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The women selling their hair to help pay the bills: Demand for extensions fuels a very unlikely British cottage industry

For more than 20 years, Amanda Golding’s glossy mane of hair was her crowning glory. Her thick, naturally blonde locks had always drawn compliments and her partner Kevin loved it when she wore it loose and flowing down to her waist. But in December last year Amanda made the momentous decision to have it all chopped off. But it was not because she’d been through a life-changing event or because she was about to lose it to chemotherapy. Amanda needed the money she could make from selling it to buy Christmas gifts for her sons Isaac, four, and Kaleb, two.
‘Although Kevin and I have good jobs, rising household bills mean money has been very tight,’ says Amanda, a 37-year-old health administrator from Camberley, Surrey. ‘The boys had set their hearts on toys from the film Cars 2 for Christmas, but they were so expensive. ‘When I read about a woman who had sold her hair, I thought: “Why not?” ‘I knew that I’d miss it. I’d had long hair since I was a teenager and it was part of my identity. ‘I’m quite shy, and perhaps I used to hide behind my hair. Having it cut took real courage. I consoled myself that long hair is probably a bit youthful for a woman of my age, so this was a way of getting a new look and the money for the children’s presents.’
Amanda’s hairdresser trimmed, washed and dried her hair to ensure it was in good condition. ‘Then she tied it into a ponytail with an elastic band and cut it off,’ Amanda recalls. ‘I admit it was a shock — and I do miss the feel of long hair — but in all I had 12 inches of hair to sell and I made £60, for which I’m very grateful.’ Amanda admits Kevin, a 46-year-old sales manager, misses her long hair. But she’s surprisingly delighted with her new asymmetric bob, and says if her hair grows long again she would definitely consider selling it a second time. It may sound a drastic way to make extra money — even in these tough economic times — but Amanda is just one of an increasing number of women who are selling their hair, largely driven by a rising demand for real-hair extensions like those worn by celebrities such as Cheryl Cole and Victoria Beckham. ‘We’ve been buying human hair from the British public for about two years and we’ve seen trade double in the past year,’ says Graham Wake of London-based Bloomsbury Wigs — one of a handful of British firms that buy women’s hair. ‘We are now sending out at least one cheque every day.’
The growth of the home-grown hair-harvesting market may also prove an ethical solution amid concerns about the international  hair trade. There have been increasing fears about the exploitation of women from countries such as Russia, China, India and Brazil, the traditional source of most of the raw material. In 2000, the UK imported £19 million worth of human hair for wigs and extensions. By last year that figure had increased to £45.6 million. As Graham Wake, whose company uses hair exclusively to make wigs for alopecia sufferers and chemotherapy patients, says: ‘Women who buy wigs from us like to know that the hair is sourced ethically and so we always pay a fair price.’ He adds: ‘Some people come into the salon to sell their hair, and we style them afterwards. But 90 per cent of our clients will chop off their own hair and send it to us by post. ‘We measure the length and weight of the hair and depending on the quality — the most desirable is “virgin hair” that’s not dry or treated — we can pay anything up to £300. ‘The average we pay is around £100 for around a 17-inch length and the most expensive hair is naturally blonde Caucasian hair because it’s much less common than brown or black hair.’ Wendy Scrase, 47, from Bangor, North Wales, received £130 for 18 inches of her strawberry blonde hair when she sold it to help ease the financial pressure her large family is under. A theatre nurse and homeopathic practitioner, Wendy is married to Franklyn, a community development worker, and they have four children Daniel, 23, Benjamin, 18, Leon, 16 and Connor, 12. ‘I’ve had very long hair for 18 years. I adored having waist-length hair because it is so distinctive. I was very proud of my natural colour,’ says Wendy. ‘But at the moment money is rather tight as we have two children at university. Then I read that I could sell my hair. ‘I knew it would be a sacrifice, but I thought perhaps it was time I said goodbye to my old style. ‘Also I’m going through the menopause and found that such long hair was making me very hot at night.’
So, three months ago, Wendy made the trip to her local hairdresser where her hair was put into pigtails and then chopped off, leaving her with a cropped style. ‘It was a real shock to look in the mirror and see myself looking so different — even today when I see my reflection in a shop window it takes a few moments to realise it’s me,’ she says. She then put the pigtails into a clear plastic bag and posted them to Bloomsbury Wigs, who assessed the hair and sent her a cheque in return. ‘There are just so many costs at the moment, from running a home to supporting four children, and every little bit helps,’ Wendy explains. ‘I thought I’d miss my hair, but I like my new style and my husband thinks it suits me better short.’ Not everyone sells their hair because they need the money themselves. There are those, like social worker Jane Denmark, 31, who have sacrificed their hair to raise money for charity. Jane, who lives in Edinburgh with her husband Peter, also 31, gave an alopecia charity what she earned from selling 15 inches of hair. ‘My sister-in-law Sarah suffers from alopecia,’ Jane explains. ‘She lost all her hair — eyebrows, eyelashes, body hair, everything — when she was 15 and had no hair until she was 19. ‘It grew back but she’s just started losing it again at the age of 35. She is very outgoing and writes a blog — sarahspatch — to help other sufferers. But losing her hair has knocked her confidence, so for someone who doesn’t have as much self-esteem, alopecia must be very distressing. ‘And at least I know that if I don’t like my hair when it’s cut, it will grow back.’ Jane says that four years ago she raised £700 in sponsorship for an HIV and Aids children’s charity by shaving her head. ‘At the time, I had absolutely no idea that I could have kept the hair and sold it to make even more money,’ she says. ‘But someone told me about hair harvesting afterwards so this time I looked it up on the internet and found that I could make anything between £30 and £300. ‘I got paid £100 for my hair, which I’m very pleased about, and I’ve been delighted with my new pixie-style cut. ‘My husband’s always preferred me with shorter hair. If I ever grow it out I’ll definitely do this again.’ Meanwhile Gill Metcalfe, a 53-year-old teaching assistant from Thirsk in North Yorkshire, was able to make money from her hair without even having a trim. After Gill’s mother Sheila died of Alzheimer’s disease, aged 76, last December, she and her sisters made an amazing discovery while clearing her house. Gill says: ‘My middle sister Janet, who is now 52, and I had really long hair as young girls. ‘Mum would brush our hair every night before bed. It was russet red and very thick. I suppose it looked nice, but Janet and I grew tired of it. Every Sunday afternoon we’d wash our hair and then have to sit and dry it for hours in front of the fire. It got in the way when we did P.E. ‘When we were 13 or 14, we finally persuaded Mum to let us have it cut. We’d pretty much forgotten all about it until my youngest sister, Julie, was sorting through Mum’s bedroom. ‘She found a paper bag containing two thick plaits of hair wrapped in tissue paper. They were immaculately clean. It turned out Mum had kept them safe for almost 40 years.’ Gill adds: ‘Seeing the plaits again was a lovely, comforting moment. It also helped us realise how much Mum had loved us. It seemed a waste to throw them out after all those years. ‘After Mum’s funeral, I sent them to a company in London. They offered us £24 for both sets of hair. We donated the money to a hospice in Pontefract which provided medical equipment for Mum. ‘Since then, Janet and I have often wondered where our hair has ended up. We’d like to think it was made into a wig for someone with alopecia or a person recovering from chemotherapy. We’re so glad it’s gone on to do some good.’ But while Gill was able to sell 40-year-old hair, women who want to sell theirs need to be careful how they lop off their mane. ‘We can’t accept loose hair or hair that’s been swept up off a salon floor because once it’s collected, the cuticles running along the shaft of the hair might not all be facing the correct way and if we made a wig out of them it would become matted very quickly,’ says Graham Wake. ‘You need to put the hair in one main ponytail or several pigtails and secure it tightly with a rubber band. Then the hair must be chopped above the rubber band and placed in a clean plastic bag before posting.’ So, in the current financial climate there may be many women who will regret cutting short the long hair they were so proud of as young girls — or some who have started rifling through bottom drawers for long-forgotten keepsakes.