Turning feathers into eye catching hat ornaments
Feathers have been used on hats for centuries for their intrinsic beauty and because when you add feathers to hats they retain a flow and bounce that makes them look almost alive. In this article I’m going to cover several things that you can do to turn feathers into hat ornaments; burning, dyeing, striping, shaping and clipping.
Around the turn of the 20th C when people realized that overuse of certain birds for hats was wiping out many species. Women moved away from using whole birds, towards using farmed birds or not having feathers at all on their hats. Today the feather trade is limited to a few species and the feathers are usually a byproduct of the raising of these birds for food or from the molt. The feathers that are most readily available are Turkey, Peacock, Ostrich, Rooster, Goose, Duck, and Pheasant feathers.
Some of the treatments are used to alter feathers so they look more like the feathers of birds that where popular but became extinct like the Bird of Paradise or those that could not be harvested like the Egret. Some of the treatments are used to alter a feather so that they would better fit the style of hat, as with the angular style of the Art Deco movement. Some of the treatments are used just to add colors that might be found in more exotic birds or just to match an outfit.
Just as background, I noticed that this seems to be a common question posted on the web. “The feathers on my hat got wet and when they dried they look horrible, birds get wet why can feathers?” For birds especially water birds having orderly feathers is critical because dry feathers trap air next to their bodies and that is how they keep warm. If you have ever watched birds for any length of time you will notice that they spend a lot of time preening, what they are doing is fluffing, realigning and adding oil to their feathers to protect this shield. Feathers do not dry fluffy by themselves.
Black Swan preening by Cygnis insignis
Rejuvenating Quill Feathers
Most feathers have a main stem, off this main stem are branches and off of that another set of branches. In quill like feathers these smallest branches interlock together to make a solid sheet. These can be separated (unzipped) and the feather will look very ragged.
Usually if you gently pull away from the main stem with the feather between your thumb and first finger you can re-zip the feather.
If you do this several time and you can’t get it to re-zip then you will need to wet the feather (if it is really dirty use a small amount of mild liquid soap in water and then rinse) and dry it in one of two ways below.
Golden Pheasant Tail Center feather that needs to have a wash and dry to be rejuvenated. On this species the tail center feathers are “V” shape and not flat. So keeping it lookinmg
One is with a blow dryer. The other way (I have had the best success doing this) is to dry it in a clothes dryer inside a bag. Some people have good luck with pillowcases but I have had the best success with one of those home dry cleaning bags. It always stays puffed because the top seam with the zipper is 90° from the bottom seam. It is also best to have more than one feather in the bag, 10 or more is a good number. I have dried up to a quarter pound of feathers at once. I set my dryer to automatic timed cotton cycle.
Home Dry Cleaning bag going into dryer
This is the same feather after a wash and then a dry in the dryer bag.
Golden Pheasant Tail Center feather photographed on top of a coque sweep. The “V’ is going away from the camera.
Rejuvenating Fluffy Feathers
For Ostrich and downy feathers steaming them might bring them back but if not you may need to get them wet and dry them as above. I find it best to first pat them dry with a paper towel and use a comb (flea comb works best) to separate the side branches and then throw them into the dryer bag. Knowing how to dry feathers comes in handy after both burning and dyeing feathers. Commercial feathers are treated with something like mothballs so that insects do not attach them. Some of the things I will suggest doing to feathers will remove this from the feathers leaving them open to insect damage. You will need to store them where insects can’t get to them in the future. If you find some insect damage and want to make sure that you stop it and kill the eggs you can put them into a double layer of zip-lock bags and keep them in the freezer for at least two weeks.
Because the bonds that hold the smallest side branches of both the Ostrich and Peacock feathers on are fairly weak they can be chemically broken leaving just the center shaft and the side branches (vanes). This process also stiffens what remains a white Ostrich feather begin to resemble Egret chest feathers and Peacock hurls can be gathered together in a large bunch which looks a little like Bird of Paradise tail. This burning can be done with household bleach. The steps are as follows.
Choose your feathers. I’m just going to use the tips so a damaged plume works just fine.
Take away any extra parts of the feather you will not want in the final plume.
Gather together bleach, a bucket of rinse water, a shallow plastic tub and some newspaper. You will want to work outside and wear old clothes and rubber gloves.
Toss a few of the feathers into half an inch of bleach.
Move them around so that they are covered. Watch them carefully. They will foam and you will see the smallest branches drop off. This only takes a minute or so.
When you see that only the main stem and the first set of side branches remain move the feathers to the rinse water.
Repeat with all the other feathers you want to do. The bleach will continue to work for many feathers. It is best to dispose of the used bleach properly. It does contain some dye. If your neighborhood has a household hazardous waste program use it. The feathers are not really bleached they do not lose their natural color or the dye color but sometimes the dye color changes. The black ones stayed black the red ones got a little darker red. Once I burnt some pastel pink drabs and they turned a nasty coral color so, results can be unexpected.
Here are the batches I did in clean rinse water.
With burnt feathers it is best to blot them dry and then carefully comb out the branches and air-dry them one at a time. You can see that they are still loosing some of the color onto the paper towel. That is to be expected most dyed feathers loose color when they get wet. That is why it is a good idea to keep them dry.
The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has a very nice example of an ostrich feather with only sections of the fronds burnt away. Here is how you could do something similar. On a piece of paper draw lined to indicate the sections where you want to burn the feather and where you do not, cover this with plastic wrap.
Plastic covered pattern
Spread the feather out over the lines and weigh it down, I used a small rock on the stem. Then pour a small amount of full strength bleach into a plastic container. Using an inexpensive 1” brush to gently daub the bleach onto the feather. You need to work rapidly, cover all the areas you want to burn in a minute or so. Give it another minute or so, the areas with the bleach will foam and yellow a little as in the photo. You will know it is done if you poke the areas with the bleach and you can see that all the side branches have fallen off. Rinse the feather well and dry and fluff as above.
Feather with bleach applied to burn sections
I removed the fronds from this feather and bundled them together with some glue tape and bound it with Florist tape to create this pompom. Check the “Ornaments made with parts of feathers” section of the Turban Ornaments Masterclass for a how-to on making pompoms.
Vintage hat with a pompom added
Close up of pompom and partially burnt vanes.
Because feathers are natural material they dye well with acid dyes. These dyes come in many colors. Why would you want to dye feathers when you can buy them in so many colors? Most pre-died feathers come in the most intense and basic shades it is nice to be able to control the final shade. Shades of colors are fairly easy you just start with about one 10th of the recommended amount of dye and keep adding dye in small amounts until you get the shade you want. I have an old canning pot, a few old long handled spoons and an old set of measuring spoons that I only use for pot dying. That is about all it takes. Feathers are difficult to weigh so I don’t even try.
I have used both with good results. To dye feathers you need to heat the dye vat but keep it under boiling.
Here is something that might be worth a try I ran across this pdf article on-line about using Kool-Aid to dye feathers. It is less toxic and uses a microwave and Pyrex dishes.
Another reason to dye Ostrich feathers is to create something really special. I had a chance to photograph a collection of vintage feathers from a hat shop that had been in business from the 30s. Two treatments stand out as special a 2-color and two matching 3-color plumes. All where made from three ostrich feathers that had first been sewn together.
Picture of the two-tri color vintage plumes they where about 10 inches long and very dense
I have figured out just how to create these plumes, the tri color is the least difficult. String a cord across your dye pot. Add some strings down from this line with clips on the ends. Clip a plume to this and let it dangle in the dye. Keep it in the vat until it is dyed to you satisfaction. Rinse it well, after rinsing blot it dry with a paper towel and bind back the top two thirds of plume with string or rubber bands. Change out your dye bath to the second color. Clip the bound feather onto the line. Stir the dye water but be careful not to splash too much. When you get the color you want then rinse it well. Follow the instructions as far as a vinegar rinse and blot dry and fluff as above. I can imagine plumes done this way as being just the thing to add to you late 18C high crown hat for that Bastille Day event. Can you see red white and blue?
The two-color plume with the apricot pastel body with intense tips will be a little more difficult. You can only dye a plume that is as long as your dye pot is wide.
The base end of a vintage tip dyed Ostrich Plume
You will need to find something that is at least 1” tall and about 3 or four inches wide and as long as you feather and will fit into your dye vat. I created a support out of chicken wire (picture). You will need to trim down the width of the feather so that it is almost a uniform width. Twist tie the plume to the support and adjust the water in your dye vat until it reaches just the last ½ to ¾ inch of you feathers add the dye to the vat mix it well and get the vat up to temperature. Add your feather and leave it in the vat as long as necessary to get the intense color you want. Remove the wire support and the feather. Remove ½ or more of the dye water and add more hot water. Return the feather to the dye pot and keep it in the dye for just long enough to get the pastel shade you want. When the plume is dry use a curling iron to curl just the tips of the plumes.
Stripping is simply pulling the vanes of a feather away from the main shaft and it has many applications sometimes the sections that are removed are used as with the pompoms above and sometimes the remainder is used. We will also use it below in the clipping section. In the 1910s and for several decades to follow you would often see hats with a single lone feather as its only decoration.
Two Pheasant flat tail feathers a Golden and a Ringneck
Sometimes only half of the feather was used. It was done by pulling away the vanes on one side of the feather a few at a time from the bottom up. If after you have pulled the vanes away there is a white line you can use a marker to color the shaft. In most cases it is best to remove the vanes on the narrowest side of the feather.
The two feathers with half of the vanes removed.
Some feathers are sold as half feathers they are Stripped Goose Biots. They are very interesting and look like false eyelashes.
Last month I talked about shaping feathers by hand and with scissors but curling irons have been used for more that a century as well. I keep two electric curling irons for feathers a one inch iron for shaping the main shafts and ½” to curl the fronds of ostrich feathers. Regular home use irons are fine you can use them on high heat but you do need to be careful about timing, if you keep the finer feathers in an iron too long they can easily burn.
To curl an entire quill catch the tip of the feather under the clamp and twist the iron until about half the shaft is on the iron.
The Golden Pheasant from above in the curling iron
Keep it in the iron until it is curled. I take it out every so often to check and put it back in if it is not curled enough.
Checking the curl
Both of the Pheasant feathers from above where curled with the 1” iron.
Two curled Pheasant feathers
The ½” iron works well to curl ostrich plumes if they are trimmed first. You will need to do a three or four inch section at a time. The apricot two-color plume above is a good example of one that was curled with an iron. If you go back and look at the picture you will notice that the last inch or so has a curl to it and the rest of the vane does not. If you look very closely you can see that the vanes all end at about the same length and that they are straight across they do not taper. I would say that only the darker colored section was curled, this gives it a nice look from the edge.
Back to the triangular clipped Ostrich feathers from the burning section. They had also been stripped to remove many of the vanes along the bottom of the main stem.
I used the curling iron to shape them then joined them with glue and Florist tape to three of the burnt red Ostrich drabs to make this cluster. The red feathers are not curled both the tip and the base are in glued and taped into the stem.
Clipping is the cutting away of sections of a feather to either tidy it up or create something unnatural with it. Often the unnatural thing is a faux wing or flower. In the feather trade flowers and similar things are called Fancies. I found a good UK site where you can see some fine feather flowers and also see some final products of the techniques I’ve discussed in this article.
Below is a photo of a dyed Turkey quill and a white Turkey quill. The only difference is that the white one has been cut 4 times on each side at a 45° angle to the main shaft. When you cut a quill feather in that manner the top half of the cut vanes fall away above the cut and you get this great harlequin look. I added a metal aglet and some times use it on a hat.
I used this angle cut technique in the next two examples. Here is a pile of dyed turkey flats. Turkey flats have a quill like top and a downy base.
I stripped away the downy base from both sides. Here is what remains.
I cut each feather two times, once from each side to the center to form diamond shapes.
I took four or five of these and added some white ones and glued and bound the base with white Florist tape.
In the next series I use the same steps to create something very different looking with some short Ostrich drabs. Usually one buys these in dozens and often some of them are not usable for hats so it is nice to be able to use the narrow and damaged ones to create something useful.
Narrow and damaged drabs
Strip the stem to about and inch and a half from the tip.
Cut each side at an angle. Use marker to recolor the stem if necessary.
Glue and bind the base of the feathers together.
Here are the two different fancies.
Faux wings where very popular for use on hats after women stopped using real bird wings. Wings can be as simple as sewing several feathers together and trimming them so they have a wing shape, like the two wings on the outside of this photo. Or they can be a glued cluster of different shapes and colors of feathers that mimic a more natural wing, like the one in the center.
Three vintage faux wings
Here is another realistic faux wing on the cover hat for my late Victorian tall hat pattern. Laurie is wearing the hat with a faux wing I made from dyed natural white Duck feathers. The feathers on this wing where glued to a crinoline base and about half of them where trimmed to be the right shape. The others where just sorted and chosen for their shape.
Laurie in a flowerpot shaped silk covered late Victorian tall hat
Another option for a faux wing is to glue together a selection of trimmed feathers for a more abstract looking wing, like the two below. The lighter one is made with 3 dyed and trimmed to shape Turkey quills bound at the base. 4 gold peacock plumage feathers where then glued onto the surface of the top quill.
Faux wings on a hat block, Photo by Gail Nichols
Another thing that should be added to this section is creating a faux tail or coque sweep even though it doesn’t involve any cutting unless it is to tidy up a feather.
Roosters can have very beautiful tail feathers. They are sold as coque and can be dyed or natural. Coque is one of those naturally iridescent feathers this is lost in the dying process. Joining them back together is often done for hats. It can be very simply done with Florist tape of a matching color. Florist tape comes in many colors green, brown and white are the easiest to get. They are sold at most craft stores in the bridal or flower making section. It’s a little more difficult to get some of the other colors I ordered mine on-line and just found this rainbow pack.
First sort the feathers into rights and lefts. The feathers curl differently depending on if they grew on the right or left side of the Rooster’s tail.
Tape the base of one left and one right feather together. They should be of similar length and curl.
Add two more feathers to this one on each side, a left and a right.
Continue adding feathers in this manner until the sweep is the size you want.
Here is Claudine again in an example of using a coque sweep on a hat and a good reason to dye feathers. I made this blue coque sweep for the navy blue hat below. I ordered royal blue coque feathers the only blue they come in but they just where too bright blue so a re-dyed them with a navy blue dye at the same time I was dying a large batch of duck feathers. They are still not as dark as the hat but are the exact color of some of the ribbon I used.
All the photos of vintage plumes where taken either by Gail Nichols where noted or myself at Rose Mille a hat and hat making supply store in Willow Glen, CA. The shop is alas, no longer in business.
If you look thru the large collection of vintage hats on this site you will see examples of many of the techniques in this article.
Some museum hats with burnt feathers
A museum hats where only sections of feathers are used a Lady Amherst Pheasant feather sectioned