The Art of the Feather

The Art of the Feather

Reading Time: 4 minutes

By Sue Norris

Have you ever really taken the time to study a feather? It is a practical masterpiece providing warmth, protection, and color, giving the bird its ability to fly. 

Each year many birds molt their old, battered feathers and acquire bright, shiny new ones to keep them warm and dry, fly a little faster and attract a new mate when the season is right. 

Some folks ingeniously use these molted feathers for crafting projects and ideas. Feather crafting is probably an ancient art; no one knows for sure how old. 

Perhaps the earliest human peoples wore feathers in their hair as a decoration or a badge of honor or rank. 

What is feather crafting? Simply put, it’s using feathers to create works of artistic expression, clothing, or utilitarian pieces. Each item is individual and is the product of the artist and their imagination. Pieces can range from the humble feather duster or a quill pen to jewelry, dream catchers, costumes, and clothing items.  

We first come across supremely gifted artisans of featherwork in Mexico. Examples of feather woven blankets exist from the 800-1200 A.D. period, but the pinnacle of their success began some years before the Spanish conquest.  

A conversation with Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris about Aztec feathered headdresses: 

The Aztecs were consummate artisans of these feather pieces, of which some fine examples still exist in museums today. These artists were making stunningly beautiful and intricate creations, and for several years the Spanish commissioned local artists to produce religious pieces suitable for the European courts.  

The popularity of feathers as a medium slowly gave way to oil painting in the courts of Europe, and feather crafting was declining in Mexico due to the loss of the “old masters” of the art and the rarity of those beautifully plumed quetzal birds. 

Although stunning, the quetzal was not the only bird to have its feather used for decorative purposes. Cotingas, roseate spoonbills, oropendulas, and many others all “donated” feathers to the splendor of Aztec weaving.  

Flying Resplendent Quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno, Savegre in Costa Rica.

Many of these birds lived great distances from the Aztec empire, so feather trade was an important part of their economy. Featherwork drove many of the species to the brink of extinction in certain areas. 

In North America, we next come across the indigenous Indian peoples who used feathers for many things — headdresses, traditional garments, blankets, and robes could be made from feathers. These pieces ranged from religious to everyday use and were the product of countless hours of work and thousands of feathers. 

The making of this cape took thousands of feathers and many hours of labor to complete the cape. One bird would yield about 600 usable feathers; the cape she makes used around 15,000 to 16,000 feathers. 

Here, Mary Weahkee makes a feather cape from the beginning to the end, even making the fibers to hold the feathers!

Some leis are made from feathers, and classes are held to teach folks “how-to” in Hawaii. You can also still find feather-weaving are Polynesia and New Zealand. 

Fiona Kerr Gedson is one such artist. She lives in Opotiki on New Zealand’s North Island and has been perfecting her craft for 22 years. She had no formal training in her chosen art. She says that life is her inspiration, and she loves to explore new ideas and make connections. Her mandalas especially are stunning works of art. Mandalas are commonly found in Buddhist or Far Eastern culture and represent life and spirituality. 

Photo credit: Fiona Kerr Gedson

In today’s world, the feather as a form of personal decoration has been relegated to a relatively minor role. However, some talented folks continue to use the feather in more traditional ways as dance or religious regalia, for example. 

Avid fishers still prefer to use hand-tied lures for some types of fishing. To that end, the Whiting “True Blue” chicken came about. While it does lay blue eggs (another bonus!), the roosters’ feathers are still used to tie fishing flies and fetch a good price in the market as they are considered some of the best in the world.   

Photo Credit: Truman Nicholson

Feathers are still used as fletches in arrows for stabilizing the flight of the arrow — a small but significant market. You can find videos on YouTube for “how-to” instructions. 

Dream catchers are always popular and reflect some of the artists’ flair in their construction. The dreamcatcher is a spiritual token said to allow good dreams in but catch bad dreams in the web, where the morning sunlight then destroys them. 

Fala Burnette of Wolf Branch Homestead loves to craft using feathers from her beloved birds. She uses the readily available molted feathers and also uses other natural items in her pieces. She is self-taught and loves to experiment with different things. 

Photo credit: Fala Burdette

She makes personal items and dreamcatchers and recently started resin crafting with feathers. 

She says her grandmother was a great source of inspiration for her and gave her a strong work ethic and desire to be self-reliant. She loves to use found or discarded items in her work.  

This has been just a glimpse of how feathers can be used. We are not all as talented as some of the artists mentioned here, but we can all find uses for some beautiful works of art called feathers. 

Resources 

https://www.kcet.org/shows/tending-the-wild/weaving-with-feathers-in-the-silent-spring-era

Feathered headdress photo credit: Thomas Ledl, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

Artist Fiona Kerr Gedson’s website: https://www.fionakerrgedson.com/ 

Whiting Farms, sellers of fly-tying hackles: http://whitingfarms.com/products/   

Fala Burnette’s Etsy shop, Wolf Branch Art: https://www.etsy.com/shop/WolfBranchArt 

Originally published in the August/September 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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