Ms. Gautier’s ‘Hair Mats’ Hit Production Snag; Donated Manes Languish in the Dining Room

SAN FRANCISCO — The recession has left Lisa Gautier with an abundance of hair — 18,000 pounds, to be exact.

She didn’t grow it herself. Mrs. Gautier runs Matter of Trust, a San Francisco nonprofit that recycles human hair scraps into small mats that can be used to clean up oil spills. Human hair is naturally cut out for the job because the strands have lots of nooks and crannies that make it easy for oil to cling to.

Lisa Gautier
But since late last year, the recession has shuttered the textile makers that produced Mrs. Gautier’s hair mats and the warehouse that stored them. At the same time, thousands of beauty salons world-wide that donate hair continue to send her almost a dozen packages of the stuff a week.

On a recent day at her three-story home in San Francisco, the 42-year-old sifted through a mound of envelopes — each filled with hair snippets — on her dining-room table. “This one is from London,” says Mrs. Gautier, holding up a large brown envelope before turning to a fat white package filled with dreadlocked hair. “It’s kind of overwhelming, but I wouldn’t say it’s unwanted.”

Mrs. Gautier, who founded Matter of Trust in 1998, began collecting donated hair in 2000 after she saw news reports about how the Galapagos Islands were having trouble cleaning up an oil spill. She wondered why the islands weren’t using hair mats — invented in the early 1990s by Alabama hairstylist Phil McCrory — especially since they were eco-friendly.

Lisa Gautier opens a bag of hair that will one day be processed into a mat like the one in front of her. Meanwhile, tresses pile up in the garage. 
So Mrs. Gautier, a mother of three whose husband is an executive at Apple Inc., decided to make her own hair mats. With Mr. McCrory’s assistance, she created a network of salons to donate hair. Every few months after accumulating enough hair, Mrs. Gautier sent the locks to textile manufacturers such as Chamlian Enterprises Inc. in Fresno. The factories use a so-called needle-punch method. Machines pounds the hair with fast-moving needles that tangle up the locks to create a fiber with the look and feel of felt.

Hair is good at soaking up oil because, up close, the strands are shaped like a palm tree with scalelike cuticles. Drops of oil naturally cling inside those cuticles, says Blair Blacker, chief executive of the World Response Group. A pound of hair can pick up one quart of oil in a minute, and it can be wrung out and reused up to 100 times, Mrs. Gautier says.
In November 2007, a Korean tanker crashed into the San Francisco Bay Bridge and spilled more than 53,000 pounds of oil. Mrs. Gautier handed her mats out to volunteers, who used them to clean up the spill.

“There’s nothing more effective” than a hair mat, says Byron Cleary, a San Francisco surfer and engineer who helped lead the 2007 cleanup efforts. “There would be a dribble of oil right there on the tide line, and you set the mat down, pull it up, and the oil is gone.”

The San Francisco oil cleanup put Mrs. Gautier’s mats in the spotlight. Soon, the number of hair donors jumped to 34,000 from 7,000. She began getting 5,000 pounds of hair each month.

Then the recession hit, putting a crimp in Mrs. Gautier’s program. Last year, she noticed that textile manufacturers that make felt mats, including Chamlian Enterprises, were closing. By October, she couldn’t find a manufacturer that could inexpensively make the mats, which cost between $1 and $4 apiece to produce. Her only option was to ship hair overseas, which she was reluctant to do because she says she wanted to keep jobs in the U.S.

Other U.S. factories were unavailable. “I thought it was a unique project, but we’re oversold” and running at full capacity on other work, says Diane Bighead, sales manager at Vertical Fiber Technologies Inc. in Montebello, Calif. Ms. Bighead turned down Mrs. Gautier when Matter of Trust approached her about taking the hair late last year.

Mrs. Gautier decided to hang on to the manes. By this April, boxes of donated hair had piled up to the rafters at a carpet-recycling warehouse in San Francisco where she stored the strands.

Mrs. Gautier’s bounty comes as others in the hair industry struggle for locks. Wig makers — one of the primary buyers of human hair — say they face a shortage of the long, nondyed strands they use for wigs because of political instability and changing hairstyles in places like Eastern Europe that supply hair. Meanwhile, the short scraps Mrs. Gautier collects normally get sent to landfills.

“It’s been a dogfight out there for hair,” says William Collier, who owns wig consultancy William Collier Design Inc. in Seattle. “I’m sure any manufacturer in this industry would love to have more than what they’re getting.”

Recession claimed the warehouse in May. Ellen Raynor, who owns SF Carpet Recycling where the hair was housed, says her business dried up as demand for carpet recycling plummeted. As a temporary solution, Mrs. Gautier rented three semitrucks to store hair, parking them in a local lot with other semis.

In June, Mrs. Gautier told the hair salons in her network to hang on to their hair for a while. There’s at least 100,000 pounds waiting to be shipped, she says.

Not all the salons got the memo. Mrs. Gautier still gets hair sent to her house daily. So does Ms. Raynor of the carpet-recycling business, who forwarded her former business mail to her personal address. “Sometimes it’s 10 to 12 boxes per day,” says Ms. Raynor, adding that she can barely get in her door because there are so many packages.

While she mulls other options for making the mats, she’s still dealing with the tress pileup. Her husband, Patrice Gautier, says he’s just relieved there’s not more hair at home. “I thank the skies that 18,000 pounds of hair will not fit in our garage,” he says.

Write to Ryan Knutson at