This may be the second most frequent question I get about my work. The first is “Where do you get the patience?“
The question is actually very easy to answer… now. But it took me quite a while and several adventures to get to that easy answer.
Okay, let me back up. Some of you are asking, “But what do you use horsehair for anyway?“
In the Tibetan appliqué tradition I follow, outlines and contours are formed by colored cords couched to silk cloth. If you saw the film, Creating Buddhas, you know how this works. I make these colored cords by wrapping silk thread around three strands of hair from a horse’s tail.
I had two teachers of the silk thangka tradition.
I worked with the first for several months, learning the fundamentals of the craft — particularly wrapping horsehair with silk thread by hand. My second teacher, who taught me the details and with whom I refined my skills over the course of three years, used nylon fishing line in place of horse hair. This had the advantage of making longer cords. But, having tried both, I found horsehair’s advantages significantly more compelling. The microscopic ridges on the hair grasp the fine filaments of the silk, keeping the thread in place. And the horsehair is wonderfully malleable, following whatever curve I guide it around and folding neatly into crisp points.
So when I set out on my own, I had to acquire some horsehair. I lived in India at the time, in the spectacular mountain town of Dharamsala. I had many Tibetan friends, several of whom were artists. I began by asking my first teacher who must have been in a mischeivous mood.
Leslie: Where can I get horse tail?
T.G.: In Ladakh.
Leslie: But from whom? Where in Ladakh? (Ladakh’s a big place.)
T.G.: Look around and find a sleeping horse. Approach very slowly and clip a few strands from his tail (so as not to deprive him of his fly-swatting ability, of course). But be very careful not to wake him up or you could get injured…
Leslie (discouraged): ha ha ha
T.G. and other friends did generously give me small bundles of horsehair from their own supplies, but the identity of an independent source remained a mystery.
I asked around incessantly and some friends offered solutions. Kristin Blancke and Franco Pizzi led treks in Ladakh and other Himalayan regions. Often horses accompanied their Italian groups to carry bags, tents, food, and other supplies. Kristin put the word out to her horseman colleagues, who agreed that a horsetail would be donated when one of the horses died. Several months later, I received the gift of a dusty, well-used tail donated unwittingly by a very hardworking horse who had passed into the bardo and beyond.
Tsering Nyima loved to play the piwong (a traditional eastern Tibetan stringed instrument) at Losar (Tibetan New Year) and other occasions. The bows he used were made in Tibet, with horsehair. He also acquired a tail for me, carried overland by a refugee from Tibet to Nepal and then on to India. This also was dusty and unavoidably animal.
The last and most impressively real horse tail I purchased was sent by mail in the US from a company selling supplies for Native American Indian crafts. In addition to the dust, this one still had the bone and hide attached. My sensibilities (as a “mostly vegetarian” for many years) were seriously challenged. But that’s not a bad thing.
I appreciated the opportunity to be conscious of the extent to which the beauty of the thangkas I create depends on other beings:
the horses who give their tails,
the silkworms who give their lives,
the weavers who labor in poor conditions,
the teachers who share their knowledge,
and uncountable others who participate in the creation, transport, and sale of the materials I use and the spaces I occupy.
Finally, to my great relief and pleasure, I found a reliable supplier of clean, evenly cut horsehair, which has served me through all the subsequent years. Lacis in Berkeley, CA offers an extensive selection of threads, ribbons, tools and supplies for the textile arts and publishes needlework and costume books, as well. For me, their single most important product is…
I have no idea what kumi-himo and gimp are but it sure is suitable for making appliqué thangka cords!
Search for “horse” in their online catalog and you’ll find it!