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A Sense of Dreads

Untangeling the mysteries of Rasta-style locks


Published March 31, 2004 at 5:00 a.m.

Thin. Thick. Short. Long. Neat. Messy. Dreadlocks of all styles never seem out of season in the Green Mountain State. This week Seven Days got the low-down on locks from Elisabeth Hart, "dread specialist" at Diversity Hair & Nails salon in Burlington.

The native Vermonter is 27, Caucasian and lock-less. But don't think this stylist isn't dread savvy. She got her first hair experience running a salon with her sister that specialized in fixing hair for weddings and proms. She left her business a year ago to do dreads at Diversity because she was fascinated by the coarse feel of the Rasta-inspired locks.

The hands-on training and trade secrets she picked up helped her make the transition from styling fancy up-dos to binding people's hair into tightly twisted bundles. Working on dreads for at least 20 hours a week, at $100-$500 a head, this quick learner's got the technique down to a science.

A recent afternoon finds her doing a rare repair job, combing out dreads that didn't "lock" properly. As she gently tugs at her client's unkempt, shoulder-length coiffure with a metal comb, clumps of dirty-blond hair fall to the floor. Against the blaring soundtrack of her son's Lion King video, she describes her customers, recalls her most, well, dreadful experiences and locks in on the details of doing a 'do.

SEVEN DAYS: Who are your clients?

ELIZABETH HART: I do dreads mostly on college-age Caucasian women. The African-American women who come in to get their dreads worked on are older. I've never done dreads on an African-American woman under 30. I also have some male customers and a few children who come in.

SD: Why do your clients want dreadlocks?

EH: A lot of them want something that's easier to manage; they don't want to deal with their hair. Others think they look really cool and different. The older African-American females who come in do it because they want to let their hair be as natural as possible.

SD: What is the ideal hair type for dreading?

EH: The drier and coarser the better. African-American hair is perfect. If it were left alone, it would dread naturally. For Caucasians, dreadlocks are completely unnatural. And the silkier and healthier their hair is, the harder it is to dread.

SD: What's your most common request? One big dread? Lots of little locks? Something in between?

EH: Most people ask for medium-sized dreads.

SD: How long does it usually take to dread shoulder-length hair?

EH: About four to six hours. It depends on what size dreads the person wants. The thicker the dreads, the less time it takes because you're using more hair.

SD: How long was your longest dread appointment?

EH: From eight in the morning -- we opened early -- until four the next morning. We only stopped for one hour to eat dinner.

SD: Is dreading hard on the hands?

EH: The constant hand motion is very strenuous. I'll probably get carpal tunnel syndrome.

SD: How do you prep someone's hair for dreads?

EH: If someone has oily hair, I wash it with a cleansing shampoo that is specifically for dreads. But I've used something as harsh as dish soap to strip hair that was really oily.

SD: What's the next step?

EH: For Caucasian hair, I dry it and use a really sturdy metal comb to backcomb the hair. I start at the nape of the neck and work my way up, taking small sections and combing it in the opposite direction.

SD: Why do you do this?

EH: When you comb hair in the opposite direction it becomes coarse and texturized. I don't usually have to do it for African-Americans because their hair is already coarse.

SD: Then what?

EH: For both African-Americans and Caucasians, I start twisting small sections of hair in the same direction.

SD: What's the final step?

EH: Rolling the dreads in my hands to get a nice round shape. For Caucasians, I coat the dreads with hard beeswax made by a company called Dread Head. For African-Americans, I finish the dreads with a lock-and-twist gel.

SD: How can people get creative with their dread 'dos?

EH: They can braid them or twist them. They can pin them up. I've seen people work beads into them or dangle little jewels from them. They can also clip in dread extensions, which you can dye different colors.

SD: Have you ever found anything strange or scary in your clients' locks?

EH: One time someone came in for dread maintenance and told me he had used peanut butter to bind his hair. Another time, I squeezed a client's dreadlock and brownish slime oozed out. And once, a stylist told me that a person came into his salon and wanted him to cut a dead mouse out of his dreadlocks.

SD: What can dread-heads do at home to keep their hair clean and critter-free?

EH: After people first get dreads, they shouldn't wash their hair or even get it wet for about six to nine weeks. After that, they should try to wash their hair as little as possible. I suggest a minimum of once a month and a maximum of once a week. They shouldn't use conditioner because it loosens the locks. To keep it smelling fresh they can spray their hair with lemon juice and they can keep the locks looking neat by separating and twisting them with a little wax. If you don't separate the locks, the hair grows into a huge clump.

SD: How often do you recommend people go to a salon to get them maintained?

EH: It depends on how well they care for their hair at home and how much they care about keeping them looking nice. I have one customer who has his own salon-style dryer at home that he sits under twice a day for a half-hour with lemon juice on his locks. He comes in every two weeks to have his locks washed, separated, twisted and waxed.

SD: Is it difficult to grow dreads long? Can the weight of long locks hurt your scalp? Do dreads ever break or fall off?

EH: Dreads take a very long time to grow. People with long dreads have usually had them most of their life. A lot of people who have had long and heavy dreads sometimes also have thinning hair or bald spots because of the way the hair is pulling on their scalp. If the dreadlocks get too long and are painful, a lot of times people will cut them and sell them as dread extensions. Dreads that aren't put in evenly can break off if they get too thin in a certain spot.

SD: Describe the biggest dread disaster you've ever dealt with.

EH: This past week when I had to comb out dreads that a girl tried putting in herself. They didn't lock and the hair ended up being in one huge clump. Luckily, I could salvage her hair and she decided that she wanted to start over again and get them put in the right way. It took eight hours just to comb out the old ones.

SD: Do you usually comb out people's dreads?

EH: No. That was the first time. It usually just isn't possible once the dreads have locked. They become permanent and the only way that a person to get rid of them is to shave his or her head.

SD: Name some dread-full myths and misconceptions.

EH: That they're dirty: The truth is that most people with dreads wash their hair way too much. That they're easy to take care of: It's probably more work to take care of your hair after getting dreads than before getting them. And that getting dreads is a quick process: People are surprised when I tell them their appointment will take most of the day.

SD: In Burlington, and in much of Vermont, it seems like you see a lot more people with dreads than in other parts of the country. Why do you think that is?

EH: There are places you go where you feel like you have to dress up and you would look so out of place if you didn't look like everyone else. Vermont is a really laid-back place where people can wear anything and have their own style.

SD: What is the best advice you can give to those looking to get locked?

EH: Take the time and money to get dreads done the right way from the beginning.