Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Locs of Love: My Experience With Dreadlocks


The demographic of my regular readership is entirely unloc’d as far as I know, and this is never going to be a hair blog. However, I have been experiencing how helpful it is to read the story of someone’s garden, birth stories, testimonies, etc. Stories answer questions you didn’t know you had, and since dreadlocks have been my hairstyle for 6 1/2 years at the time I write this, I thought my story might be helpful to someone else. I have never said anything before because I didn't feel experienced, but I think I count as experienced now!

How I fell in Love With Dreadlocks 
I have wanted locks since before I knew what they were. I have always had a penchant for elaborately braided hairstyles, and I have never thought my natural hair was "big enough." As a child I loved it when my aunt braided all of my hair into tiny braids, though it probably looked silly. Fast forward to adolescence: I had still never met anyone with dreads, but I had a dream one night that I got leukemia and lost my hair, and replaced it with a wig I made of felted wool locks, and I asked everyone I knew to choose a bead for me to sew into the ends, symbolizing their support and presence. In the dream I felt so loved. I still think it’s a good idea and hope I never need to use it! 

Over a few years of attending the Wool Festival at Taos, New Mexico as a vendor with my family, I saw quite a few denizens of Taos with dreadlocks. In particular there was a young mother and daughter there, and they both had locks. It was the cutest thing I had ever seen. Naturally I channelled all that desire for dreads into talking my younger brother into getting them. Sorry Joshua! He tested the waters for me, and determined on no uncertain terms that Clovis, NM in general and my father in particular were not ready for locks. I stuck with the bell I had braided into my hair for a few more years while admiring them from afar.
Less than 6 months after Daniel and I got married I was going through a very stressful time. I asked Daniel if he would mind if I got locks, and he gave me the thumbs up. He even helped put them in. When he agreed he had a vague idea that they were corn rows, and still he said yes. That’s love. 

To be honest, the actual initial process was fraught with horror and indecision. The fluffy sticky mess freaked me right out in the middle, but in the end I loved them. For me getting dreadlocks was a turning point emotionally. It was something I did for myself that was really me, and not someone else’s conception of me. It’s pretty crazy how many people in my church had negative opinions about my hair and would walk right up to inform me of it, but it didn’t get me down. It was just one more sign that it wasn't a great fit for us church-wise, and that's the only negative experience I have had with them. 

Sixteen months after we put my first set in I was certain I was a lifer. However, every dude I saw walking around had better locks than I had. That’s because the hair locks in better as it grows than it does by back combing. I new I needed to start over again with way shorter hair. I cut my long locks off short, and it took a month and a lot of conditioner to comb them out and start over. Meanwhile I started feeling weird. I was pregnant. Since I have straight hair, locks are not low maintenance for me. I wondered if I would be able to take care of my hair adequately with a new baby, but I plunged ahead anyway. This time my sister in law parted my hair for me, and I back combed it myself. They were 3-5” long at first, so they stuck straight out! I have almost always worn long hair, so short spiky hair was a major change for me on top of pregnancy feeling like getting a new body every two weeks. It was not a high point in my love for my locks. Only the fact that I knew I loved them long kept me away from the bottle of conditioner and comb! In my experience the first 8 months of dreads are the most labor intensive, so easier care happily coincided with new infant care. 6 1/2 years and 2 babies all told I can confirm I love my locks. *Edit 7/23/16 Nine and a half years and three babies later I still love my hair!*

The locks have quietly grown. The longest locks fell to my waist. My chiropractor said “Snip snip!” He thinks they are hurting me. They have been propping my head up and I had to ditch my pillow for a little pillow I fold up under my neck. They were getting heavy, jerking me around when I exercised and pulling if they weren't pulled back just right. I am sure everyone has different tolerances, but I guess I found mine, though I loved loved loved the length. These days I am running into issues the Caucasian product sites don’t mention: Lint, product buildup, dryness, and brittleness, so I need to take better care of them. I think that white-people dread information is really focused on the short term, like a gap-year hairstyle, and not dreads as a commitment. 
So anyway, I just cut off 6-8” and 5.7 oz. These pictures were my goodbye pictures. I can’t believe how much lighter they feel, and since that was most of the waxiest and lintiest portions, They feel altogether healthier. No picture yet though!  


The Nitty Gritty: How I care for my dreadlocks
To put my locs in I first stripped my hair of product with a handful of baking soda in my shampoo. 

Incidentally this works for removing product buildup in anyone's hair! 

Then parted my hair into 1-1 1/2” sections, used a rag curler to get texture (I have since learned that pipe cleaners work well too!), and then back combed each section when dry. After that I palm rolled with Knotty Boy Dread Wax. Knotty Boy has good videos and I like their products. For the first week I palm roll 1 hour per day. It feels like a full time job! I used to wash my hair every 2 weeks, give or take. Lately it’s been 3 weeks to a month between washings. It hasn’t smelled dirty or felt dirty, and the less I have to wash it the less my other upkeep is. Obviously if my locks were dirty or smelly I would wash more often because I want my husband to want to be with me! I use Knotty Boy bar shampoo when I use shampoo at all, and I really like it. It leaves no buildup. To keep my dreads nice and tight I grip the roots between the insides of my first 2 fingers (like a cigarette) and rub around and around in circles on my scalp to knot them up. Yes, my scalp is sensitive on those days! If I need help with strays I ball them up by rubbing between my finger and thumb, then pull them in with a small teeny teeny tiny crochet hook. Same goes for tips. My first set of tips were a lot better than my second because I was taking care of babies, not locks. I feel confident with that choice ; ) but I am hoping my third tips will be nice and tight, though unraveled ends have a feathery charm too. 
I palm roll and work on my roots once or twice between washings. I also do a hot oil treatment every month or two. I have used olive oil, coconut oil, and Monoi Miracle Oil from The Body Shop. I love the way it smells! *Edit 7/23/16 The Body Shop discontinued this scent. I now buy Amla oil from Indian/Pakistani grocers. It's very inexpensive and it works great!* I sometimes put 2 drops of essential oil in the oil treatment if there’s no other scent. 
I don’t sleep with a regular pillow at night because the locks are so big they boost my head up and give me a crick in the neck! A homemade pillow that’s pretty flat works to roll up under my neck to support my spine. 


Dreadlock FAQS
Q: How long have you had dreads? Someone asks me this almost every day. 
A: My current set is 4 years old. I have been a dreadhead for 6+ years. 

Q: Are they braids? Are they extensions?
A: There are products out there intended to look like dreadlocks temporarily, but my locks are very permanent, and they are formed as sections of my hair are knotted into themselves with no additions.  

Q: You are never supposed to wash your hair, right? 
A: There’s no excuse for poor hygiene, but the main reason people wash their hair every day is because the shampoo strips the sebum off the scalp, and the scalp manufactures more to make up for it. People who quit washing as much don’t have such oily scalps. With locks having an oily scalp doesn’t show, and washing in the shower can often beat down your roots, so you want to do it less. I rinse more often than I wash. Personally I find that washing my lock vs. in the tub is better, but I am a busy mom so I don’t always have time. As they get longer it becomes a huge and heavy hassle to dry the locks out once they get wet. Imagine wringing out a big, heavy, wet, wool sweater on your head and dripping down your back. 

Q: What about dandruff? No one has ever asked this to my face (hey, thanks for that), but I know you've gotta wonder.
A: Dandruff is truly embarrassing with locks because it doesn’t fall out! Same with a peeling sunburn or dry skin. Yikes! The best solution I have is taking 1 Tbs of coconut oil in my oatmeal every morning. I notice a huge difference in my scalp health.  

Q: Do you want to buy/sell drugs?
A: Nope. That assumption says more about the people who ask than it says about me. 

Q: Do you have lice? 
A: Ack! No! I did pick up bacteria from a hotel’s salt water pool that made my dreadlocks smell like a wet dog once. It only smelled when wet, but still. Ugh. I couldn’t get rid of it for 8 months and it was horrifying. The common cure is vinegar, and it might have worked, but I was terrified lest the vinegar weaken my hair at the strength and length of time I was going to need to use it. I tried all sorts of things. I did finally find a cure for wet dog smell in dreadlocks. I mixed up a concoction of olive oil as a carrier, castor oil which is cleansing, and tea tree oil which is a powerful antiseptic. I saturated each lock and tied it all up so tight there was no dead air space and my eyes were pulled tight. Then I wrapped my head in plastic wrap really tightly- did I mention it was all very tight? and kept it like that for 6 long hours. Then I washed and washed and washed it with Dawn dishwashing liquid and very hot water to remove the powerful oils. I wrung a lot of the wax I had ever used out of my hair, which was great, it felt lighter, softer, and more pliable. The oils and lack of oxygen shocked the bacteria, and the bubbles flushed them out. I finally got rid of the wet dog smell in my hair without weakening it, though I was itchy for weeks because castor oil bothers my skin. If I had lice I would try that first, but if it didn't I'd shave my head for sure. *Edit 7/23/16 This happened again last summer and the solution was to same. Not every salt water pool causes this reaction.*

Q: Speaking of shaving your head, that's what you have to do to get dreadlocks out, right?
A: Sure, that's one way. The other is to comb them, and it takes for-freaking-ever. It wouldn't take that long if they were newer, but let's just say if I have to get rid of them for any reason, next time I am using clippers.  


Thing I wish I had known before I got dreadlocks
Mistakes were kind of inevitable, but here is what I learned in the school of hard knock locks:

  • Never use an elastic hair tie on dreadlocks because they raise a sort of blister in the lock where they rub. I use fabric, ribbon, leather, wood, shell– anything but elastic. 
  • The nice “dread combs” are less durable than an inexpensive plastic Goody rat tail comb. 
  • The first 8 months or so are a lot of work! I call it "the hate period" although joy of having them may balance it out.
  • Don't be afraid of the scissors. On a really tough upkeep sometimes it's better to pick your battles and just trim some of the loose strands out. I do this less as my dreads are more established, but it was that or spend hours on it all the time at first.
  • A big cheap bottle of Dove conditioner is as effective for dread removal as the special kit conditioners. Just soak your hair in hot water, consider using a degreasing soap to remove the wax, and any old conditioner will help.
  • Baths work better for washing my locks than showers do because my roots get pounded straight in the shower. 
  • Wean off of wax ASAP. *Edit 7/23/16: By ASAP I mean use less after a year or so, not within a few weeks!* The places where I used a lot of wax are stiffer, and they collect dirt and dust. On my second set of locks I also used a dark colored wax which matched my hair color. The tips bleached light in the sun over time, and you can see the dark wax in there. Oops. Using a lot of wax is natural at first, but it can become a crutch, just using the wax to hold your strands together without knotting.
  • Wrap your dreadlocks in satin or spandex at night to fend off lint. African American hair care sections in stores carry a variety of wrap products. 
  • Salt water is lauded for helping locks lock, but the ocean waves will wreak havoc on your tips and roots. Use a scarf or bandanna if you are going into the heavy surf. 
  • People mostly stare or make assumptions about you if you are self-conscious, or if you are related to them. If you present yourself well, people often don’t think twice about your locks. 


Abigail James said...

I really (x2) like the post. There are so many questions and assumptions I did not know I had and I'm so glad you were so open and clear about the entire Dread lock experience.
You look beautiful with Dreads by the way!I'm glad you are continuing with them!
buki of James1542

lydia said...

Thank you Buki! I wouldn't even dream of getting rid of them. Now to try out your tips on the studious look with them! Hmm...

JK said...

I'm so glad you posted about your dreadlock experience. I did some research on them a while ago and thought to myself someday I need to ask you. Turns out I don't anymore because you've answered all my questions. I'm not sure I'd get them yet, but I'm open to the idea. I'm still trying to decide if I'm a short hair lifer.

Christina LaClair said...

I'm a new mom by one month and my hairgets ago great, thick, and unmanageable that I'm starting to fantasize about dreadlocks again. My hair seems to be going in that direction anyway, since I get few chances for showers and don't use shampoo often anyway.
I guess my question is would you have started your dreading journey in the throws of parenting a newborn our not?

lydia said...

Sorry I missed this @ChristinaLaClair!
Congratulations on becoming a mother!
You pose a good question. The answer is a matter of opinion, of course. Dreadlocks are a lot of work to start, and I don't think I would start them with a newborn because newborns are a mind boggling amount of work too! On the other hand, if you find yourself on the couch nursing the livelong day, and baby doesn't mind, why not do some upkeep? It totally depends on you and your baby I suppose. I actually have a lot of friends who dream of locs with little babies as a means of staking a claim on identity apart from parenthood. Best of luck!


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