Twisting hairs: Hagel’s mecates in high demandWritten by Saige Albert
“My dad is a saddle maker, horse trader and, at the time, he was ranching,” says Hagel, noting that he taught her the trade. “I wanted a summer job, but it was a long drive to town so he suggested I started twisting rope.”
“I started twisting rope, and it wasn’t that bad,” she adds. “It was actually fun, so I kept doing it.”
Putting it all together
Hagel’s horsehair ropes, or mecates, are put together in a variety of patterns and colors, and she starts with mane hair sent from around the country.
“I’ve gotten hair from friends that know I build rope, and I have had hair sent to me out of the blue,” she says. “First, I have to wash the hair. It needs to be clean, because it doesn’t spin well if it isn’t.”
Hagel sorts the horsehair by color and shade and runs it through a machine called a picker, which is similar to a wool carder.
“The picker separates the hairs and makes them nice and fluffy,” she explains. “After I have a nice bun of hair, I spin the threads – just like spinning wool into yarn.”
Each 24-foot-long, five-eighths-inch rope requires 15 threads that are about 75 feet long and require 15 minutes each to spin. After spinning the threads, Hagel starts the plying process, or putting the threads together to make the final rope.
“It’s time intensive,” she says, noting that it takes between one and two hours to put together the final rope. “I really like hair work because nothing is really set in stone. It’s always different and I’m learning new things every day.”
In 1995, Hagel acquired a rope-twisting machine that was built in 1929 for a man blinded in a mining accident.
“Blind Sam Champlain built rope on this machine for 30 years,” says Hagel. “Then he sold it to a man named Bob who was blinded by brain tumors. When I got the machine, I had to replace the motor on both ends, and we replaced all the sprockets in back.”
Other than minor replacement parts, her machine is identical to the 1929 model. Hagel utilizes the two-ended machine to twist ropes in a climate-controlled shop. When she is twisting rope, Hagel notes that it is important to monitor both the humidity and temperature of her shop.
“If the humidity gets too high, the hair starts to absorb moisture, and it does weird things,” she explains. “The ropes don’t go together right, they don’t lay right, and they don’t feel right. I learned this all by trial and error.”
Advantages of a horsehair rope
Hagel’s ropes are used as reins for snaffle bits and rawhide hackamores.
“The theory is that the prickles on the rope start to teach the horse to neck rein,” says Hagel. “The reason that I like them is because they have a whole different feel.”
The dynamics of the rope are different than synthetic ropes, according to Hagel, who notes that the twisted nature of the rope allows them to move more easily.
“They have a life of their own. They want to coil and jump from one hand to another,” she explains. “A braided rope can’t do that because the strands are crossed over one another.”
Hagel also builds strap goods and saddles as part of her business, also based on a suggestion from her father.
“After I started making ropes, Dad said, ‘You should probably make some slobber straps,’” she mentions. “I started cutting out a few slobber straps and decided that, if I was going to do that, I might as well make a headstall or two. It grew from there.”
She strives to build functional equipment, including spur straps, headstalls, saddles and hobbles, and she repairs damaged equipment.
“The economy is hitting everyone in the leather business hard right now, and I’ve noticed that I’m not getting as many orders for new stuff,” she notes. “Instead, I’m getting calls for replacement pieces.”
Hagel notes that she started marketing her hair ropes at a Buck Brannaman horsemanship clinic.
“It was one of the first clinics he did in Sheridan, and I visited with Buck there,” she says. “I showed him some of the ropes that I had built, and he took almost half of them.”
After that, calls started coming in from around the country from people looking for Hagel’s ropes.
“Buck liked them well enough and used them, so he told people where to get them,” explains Hagel. “I don’t advertise – it’s all just word of mouth, and I’m out about a year and a half on orders.”
She also attends the Californios Ranch Roping each year in Reno, Nev. to sell her work and meet existing customers from around the country.
“That’s where a bulk of my customers are,” says Hagel. “It’s really the only time that people can walk in and buy one of my ropes because I stockpile them for that event. Everything else is special order.”