Visible Women

Remembering Christina Jenkins, the woman who invented the weave

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we’re paying tribute to Christina Jenkins – the Fifties hair-styling innovator who gave millions of women freedom and choice for their hair. 

It’s no overstatement to say Christina Jenkins changed women’s lives forever when she invented the hair weave also known as the sew-in, a huge advancement in hair styling.

Born Christina Mae Thomas in Louisiana on 25 December 1920, the details of Jenkins’ early life are sketchy. We do know that, at a time when women studying anything to a higher level were few and far between, Jenkins graduated from Leland College near Baton Rouge in Louisiana with a science degree in 1943. The very same year she married a well-known jazz pianist with the excellent jazz pianist name of Herman ‘Duke’ Jenkins.

Jenkins next pops up in 1949 in Chicago, where she was working for a wig manufacturer. It is here she began developing a technique to make the company’s wigs sit more securely on the head.

This graduated into examining different methods of sewing switches of hair into women’s existing natural hair – at the time, women were pinning weaves to their hair with grips and pins, which looked unnatural and bulky and were prone to slipping. Jenkins’ innovative new process involved three cords and a device called a weaving frame, which created a natural weft on which to attach the commercial hair and transform natural hair. Her invention was a game-changer in terms of self-expression.

The late Ohio US Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones commended Jenkins for her invention

Why was she a trailblazer?

Jenkins’ pioneering hair technique gave women, especially African-American women, the freedom to choose from a multitude of hairstyles. Happily, she formalised her invention for posterity – Jenkins next appears in the records on 4 May 1951, filing patent number 2,621,663 for the ‘Permanently attaching commercial hair to live hair’ technique she called, according to the registration documents, the ‘Hair-Weeve’.

The patent describes her method as ‘interweaving strands of live hair and strands of commercial hair, with cord-like material to permanently join the strands thereto…’ Jenkins was granted the patent in 1952, though litigation saw it challenged and overturned in 1965.

Patent in hand, Jenkins and her husband moved to Ohio where Christina began to teach her Hair-Weeve technique to other cosmetologists and stylists, travelling across Europe teaching her innovative method. She opened her very own Christina’s HairWeeve Penthouse Salon in Cleveland, which she ran until 1993.

When Christina Jenkins died at the age of 82 in 2003, the late Ohio US Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones commended Jenkins for her invention, calling her “a pioneer in the field of cosmetology” and her invention of the hair weave a “revolutionary contribution” that has “helped to boost the self-esteem of men and women across the world”.

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Illustration: Bijou Karman bijoukarman.com. Image: Getty Images