Daniele Sullivan has made a career out of creating wigs, but even she confesses that up close she can’t tell a lace front creation from a real head of hair.
So that’s what she teaches her classes.
Sullivan, an Orthodox Parisian who moved to Israel two years ago with her husband and their 10 children (number 11 is on the way), is the entrepreneurial mind behind the Custom Sheitel Wig-making Course, a training seminar designed to teach Jewish women how to build wigs — one hair at a time.
“Every woman loves hair,” Sullivan said from her home in Kiryat Arba, in the West Bank. “It’s our sexuality. We wouldn’t have to cover it if it wasn’t so beautiful,” she said, referring to the Orthodox precept that married women must hide their locks from all men except their husbands.
The class, a three-day, 16-hour extravaganza of shaytl creation, teaches would-be shaytl-makhers every aspect of wig-making, from how to hold the hair to how to troubleshoot should the wig begin to fall apart.
Sullivan holds classes at a number of locales in the United States, including New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Seattle, as well as in Jerusalem. For those who cannot make it to any of the scheduled lessons, Sullivan offers private classes anywhere in the world. But more often than not, students come to her. “I’m world renowned,” she said with a laugh, as she prepared for a personal tutorial with a South African woman looking to learn the art of shaytl production. “I have people flying from one country to another just for me. To me, that makes me world renowned.”
Sullivan stumbled onto wig-making 11 years ago, when she answered an ad that sought women to “ventilate” wigs. “I thought it meant blow-drying,” she said, amused. In fact, ventilating is a painstaking process that involves implanting a few hairs at a time into a wig cap, using a special needle. Sullivan was a fast learner, but her employer was careful to teach her only the minimum skills necessary to get the job done. She made Sullivan sign a contract promising that she wouldn’t work at wig-making for herself or anyone else for an eight-year period — or she would risk a hefty $100,000 fine.
But the secrecy shrouding the shaytl business did little to quell Sullivan’s burgeoning interest in the trade. “I was inspired by [my boss]. She had a bunch of kids and could work from home,” she said. Plus, “in many religious houses, there aren’t really a lot of job options for women. But this service is necessary in every Jewish community.”
Less than a decade ago, Sullivan’s house painter husband was the major breadwinner for the family. “Now, he doesn’t need to work, because I make enough money for all of us,” she said proudly. “There were days when my husband came home from painting all day and I repaired just three shaytl and made more money than him. I also cooked dinner and was there to greet the kids when they got home from school. I figured there had to be other women out there who would love to be able to do that.”
And she was right. Though Sullivan originally assumed that her class would appeal only to observant women looking to make some money or to keep their wigs looking pristine, she soon learned that hairdressers, stylists, cosmetologists and salon owners of every race, creed, color, sex and religion were drawn to her seminar. “No one teaches lace fronts the way I do,” she said, referring to a relatively new procedure in which wigs are created on lace foundations that are virtually invisible to the naked eye. Even master wig-makers have trouble telling them apart from real hair. Sullivan also makes sure to teach her students more traditional wig-making techniques.
In addition to holding the class, Sullivan sells a line of handmade “Renata” wigs, named after her ninth child, on her Web site, www.customsheitel.com. Her next class will be held in Brooklyn, from May 27 to May 29. “I offer my students the possibility of retaking the class if they’re not completely satisfied with the results,” she said. “But they never come back.”
Send comments or inquiries about the classes directly to Daniele Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 718-502-6560
Leah Hochbaum is a freelance writer living in New York.