covens…

  15. I love going to the hair salon – best coffee, best head massages and the salon manager makes everyone roar with laughter – the haircuts are not bad either 🙂

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