Factory Tour!

Last Monday, I finally got a chance to see the illustrious hair processing factory! Since I have been in India and conducting my research, the closest I’ve come to Indian hair has been looking and touching the finished products in the export department’s showcase.  While I admit, a lot of the research I have been doing as of late has involved quite a bit of internet searches on Indian beliefs, customs, and culture, as well as natural hair care products, I have been dying to go and see the “real thing”. I can’t lie and say I haven’t enjoyed sitting in the air conditioning all day while someone brings me water and tea, but I have been growing bored with my “desk job” and was ready to do some real hands on learning. Finally I got my chance.

When Monday finally got here, I was a bit skeptical about whether or not I was going to be able to actually do the factory tour. The last time I was supposed to go out and do field research at Tiruthani temple, I was told at the last minute (literally 10 minutes before we were supposed to leave) that I was going to be able to go since they were taking a pick up truck to collect the hair from the temple and it would not be appropriate for a woman to be riding with 2 men in a truck like that. So this time I didn’t get my hopes up as high as before, however Monday was indeed spectacular.

I arrived at the office super early (7:15am) since we were scheduled to leave by 7:30 to begin the hour and a half drive to Ambatu to visit the factory. Seeing that I was sleepy when I arrived, Abdul, the nice security man who occasionally haggles down the autorickshaw drivers for me, went and got me a cup of Indian filter coffee- which everyone should have the chance to try at least once in their lives, to sip as I waited for the driver and Sri Mathi (one of my factory tour guides) to get to the office so we could begin our drive. At 7:45 we hit the road, and on the way picked up several other people, all executives that work at the factory. By 9am, we arrived. I signed into the guest book, was taken to the administration office to get briefed on the companies quality standards, and had to answer for the millionth time, what I am doing here in India, why am I researching hair, and what do I intend to do with the information I gain. I think that each time my “elevator speech” has improved and I can now recite the fellowships requirements, my research goals, the countries I’ll be traveling to, and plans for this year all in 3 minutes (1 minute if I speed talk my way through it)! After my interrogation, I was brought some tea, and showed the quality control book which details all of the quality control procedures the company undergoes to make sure that all of the hair products they ship out are 100% amazing. After all the bureaucratic procedures, which lasted about 30 min, I began my factory tour!  I was so excited that I finally got to see the hair going through the entire process from raw and unprocessed to finished product! Let me say, this trip was by far one of the highlights of my time here in India researching here at Raj Impex.

Before I begin my descriptions of the hair processing process, I must add a small disclaimer. Although Raj Hair deals and processes both Remi and Non-Remi hair, the processes I describe in this post only applied to Remi hair. Of course waste hair is generated in each section of Remi hair processing, however the basic processes that are described only apply to Remi hair. That being said, stage one for hair processing begins on the sorting floor, and that’s where I began my tour.

Hair is first brought here to be needled and fully detangled. (If you look closely, you’ll see what appears to be an ice pick, which is really just a giant needle that is used in the first step of detangling each hair bundle)

Needling the hair to detangle the top section of the hair bundle. His is the first step in the process towards the creation of a beautiful hair piece.

After the hair is detangled, it is tied around the top half with waste hair (non-remy hair) that serves as a natural type of hair tie. The waste hair is used to keep the hair bundles which have gone through the first detangling together since this hair tightens around the hair bundles when it is washed, and loosens around the hair bundles as it dries. As well, once the non-remy hair ties are taken off, they go to the non-remy hair processing area. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle; definitely the first 3 tenants of hair manufacturing. All hair in the factory is used in one way or another.

Waste hair hair tie

Here is what the piece of waste hair that was used as a hair tie for a hair bundle looks like once it has been washed with the bundle and then removed.

Once each hair bundle has been detangled and tethered using waste hair, it is sent up to the roof top to get washed using the companies top secret shampoo and conditioner formula. (If I told you the formula, I would have to kill you, jk!) But honestly, the formula is TOP SECRET!!! They won’t even tell employees! The hair goes through an initial soaking in soapy shampoo water, and then a few shampoo washings. Once it is clean, it is put in a machine that mimics the spin cycle of the washing machine and wicks off any extra water from the hair. Once this is completed, the hair gets laid out on the roof where it air dries for 2-5 days depending on the weather.

Freshly washed hair

Hair being laid out to dry.

Washing Dept. Managers

Posing with the Washing Dpt. Managers.

Next, the hair goes down to the 3rd floor where it is sent to the hackling and hand wefting department. Here the hair is detangled using these brush like devices that are quite sharp. I actually cut my finger on one of them, however, I made sure I was up to date on all of my shots before I left home so no tetanus for me! These giant brushes take all of the short hair out of each bundle, detangle both the tops and the bottoms of the hair, and smooth out the hair for easy processing on the wefting side of the room. The women in this section work so hard, and on average can hackle about 7-10kg of hair a day. Once the hair is hackled, each bundle is either tied at the top with dark brown, light brown or white colored thread that denotes the bundles color and then sent to the shipping floor, or sent to the value added department, where in my opinion, all the magic happens.

The “Non-Professional” attempting to hackle the hair.

The professionals hackling the hair.

Having just witnessed the detangling of literally tons of hair, next I went to the value added department. During this portion of the tour I was not allowed to take any pictures or video of what I saw 😦 but remember I told you all that the hair business is a very tight lipped and cut throat industry. God forbid someone else mimic their value added merchandise practices! In this department however, hair is shaped, sewn, dyed, and manipulated into fabulous creations. Remi hair is taken and machine sewn into single and double wefts or hand wefted for a super fine or “hollywood” weft. Glue, and keratin tips are added to the tops of the hair, and color bleaching takes place here.Hair colors range from Natural Blonde to Bouncy Brunette hues o all the hair undergoing this process. As well, different curl textures are produced using the steam boil curl method. (For more info about the different value added products, please refer to the entry “it’s all just hair, right?”). It was fascinating to see these women, whose hands move so steadily and quickly guiding the hair through sewing machines creating the machine wefts, and seeing them create the Glue U-Tips and V-Tips. Also, my favorite part was seeing how they made hair textures similar to mine all with the use of steel rods! I was mesmerized the curl texture blends, and softness of each strand.

Once the hair has gone through its value added processing, it is sent back upstairs to the roof  for it’s final conditioner wash. Don’t worry, I didn’t trek back up to the roof to interview and snap pictures of the washing department again! The final conditioner wash is the reason why hair is so silky smooth when it comes out of the package. The specially designed formula gives the hair an extra glow, moisturizes and softens the hair to the point where you feel as though this hair was processed by GOd himself. All of the hair goes through this last wasing, and once it is conditioner washed, it is hung up to dry for a few days, and then sent down to the shipment department.

Final dry for conditioner washed hair. Oh how soft it felt!

Hair that has been sorted by length, color, and texture, now awaiting shipment to some country around the world.

Boxed hair ready for shipment. This wall of hair doesn’t even show the full extent of the hair that is ready for shipment!

The shipment department does the final check on everything that is shipped out, sorts and tracks orders, and even packages the hair in particular packaging, depending on what the client has asked for. The hair goes through its final quality check by the export/ shipment department, then it’s boxed up, and shipped out to its destinations all over the world. I know this seems like a pretty simple process, but because of the high volume, even simple processes can become complicated, especially with 445 people working at this one factory. Also, the streamlined process I just described only accounts for the process that remy hair undergoes, as I mentioned earlier. Waste hair comes at all the stages of hair preparation. The Ambatu factory tries to minimize the amount of waste hair, and only has about 17-20% of Non-Remi (Semi-Finished) hair waste. This hair is then only sold in bulk, at bulk weight prices. Non-Remi hair can also be turned into wigs, weaves, ponytails, toupes, doll hair, and the lining to some coats! However this is not done by Raj Hair. Hair that is 5 inches or less is shipped in bulk to different companies who convert this hair into the amino acid L-Cystine, which is used in baked goods and breads to add additional protein to these food items. Now finding hair in your food has a whole new meaning!

Burlap sacks filled to the brim with waste hair collected from each floor during hair processing. This little corner represents just a fraction of all the non-remy waste hair that is stored here.

Some of my favorite moments of the tour however were in noticing all the women’s (and men’s) fascination with my hair. Now I know in the last entry I wrote about some of my own personal hair struggles, however, when I went and visited the factory, all of the women wanted to touch my hair! In each different department that I visited, the women working there would ask their supervisors if they could come and touch it. Normally I am opposed to letting people caress my curls, however, the genuine level of interest both the women and men had in my hair had me saying yes to hundreds of people feeling up my kinky curls, and springing individual strands like coils in a mattress frame. It was so cute to see groups of 20-30 women get up from their posts, and slyly touch my hair then giggle to a friend and run back to their seats. Women old enough to be my grandmother wanted to touch my twists. They asked me how I did it, how long did it take, had I used their steam boil curly hair (since it truly did look jut as curly as some of the steam boil curly hair), and why did I choose to wear my hair this way. Even the men were fascinated. I conduced a few tutorials of how I did my hair by taking out one of the twists and redoing it in front of them (they were super fascinated by that demonstration!) Some of the women even asked me to do their hair like mine, however I told them their hair wasn’t curly enough for this style to stay on their heads! When I left that day, I felt really self assured over how I wear my hair, despite the millions of strange looks I get every day I leave the house.

Even a woman old enough to be my Grandmother was fascinated by the texture of my curls!

Other observations that I had after I left the factory were the gendered division of jobs between both the men and women. The vast majority of women worked detangling the hair or in the shipment and value added departments, whereas the vast majority of men worked in the washing department. When I asked one of my guides why this was, he pointed out to me,”women prefer their jobs inside sorting, and men prefer heavy duty jobs like washing, mixing chemicals for shampoos and conditioners, etc…” I thought it was fascinating that these divisions existed, and that gendered jobs are prevalent in the public workforce. However even though these jobs are gendered, it still somehow seems to work for those at the factory. I didn’t notice any women or men complaining about not being able to do the other sex’s job simply because they were either male or female.

At the end of the day, I was so excited that I had finally gotten out of the office to research for my project. Now, my next stop are the temples! Hello hair tonsuring!

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