How we used rag curlers for curling hair
Rag curlers were somewhat more comfortable in bed than metal curlers and pipe-cleaners. They were what my grandmother used overnight and were the only curlers ever inflicted on me as a child. I had long hair in plaits and every night my hair was re-plaited and the ends were put into rag curlers.
What rag curlers are
Rag curlers were strips of torn material about 6 inches (15 cm) long and 1½ inches (4cm) wide. They were known as 'rags' because they were never bought specially for the purpose but were cut from bits of worn out clothing or sheeting. There was no shortage of these because women did much more sewing and dressmaking than in later years.
How to make a rag curl
One rag was needed for each curl.
Each rag was folded over the end of a length of hair to grip it. The rag was then wound over and over on itself and the ends were tied in a knot.
As I had plaits, I only had to sleep with two rags, one at the end of each plait, and used this way they were not uncomfortable because the plaits could be arranged so that they were not lain on.
If the hair was dampened before winding the rag curl, the resulting curl stayed in place longer the next day. Otherwise it produced a rather loose curl.
Advantages and disadvantages of rag curler
Rag curlers had a number of advantages: They were free which was very important to ordinary families in bygone times and they produced a loose natural-looking curl.
The disadvantages were that they had to be in place for many hours to be effective and were therefore used overnight which meant that they were lumpy to lie on - not that this seemed to put people off. The disadvantage for younger women was that they didn't exactly look attractive in bed.
Rag curlers shown incorrectly in period films
I never knew anyone who had rag curlers put in all over their heads, although they are commonly shown this way in period films. In order to have any effect, they had to be in for many hours, effectively overnight and they would have been far too uncomfortable for sleeping. This is probably why hair styles were usually fairly straight with curls just at the end.
Another misrepresentation in period films is that the rags are always shown as white. In practice they were made from any spare bits of material.