We love them, you love them and burlesque, cabaret, showgirls and dance are heavily linked to them… Yes, we’re talking plumage today! But when it comes to buying feathers, it’s not as straight-forward as you may think. With feathers, you generally get what you pay for, and what may seem like a brilliant online auction purchase could turn into a disappointment if you don’t know what to look out for.
What Feathers can be used for:
Aside from the original intention of making birds fly and mating displays, feathers are great for fans, accentuating costumes, adorning headdresses, ostentatious collars, bustles, boas and adding a touch of luxury to gowns… They also make great props!
Anatomy of a feather
So let’s start with the basics – the parts of a feather. Feathers are mostly made of keratin and whether you have a beautiful custom dyed plume or pick up a bog-standard seagull feather from the ground, all the basics are the same…
The Quill or calamas is the bottom end, commonly sharpened into a nib in bygone centuries for writing. It’s the end that attaches to the bird.
The Rachis is the rest of the shaft after the quill, commonly beginning where the ‘after feathers’ begin.
The Vane is the general area of barbs and shape of feathers. In flight birds, this is more obvious as the barbs stick together making a solid area (next time you see a feather in the street, have a look!)
The After Feather, again more obvious on feathers of flight birds, is the fluffy down that doesn’t fit into the vane at the bottom of the rachis. Basically as its name suggests – the bit after the feather.
The barbs are attached to the rachis, and if you look closely, each barb has barbettes – or smaller barbs off the barb. In flighted birds, these have small hooks to attach to the surrounding barbs to make a solid area of vane.
Different kinds of feather
There are many types of feather available from craft shops and millinery suppliers, but some feathers are more suited to other costuming than others. Generally, short downy feathers (often goose, turkey or duck feathers – by products of the food industry, dyed bright colours) are not great for costumes or props, but bigger feathers such as peacock, ostrich, cock (also known as rooster, coque) or pheasant (an all these may be in natural colours or dyed) can add a spectacular edge. Beware, though, adding the right plumes to costumes can make an outfit look very expensive, but it is just as easy to add the wrong types of feathers to a costume or prop, making it look cheap and tacky. Feathers to avoid include cheap boas, often made of turkey down dyed in ‘hen party’ colours or Marabou trim (the fluffy, thin trim).
Generally, decorative feathers come from the male bird as it is the male bird who uses his plumage to display to females to attract a mate, and tail and wing tip feathers are generally the most spectacular feathers as these are used in display.
Feathers for trim, such as the rooster feathers, are generally sold by the m, while plumes are sold by their length (from quill to tip).
Ostrich Feathers – a total minefield!
So, you’ve got your eye on a set of fans? Perhaps you are set on making some – here’s a few things to consider:
You definitely get what you pay for here. Custom fans can be beautiful and there are a lot of fan makers out there who can create bespoke fans, dip dye or crystalise feathers or make you a pair in a custom colour or size. These will be unique, and although on the pricey side, might not be as expensive as you may think (some fan makers can advise on what they can create for your budget). On the other end of the scale, in general, cheap fans, made from marabou and goose (the same as cheap boa feathers) sold in joke shops (there’s a clue there…) and ‘well-known naughty high street shops’ are not going to cut it on stage, definitely looking cheap and tacky (think hen party). They are generally small, ‘hand’ fans. If you are just starting your fan-dancing career, go for a mid-range fan (it’s pointless spending over £100 when you are just learning – you can always ‘trade up’ at a later date). You can buy second hand or even the fans from China aren’t bad – but MAKE SURE they are for L and R hands. You can tell this as the pair of staves will open as mirror images to each other. Most manufactured fans sold as ‘pairs’ are are R handed because it is cheaper to make R handed fans…
On another note, check the appearance of the fans. Generally the more fluffy and luxurious looking ones are going to be the male feathers (the blue ones above) and a bit more expensive than ones that look more ‘silky’ – which are the female feathers (the black ones here). The female ones tend to look a bit more sparse. These are ‘single layer’ fans – basically a single layer of feathers, but you can also buy ‘double layer’ or ‘triple layer’ fans too.
If you decide to make your own fans, you need to consider a number of things. Firstly, let’s start with the staves. Bamboo staves are lightweight, flexible, so make the fan flow through the air more naturally, and are good for smaller hands. However they are not as sturdy as acrylic staves, which are durable, generally thicker than bamboo staves and can be clear or coloured. Make sure you buy a l and r folding pair (you can tell this by one unfolding the mirror image of the other.
So now, to the feathers.
If you are making from male ostrich feathers (as we’ve said before, the fluffy ones), there are a number of different types of feathers depending on where on the bird the feather has originated. If you want a luxurious looking pair of fans, use plumes (check out the blue fan in the section above, these are mostly plumes) also called femina or floss feathers. These are from the wings of the male bird and generally have a beautiful curl at the end of the feather. Try to examine them in person so you can check the quality. If you do buy online, be careful which feathers you buy… A lot of sellers sell spads (you know those buy 10 feathers and they seem quite cheap). These are from the tail of the ostrich and are quite thin looking and end in more of a point.
Other common feathers are drabs, from the shoulder of the bird. These are fuller than spads but not as big and fluffy as the plumes and the barbs are shorter. )… You can, of course make the body of your fans with a single layer of plumes and layer it up with spads and drabs for a less expensive way of making your fans look fuller. But beware, it is not really very cheap at all to make your own fans, it can work out more expensive than buying some, or having a bespoke pair made for you! Especially if you get the wrong feathers and have to buy more to replace…
Vintage and antique feathers
You may be lucky and pick up some vintage or antique feathers (like this antique ostrich feather boa here, from the 1940s). Victorian fashion dictated trimming collars and hats with feathers, and quite (fascinatingly!) hideous was the taxidermy bird trend – basically varying between a wing or whole dead bird on hats, or as brooches. Vintage feathers of 50+ years tend to be more in their natural colours, not dyed vibrant colours (as there wasn’t the modern ‘acid dyes’), so you will find a lot of beautiful browns, blacks, creams. If they have been dyed they are in muted earthy tones. There are a lot of antique and vintage feathers out there – trims that have been taken of damaged clothing, hats or used as jewelry, scarves or muffs -we like a feather muff. Check charity shops, antique shops and fairs and online auction sites. But with antique feathers, you have to be very careful. Check them for any moth or insect damage and check to see that all the barbs are intact and are still flexi and not brittle.
Care of your Feathers
Feathers are made of keratin so you need to prevent this from drying out (causing moulting of the barbs) and becoming brittle. Once it has become brittle, it’s quite difficult to restore. We like to store them somewhere that’s not going to be damp (or too dry) such as in an airing cupboard with a lush bath bomb (a bath bomb contains bicarb of soda to soak up moisture – and has the added effect of a lovely smell! you could also fill a sock with salt or buy silicon pouches that’ll do the same job of soaking up any moisture). Definitely keep them away from direct sunlight, especially if they are dyed, as they will fade, and make sure no dust or insects/moths can get at them (apparently keratin, from which the feathers are composed is made up of sulphur and insects like this).
YES! We cannot stress this enough. Ethically sourced feathers are best. A great supplier will be able to tell you how the feathers have been collected. Ethically sourced feathers are shed during a molt and gathered this way and steam cleaned to kill any parasites. Other ethically sourced feathers are pre-owned (vintage/antique as above) or recycled feathers, meaning another bird does not have to be killed for our vanity.