vintage hair

Vintage hair setting: wet sets and heat sets

I set my hair a lot, and as my most popular blog post by far is about how to sleep in pin curls, I thought it was about time that I talked a bit about different types of sets. To stop this being a post of epic proportions, I’m going to break it into two parts – this post talks about wet sets and heat sets, and the next one will talk about using curlers and pin curls.

Disclaimer: I’m not a hairdresser, these are just things I’ve learned over the past few years of setting my own hair. I’m still learning, and none of the below should be seen as expert advice!

I can, however, recommend several experts (see bottom of post).

First things first…

Definition: wet sets and heat sets

Wet sets are done on wet hair that you leave to dry naturally, while heat sets are done using appliances (I prefer tongs) on dry – preferably dirty – hair that you leave to cool. When I say dirty, I mean it should be at least a couple of days since you last washed it.

And now, onto the Q&A! (Which I have made up entirely by myself. Please imagine me asking the questions in one voice, and answering them in another.)

Do I have to use a different setting pattern for wet sets and/or heat sets?

Nope, not if you don’t want to. 

What about different products?

No. I use crocheted curlers or kirby grips, House of Drewvid marcel spray and hairspray, however I set my hair.

Are wet sets or heat sets better?

I’m afraid this is a bit of a non-answer; it’s all a bit subjective!

I, for example, have very long, thick hair. Since lockdown, it’s grown to past my bra strap and is either the longest it’s ever been, or as long as it’s ever been. (I had very long, blondish hair at one point while at university, then split up with my boyfriend and – always one to make radical hair decisions in times of stress – I cut it all off and dyed it black.)

natural hair before setting

As a result, my hair takes much, much better to wet sets. If I start with a wet set, I can probably get at least five days’ worth of hairstyles out of it (if I re-roll it every night). If I heat set my hair, the curl drops within an hour. 

heat set soft curls

Why use heat sets at all then?

A wet set makes my hair very bouncy and fluffy on the first day of brushing out; it gets smoother as the days go on.

hair and makeup

Sometimes I want a softer look on the first day, and heat sets are perfect for that. I tend to use a different setting pattern for when I do heat sets – I start the curl lower down my hair.

For a while I was obsessed with making my hair look like Lauren Bacall’s, and the only time I even got close to that was when I curled my hair with tongs.


Heat sets are also good if I need to curl my hair quickly (well, as quickly as it’s possible to do with my hair) for styles like poodles, victory rolls, etc.


How long should I leave a wet set in?

Your hair needs to be completely dry when you take it out, otherwise it’s going to drop out/go frizzy/be impossible to do anything with. 

If I can, I leave mine in for 24 hours, to make sure it’s really, definitely dry.

wet set second day brushout

How do I sleep in pin curls?

Ooo, I have a post for that.

How long should I leave a heat set in?

Until your hair has cooled completely, otherwise any curl will drop before you’ve even finished brushing it out.

heat set dropped curl

What’s a brush out?

It just means the process of unpinning your hair and brushing it into the shape you want.

Should I brush out differently, depending on the type of set I’ve used?

I don’t think so (I certainly don’t). I leave the front curls until last, take out the rest, backcomb and brush them out, then do the same with the front. I’m perhaps a bit more gentle with a heat set, but that’s all.

wet set day one brushout

What if it all goes wrong?

A wise woman (Sarah’s Doo-Wop Dos) once told me that a strategically placed hair flower fixes everything. She’s right.

Either that or a big hat. Or sometimes both. This photo is from one of the many, many times I hadn’t let my hair dry properly.

hair flower and hat

So, about those vintage hair experts…

Oh yes! Promises are promises. These are some of my sources of inspiration:

I would also recommend googling search terms like 1940s setting pattern, 1950s hair setting pattern and, if you know which old Hollywood celebrity you want to emulate, google [their name] setting pattern; Jane Russell is one of my favourites.

What have I missed?

I’m sure there are questions I’ve missed in this post, and some people I should be following, so please let me know in the comments.






2 thoughts on “Vintage hair setting: wet sets and heat sets

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