How Dreadlocks Work

By: Matt Sailor

Many people achieve dreadlocks with the help of a professional "loctician", or through years of careful styling and maintenance.
Many people achieve dreadlocks with the help of a professional "loctician", or through years of careful styling and maintenance.
Tanya Constantine/Getty Images

If you're like most people, you put your hair through some sort of regimen every day. You wash and condition it, then brush and dry it, maybe even put in some product, and tie it up in a clip or band. But what would happen to your hair if you just left it alone? What are we really doing to our hair when we put it through our daily grooming rituals?

If left to its own devices, human hair tends to form knots, tangles and eventually large matted sections. Anyone who's tried to run a brush through a child's hair that hasn't been combed for a few days can tell you how tangled it will become in just a short amount of time. And if you let that child's hair keep growing without ever brushing or combing it -- even if you washed it occasionally -- chances are it would start to resemble one of the world's most misunderstood hairstyles: dreadlocks.


But don't let the reputation that's often associated with dreadlocks fool you. While they certainly can be caused by sheer hair neglect, that doesn't mean they're necessarily dirtier or messier than other hairstyles. Most people who wear dreadlocks, in fact, achieve the look through careful styling and maintenance, by building the locks strand by strand on their own, or with the help of a professional "loctician."

While dreadlocks became popular in the Western world through the rise of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica in the 1960s, and the spread of both the philosophy and the hairstyle through reggae musicians like Bob Marley, intentionally wearing hair in long matted strands actually dates back much earlier in human history. To find out how thin strands of hair can permanently join up into thick, matted locks, continue to the next page.


Anatomy of a Dreadlock

To understand how a head full hair develops in to a head full dreads, you first need to understand what a single lock looks like at its basic level. At the root of the dreadlock phenomenon is the idea that when hair is left alone, over time it will tangle and become matted in sections. So, essentially dreadlocks are individual masses of knots that the wearer encourages to continue growing into a tangled coil or spiral that eventually resembles an irregular piece of rope or yarn. Up close, a dreadlock looks similar to steel wool -- a tangled mass of fibers woven together so thoroughly that they form one solid mass.

Picture a very tightly knit rug. If you look closely, what you see is hundreds of filaments of thread woven together. If you followed one single thread, you would see that it moves in and out from between the other threads over and over. Since each thread is locked into place by the pattern of the knitting, the rug itself looks more like a single mass of fabric than a collection of many threads.


A dreadlock is very similar, with the exception that the individual "threads" of hair are not woven together in any set pattern. They are random. In fact, some hairstylists actually offer immediate, temporary dreadlocks they create by knotting the hair quickly with a crochet hook.

Once a dreadlock is formed and the individual locks grow, new hair will continue to grow in that tangled pattern. Eventually, the hair will wind itself around the original knots until it forms a spiral pattern. Think of a ringlet of hair that is compressed until the curls are tightly packed against each other. As the hair continues to grow in that spiral pattern, the hair becomes more and more interwoven until the lock is permanent.

Read on to find out how people form their hair into dreadlocks intentionally, without having to wait for the hair to tangle by itself.


Dreadlocks in Different Types of Hair

Certain types of hair are more conducive to forming in to dreadlocks, but nearly any type can be twisted and manipulated into the knotted locks.
Certain types of hair are more conducive to forming in to dreadlocks, but nearly any type can be twisted and manipulated into the knotted locks.
Digital Vision/ThinkStock

Even though you can grow dreads if you just leave your hair alone to tangle and knot, there are disadvantages to the "neglect method." Simply allowing hair to form into locks by itself can take a long time, and during that formation period, there could be six to 12 months of unattractive in-between stages that might not be acceptable in social and professional situations. Plus, dreadlocks grown through neglect usually lack uniformity, and if you don't have naturally kinky or curly hair, the locks can sometimes form too loosely or unevenly, or too far down from the scalp. So, most people use specific methods to speed the natural matting process along.

Tangles, knots and matted locks will eventually form in all textures of hair if it isn't styled or combed in any way. But certain textures of hair are more conducive to forming the neat, uniform locks that we're used to seeing on reggae album covers. This makes sense if we remember that locks are formed out of spirals of tangled hair. Curly or kinky hair already grows in spirals, so it's easier to get it to form in to a tightly wound dreadlock than it is with straight hair. Think of it like a coiled telephone cord becoming so easily tangled, while a straight laptop cord typically stays tangle free.


People with African ancestry who have tight, kinky hair, or people of any race whose hair is curly and falls into ringlets, have an easier time forming dreads. For those who have straight hair, it takes more time and effort to encourage hair to grow in an unnatural spiral pattern. Forming dreads is all about accelerating the hair's natural tendency to form tangles and twists, and very curly or kinky hair does this almost automatically. In order to facilitate the locking process, you want the hair to be forced to stay as close together as possible within each individual lock.

Next, we'll talk about how to turn hair of any texture into dreadlocks.


How to Start Dreadlocks

Developing dreadlocks requires the same basic step-by-step process, whether you're paying a professional stylist, or working on your own hair at home. The point of variation comes when it's time to twist the locks into shape. Depending on the preferences of your stylist and the texture of your hair, you can twist it up in a number of different ways. Regardless, this simple step-by-step procedure will lay the foundation for permanent dreadlocks:

  • Step one: Wash your hair and dry it thoroughly before beginning the process.
  • Step two: Divide the hair into sections. You can do this either to the entire head first and hold the sections with bands or clips, or finish each section one at a time.
  • Step three: Pay attention to the size of your sections. When you pull them tight, the roots of the hair you're holding should be outlined by a perfect square of exposed scalp. The larger your squares, the thicker the final locks will be.
  • Step four: Add a small amount of product to each individual strand before you work with it. (Experts differ widely and passionately about what to use. Some use creams, waxes or aloe to prevent the hair from drying out. Wax is especially helpful for straight hair. Purists just use water.)
  • Step five: Twist each lock of hair tightly in a clockwise direction and clip it at the end. (See sidebar.) If you have straight hair, or curly hair that is very long, you will have to backcomb the hair first. To backcomb, pull each section of hair straight. While holding the tip, use a fine-toothed metal comb and run it through the hair from the tip to the root. Repeat to the same section of hair until the individual strands are drawn toward the root and tangled together. You want to continue this process until the entire length of hair has formed those tangles, and then repeat with each strand.
  • Step six: Completely dry the locks with an electric hair dryer. If you used wax, this step will also melt the wax into each lock.

But the process isn't over. Maintaining these proto-dreadlocks, and caring for them over the years, also requires several important steps.


The Stages of Dreadlock Development

At first, dreadlocks should be washed sparingly. Experts differ somewhat about how often to wash, but about once a week initially is the general consensus. Consider covering your entire head with a nylon stocking at this stage, and letting the soap run through to prevent damage to the fragile locks.

If you have kinky hair, the texture of your hair works to your advantage at this stage. If locks start to come undone, they can be retwisted according to the twisting method you used to start them. Every few days, you can use a technique called palm rolling to encourage the hair to grow into the spiral pattern of dreadlocks. Using your flattened palms, take each lock and roll it in a clockwise direction.


Over the first few months, the curls and twists will begin to form knots close to the roots. This is sometimes called the budding stage, and is the first step to your hair forming secure locks. How long this takes will vary depending on your hair texture and level of maintenance. Hair may begin to form dreadlocks as early as two months, but sometimes not until after six months to a year.

At this point, your dreadlocks will be in the locking stage. You'll still want to palm roll your dreads to encourage the right kind of growth, but not as often, and you won't have to worry about the dreads coming out. At the root, the hair growing into the dreads will look loose for a few inches, but that looseness is necessary for new hair to grow in the right pattern.

For straight hair, the same stages don't necessarily apply, because you've artificially created the knots that form during the budding stage. Instead, it's important to simply keep the new dreads in the proper shape by reapplying a layer of wax a few times a week (if you're using wax). Palm roll the dreadlocks regularly to encourage hair to grow in the right pattern from the root and maintain a cylindrical shape.

For all types of hair, the eventual goal is a more mature stage, which occurs after two years or more. At this point, the pattern of hair growth is more or less permanent, and hair that has fallen out of your scalp remains inside the dread, adding length beyond what your individual hair could reach.


Dreadlock Hair Care

Now that we've talked about how to form locks, let's talk about some grooming and hair care tips for all locks, regardless of hair type:

  • Washing: Once they're mature, you can wash locks as often as you want. Some people wait a week; some do it every other day. When you do wash, massage the scalp very carefully, and just let the soapy water run through the dreads.
  • Drying: To prevent mildewing and buildup of product, dry the dreads thoroughly every time you wash them. You can squeeze them to wring out excess water, and then use a blow dryer.
  • Hair care: Everyone with dreadlocks seems to have their own opinion on what products and treatments are best for mature dreads. Some use hot oil treatments to prevent the hair from drying out, while others use gels or salt water "accelerators" to tighten individual locks as they form. Many advocate using only natural and/or clarifying shampoos. What you want to use depends on how natural you want to be. In general, you want to avoid shampoos that leave a lot of residue, since this can lubricate the hairs and cause them to come lose from the locks.
  • Sleeping: Wear a bandanna, stocking or loose pillowcase over the locks if you don't want them becoming crushed as you toss and turn.
  • Exercising: Wear a bandanna or hat both to contain the locks and keep them from becoming too sweaty.
  • Repair: Dreads can begin to fuse together if you don't roll them individually on a regular basis. Unless you want the fused dreads popular among some Rastafarians, you'll want to separate any newly combined locks by pulling them apart and ripping the hair that has connected.
  • Tension: If you twist your locks too tight during the first few months, without leaving enough room at the roots, they can put strain on the scalp, and sometimes break off. Avoid applying too much tension at the root. You need some loose hair at the root to allow your hair to continue growing.
  • Removal: If you want to get rid of dreadlocks without cutting them, there are heavy duty conditioners on the market that can help you loosen the locks so you can individually pick out the tangles. Your hair will be undamaged afterward, but removal without cutting takes a lot of work.


Dreadlocks in History

Because hair naturally becomes matted when it isn't styled or combed, prehistoric humans must have worn their hair in a style similar to dreadlocks, until they invented combs and other utensils. Dreadlocks have been discovered on mummies in Peru, dating back to sometime between A.D. 200 and A.D. 800, and Aztec priests dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries traditionally wore their hair in matted locks.

Often, dreadlocks become a symbol of religious devotion, an ascetic's vow not to alter God's creation through grooming. In Ethiopia, priests in Christian Coptic churches have worn dreadlocks for hundreds of years. In India, the "sadhu" sect of Hinduism wears matted locks in tribute to the long-haired deity Shiva. "Rasta-Buddhists" in Japan, members of the black Muslim Baye Fall sect of Senegal, Maori in New Zealand, and tribes in Namibia and Angola all wear dreadlocks [source: Mastalia].


But by far, the most recognizable group to wear dreadlocks is Jamaica's Rastafarians. The Rastafari movement began in the 1930s in Jamaica, as a small sect that believed that Haile Selassie I, who became the emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, was the Messiah.

Rastas see dreadlocks as a way to keep themselves in a pure state of nature as God intended. They use the Biblical story of Samson, and his vow never to cut his hair, as justification. Rastas tend to wear freeform locks, allowing them to grow in random lengths, and even combine together to form large matted clumps. They also refuse to wash their dreads, except with pure water.

The beliefs of Rastafari are also heavily rooted in the idea of Africa as a paradise, and the West as a place of captivity. So, the idea of freeing the hair from European ideals of beauty is a way of celebrating that ethnic pride. Rastas began wearing dreadlocks throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, but there are competing historical explanations for their adoption of the hairstyle and its name. The Rastas may have been inspired by a Kenyan tribe called the Mau Mau who wore matted locks and rebelled against the British in the 1950s, or by poverty stricken Jamaican homeless whose hair grew matted on its own. The term "dread" may have come from the reaction of British rebels to the Mau Mau fighters, or from Jamaican Rastas who imagined themselves as instilling fear in the hearts of non-believers.

In the early days of the movement, Rastas faced persecution and imprisonment in Jamaica. But their religion and hair style has become more widely accepted, largely thanks to the success of the most famous dreadlock wearer of them all: Bob Marley [source: Barrett, Price, Mastalia].


Dreadlocks Today

As dreadlocks and Rastafari spread to the United States and abroad through the worldwide success of Bob Marley and the Wailers in the late 1970s, the hairstyle and religion were often met with fear and hostility in mainstream culture. The religion's ties to black nationalist ideology, marijuana smoking as a central tenet and misconceptions about dreadlocks as an unclean hairstyle contributed to the controversy.

In popular culture, films like "Marked for Death" and "Predator 2" (both released in 1990) depicted dreadlocked Rastafarian gangs that menaced American cities and children by selling drugs and engaging in violent pagan rituals. However, over time, dreadlocks have become more mainstream, thanks in part to figures like Marley, singer Lenny Kravitz and baseball player Manny Ramirez, who showed that dreadlocks can have a kinder, gentler side.


Today, there are hair salons in many neighborhoods in the United States, Canada, Japan, the U.K., and other countries that will assist in dreading your hair. The hairstyle has become popular not just with Jamaicans and people who sympathize with the Rastafari cause, but with people of all races and backgrounds.

However, dreadlocks can still cause an uproar in some circles, and there are many people who still see the style as being dirty or unkempt, or who associate it with radicalism. Employers generally have the right to fire people with dreadlocks, or force them to either cut them or lose their jobs. This is more common in the service industry, or conservative professions. If you are a Rasta or otherwise wearing dreadlocks as a form of religious devotion, you have a chance of winning a discrimination suit. But those wearing dreads as a style choice have less legal footing to stand on: Employers have the right to enforce grooming standards that encourage cleanliness, provided they don't discriminate against a particular race or religious group [source: Powell Trachtman].

Perhaps, like many hairstyles, dreadlocks will come to be seen as less radical and unconventional as time passes, and new hairstyles take their place on the cutting edge. After all, cornrows and afros were once seen as provocative hairstyles, and the shaggy haircuts of The Beatles were even seen as controversial.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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