By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Sep 15, 2004 at 5:42 AM

{image1}Alice Qualiss learned to braid hair as a girl, living in West Africa. Fifteen years ago, she opened a shop in Milwaukee and made it a place where other French-speaking African women could practice their trade and learn new ones.

Qualiss' shop, called Qualiss (7618 W. Appleton Ave.), is not only her last name but coincidentally a nice combination of "Alice" and the word "quality."

"We do high-quality African braiding here," she says in a thick French accent. "Microbraids, weaves and dreads (dreadlocks)."

The appointments are long, anywhere from eight to 12 hours for dreads or microbraids (very tiny braids all over the head). The braiders take only a couple of breaks during appointments and braid at record speed for hours on end.

"West Africans are very hard workers," says Ella, a woman originally from Liberia who works for Qualiss, whom she calls "Auntie."

Qualiss -- or "Auntie" -- is the queen bee, buzzing between girls, giving advice, joking with them and suspiciously switching from English to French when there's something not meant for customers' ears.

On a recent visit, one of the braiders rents African movies to make the day pass quickly. The films feature little dialogue and lots of passion, street violence and devil possession. Later, a French-speaking African man walks in with a huge duffel bag, pulls out a few pairs of Fila shoes -- all of which are a size 7 -- and asks if anyone is interested.

Qualiss is a salon with a reputation for producing great hair, and is also a unique slice of culture. It's friendly and easy going, with the flavor of a foreign country.

{image2}There is no music playing in the shop, just the distorted sound of the film. The decor is sparse at best, with a dropped ceiling, piles of hair braiding magazines on the floor, four or five black chairs, and a few mirrors adorned with plastic flowers.

The white walls are bare except for a few laminated posters advertising different styles of braids and hair extensions, and a sign requiring clients to pay up front and in cash.

Most of the hair used for hair extensions is real, and purchased around the corner at Chicago Wigs for $20 a box. Braiders run out every few hours to buy more hair and maybe a bag of chips.

Theri DeJoode, owner of Groom Salon, often refers clients who want dreads or microbraids to Qualiss.

"They do a great job," she says.

The prices are more than fair, especially considering the long hours. Microbraids and weaves cost between $100-$250, and dreads are usually between $250-$450 depending on hair length.

Qualiss says she learned the art of dreadlocking after moving to the United States. Dreads are not common among West African people, rather they are a Jamaican Rastafarian religious hairstyle embraced as a fashion -- although originally as something of a cultural statement -- by blacks and whites in America.

It's difficult for white people do get tidy dreadlocks because the hair is softer and finer than African hair, but Alice knows how to get the job done. It simply takes a different approach.

"(For white people) we either knot the hair or wrap it with extensions," she says, whereas black people can usually twist their own dreads or have them twisted and "set" by a professional.

There are many myths around dreadlocks, including that you can get them by not washing your hair, that you can't wash your hair once you get dreads, that the only way white people can get them is by perming the hair first, that you need to twist them with beeswax, etc.

According to Qualiss, you can use the afore mentioned techniques, but your dreads will not be as neat looking as if done by the wrapping or knotting technique and with hair extensions.

"I would never say anything bad about someone else's work," says Qualiss. "But when we dread hair, you will look very nice."

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.