What are Camel Hair Brushes?

With a name like camel-hair, you’d think the answer would answer itself – they’re clearly brushes made from the hair of a camel. If this was your first thought, you’d be wrong. There’s only one thing you know from the term ‘camel hair’, and that is that a camel wasn’t involved. Camel hair itself is wooly and soft, with no natural point or ‘snap’ to it. It would make for a terrible paintbrush (although I do hear it’s very good for dusting). So what on earth are these mysterious brushes made of?

If there’s no camel involved, why are they called camel-hair brushes?

You might have heard stories about the fabulous inventor, ‘Mr. Camel’ and his Camel Brush Co. Sadly this origin story is an urban legend – neither the person nor his company have ever existed (although we have loved telling this tale since 1922).

The real origin of the camel-hair brush lies in the Far East and is tied to the construction of the Great Wall of China.

It All Began with the Great Wall of China

In 250 BC, there was a rather brilliant Qin dynasty general named Meng Tian. Meng Tian was descended from a great line of military generals and architects, and he certainly lived up to the family legacy. In his life, he had a distinguished military career, repelling several Xiongnu invasions before finally capturing the Mongol homeland. Following his impressive victory, Meng Tian was entrusted with an ambitious project to create a line of fortifications that would protect China from future attacks. The walled defences would come to be known as the Great Wall of China.

This was a daunting task, even for a war hero. Many reports had to be written and sent back to the Imperial capital. Meng Tian did something rather extraordinary to make the bureaucracy a little easier; he began to strap camel and rabbit hair to a branch and, in doing so, he created the first ink brush pen for calligraphy.

Weirder than Camels

This is the origin of camel hair brushes.

Meng Tian’s easy-to-make prototype helped spread the art of calligraphy around China and, in the years since, they’ve been made with a lot of other interesting fibres. Brushes have been made with everything from fowl feather, deer hair and tiger pelt; and there was a legend that if you used the hair from a baby’s first haircut, your brush would guarantee you’d pass the imperial examinations.

Meng Tian’s cultural contributions are so significant that he had the rather surreal honour of being deified as a Taoist door god. To this day, if you visit a Taoist temple, you very probably will see a painting of Meng Tian standing opposite the Emperor’s Win Shi Huang’s son, Fusu.

So what are camel-hair brushes actually made from?

Most of the time, modern camel-hair brushes are made from squirrel hair. I say most of the time, because camel-hair brushes can also be made using goat hair, ox bristle or pony mane (the last is especially common in cheap school-grade brushes).

In some weird cases, they can be a blend of all these hairs. In others, they’re just made from Nylon. In the worst cases, it’s a mix of synthetic and natural hairs.

What I’m trying to say is that camel-hair brushes are the Frankenstein’s Monster of the brush world. You can never quite tell what you’re getting, or what’s been cobbled together to make it in the first place.

If you end up with a blended brush, it can pose a real problem. Not all hairs absorb water equally well and if your bristle is made from multiple different sources (especially if it’s natural-synthetic mix) you might find it’s performance is uneven at best.

If you do have the more common squirrel-masquerading-as-camel-hair brush, then great!

Squirrel hair definitely makes a useable watercolour brushes. It’s is absorbent and cheap and, although it doesn’t come to a natural point like Kolinsky and Sable, it does make for a great mop brush for washes and backgrounds. Having said that, squirrel hair also isn’t as springy and lacks ‘snap’ – so while it’s an A+ for absorbency and price, it’s a C- for control-ability and detail work. If you want to make fine lines, squirrel hair just isn’t going to be the right fit for you – and if you use heavy paint, its lack of resilience will mean that the brush will collapse under the weight of your paint.

In a Nutshell:

Camel-haired brushes have no affiliation with camels.

Which means, you really have no idea what you’re buying. It could be squirrel, pony mane, goat hair, ox bristle or nylon. The worst case scenario is a Frankenstein’s monster blend of one or more of the above.

If you do find your camel-haired brush is made of squirrel hair, then by all means go for it. If you’re on a budget, paint loose watercolours, and are not that keen on the little details, squirrel hair could be a perfect fit for you. However, if you are do think you might want to do any kind of precise work in watercolour, you might find other fibres are better suited for you.

… which begs the question, if squirrel hair can make for a decent and reputable brush in certain circumstances, why not brand your faux ‘camel-hair’ as a squirrel in the first place?!

So, next time you pick up a something proclaiming to be camel-hair, please think twice. It’s not what it says it is, and no one needs a brush in the midst of an identity crisis.

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