A History You’ve Never Heard: The Past, Present, and Future of Fishing Lines
Article by Zen Hansen
As a material researcher, artist, and tenkara fishing enthusiast, it was only a matter of time before a few of my eccentric hobbies collided. While learning a nearly-lost Swedish method of table-braiding human hair for jewelry, I wondered what else our early ancestors may have constructed from their hair. I had heard that traditional Japanese tenkara fishing lines were made of horsehair, and human hair is a very similar fiber, so why not use it too. I fell down the rabbit hole and sought to learn more about the history of fishing lines, the materials used to make them, and what the future holds.
Cordage (a catch-all for string, twine, rope, line, etc.) was one of the earliest tools constructed by humans from various available materials, as evidenced by a recently discovered 50,000-year-old fragment of a 3-ply cord made from bark recovered from a cave in France. Cordage is made by twisting or braiding several fibers together, making them stronger than a single untwisted fiber. Whether our ancestors used these to tie up livestock, make nets, carry food, build shelters, or catch fish was purely situational based on their needs.
Natural materials commonly used to make early cordage depended highly on location and included water reeds, coconut coir, flax, papyrus, leather, hemp, linen, cotton, jute, sisal, and animal hair. But my first inquiries into the specific history of “fishing line materials” yielded references to additional fibers such as India grass (possibly jute), mohair, silk, and silkworm gut, but most often mentioned is horsehair. It is clear from texts that horsehair was a preferred material to make fishing lines by many people for quite some time.
One of the earliest written English descriptions of snooding (twisting) and knotting lengths of horsehair to form a fishing line survives in a book attributed to Dame Juliana Berners called, A Treatyse of Fysshynge Wyth an Angle from 1496. And, in the Compleat Angler, first published in 1653 by Izaak Walton, co-author Charles Cotton discussed a method for creating tapered horsehair lines and provided recipes for dying them in different shades.
However, it wasn’t until I came across an article from Cassell’s Saturday Journal in 1895 titled Barber’s Clippings Useful that I found the only mention of a ‘modernly’ constructed fishing line made of human hair. The unknown author explained, “a plan has been devised for using human hair almost exclusively in silk and hair combination reel lines, in which horsehair alone was at one time employed, and these new lines are unsurpassed for toughness and lightness.”
We all know by now that this hairy ‘plan’ didn’t catch on as popular. Yet, following that lead, I dug further and located several artifacts documented as “human hair cords and fishing lines” in both The Smithsonian and The British Museum. Explorers collected most of these in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from various places around the world; South Australia, Easter Island, Kiribati, Arizona, and Alaska, to name a few. Though, with slim details given, I can’t help but wonder if the scribbled words on some pieces indicating “fishing line” as the utility may be subjective. Nevertheless, there is enough historical evidence to see that people have indeed corded and fished with human hair at one point or another, probably further back than we can ever know.
Still, I was curious to see how well human hair would actually perform on the water. So, this summer, I started experimenting by constructing a line from my natural hair sheds using a combination of two methods. First, I twisted sections of hair snoods similarly to what’s explained in the Treatyse of 1496, followed by table-braiding those sections to produce a tapered line (20 hairs at the bottom up to 80 at the top) that is 10.5 ft (3.2 meters) in total length. And then I took it fishing. I may be slightly biased, but I felt it performed beautifully as a fixed line compared to the furled kevlar line I typically use. It cast well and held fast as I hooked into an exciting array of grayling, cutthroats, and brook trout – some pretty big!
My next quest was to understand better why someone would choose one material over another if both are similar – in this case, horsehair vs. human. Human hair consists of a tough keratin protein structure that is solid yet flexible, lightweight and absorbs oil and water. Horsehair is chemically comparable but generally thicker, stiffer, and longer than human hair fibers. Regarding mechanical properties, human hair has a few advantages over horsehair; tensile strength is one of them, and stretch is another.
In their fiber study, On the Strength of Hair across Species, Yang, Yu, Ritchie, and Meyers show that natural fiber’s tensile strength increases relative to the decrease in diameter. Human hair averages around 100 microns in diameter, while horsehair is about 50% larger per strand at 150 microns, meaning human hair has a stronger tensile strength for its size. Human hair also stretches in length up to 50% when wet (with the ability to recover fully), before splitting and breaking, versus horsehair, which is more brittle and only stretches a maximum of 20%.
Then, for added merriment to this little history/science dive, some friends at RIO Products in Idaho Falls graciously agreed to test a few sections of human and horsehair lines for me on their Instron 3343 tensile-strength machine. I can’t claim anything is official (a lot more testing would be needed), but the trials indicated similar results as published fiber studies assert; a cord of human hair versus one of horsehair of the same diameter, is stronger. The horsehair line failed at 3.05 lbs of maximum force, while the human hairs busted at 5.25 lbs. For additional comparison, a 6x Fluorocarbon line broke at 4.05 lbs. So, it was fun to see that horse and human hair can realistically provide enough power to pull in fish.
I’ve learned the advantage of using horsehair isn’t in strength but its long strand length (ideal for making lines) and generally low cost to acquire. Conversely, while our hair is technically stronger and arguably more ubiquitous, it has always been a historically controversial and expensive commodity to obtain – with longer lengths mostly relegated to elite society fashion wigs. Hence, we can see why horsehair and other natural fibers, like silk, were preferred for making fishing lines…. until synthetic (manufactured) fibers were invented. And that’s what we mostly fish with today.
In 1935, DuPont chemist Wallace Carothers synthesized nylon, forever changing many industries, fishing included. Nylon fibers are made from chemicals that are melted and extruded through small holes to form continuous threads of any diameter and length. Nylon was followed by other advanced petroleum-based fibers, including polyvinylidene fluoride (fluorocarbon), in 1971. Synthetic lines are great because they boast a significantly improved diameter-to-tensile strength ratio, are waterproof, and have superior abrasion resistance to anything created from natural fibers. But most of all, we love these lines because they are cheap to make and purchase.
However, I fear we’re overlooking a considerable ecological downside. These synthetic plastics can take an extremely long time to biodegrade. It is estimated that fluorocarbon lines can persist for up to 4,000 years and monofilament for 600 years – they pollute the environment and can harm wildlife. In contrast, natural fibers, like hair and silk, are organic materials that quickly break down within a few years and fertilize the ground with nutrients.
I tried to find out if there was such a thing as “eco-friendly” manufactured fishing lines, but the results were grim beyond the rare horsehair novelty line. It does not currently appear viable for companies to sustain natural fiber or bio-based synthetic options over more convenient and cheaper synthetics. I understand generalizing the comparisons between these fibers is a bit unfair; like apples to oranges, there are a lot more fishing-specific factors at play I didn’t discuss, such as water absorption rates and refraction indexes. However, with over 9 billion tonnes of plastic produced since 1950, I am suggesting that the long-term effects of the materials we employ to pursue our sport are understated. Keeping up with the ‘traditional’ plastics we use to catch fish is not sustainable. Investigating alternatives is becoming increasingly crucial for us to consider, and innovation is needed.
So, what will the next advancement of fishing lines entail? Only time will give us the answers, but perhaps we will revert to natural fibers again – we can certainly look back at our history to gain insight and inspiration for the future. In the meantime, you’re welcome to try your hair!
Zen Hansen and her family reside in Southeast Idaho. She is a lifelong student and lover of nature, an endlessly curious person who enjoys a colorful array of interests, including researching the historical use of hair as a material. You can follow her on Instagram @HairAnthropology
This article originally appeared in the 2022-23 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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