How to Make Crap Feathers Look Great

Not all feathers are created equal.  It’s unfortunate, but it’s true.  You go to the craft store, looking to feather your cap with some amazing, lush plumage, and you find yourself confronted with an array of vacuum sealed ostrich plumes straight out of Flatland.  So, what can you do?

Here’s a really amazingly crap feather.  It came from a pound of  ostrich drab seconds that I bought from Ostriches Online years ago.

The crap feather
A very crap, flat feather...

Here’s another feather…  It also came from the exact same order of feathers.  (Ever ordered a pound of slightly defective feathers?  There’s a lot of feathers in a pound.  There’s the occasional gem, but mostly what you’ve got is there because it wasn’t prime enough quality to be used as a single, standout feather.  They’re meant to be used in bulk.)

Another crap feather, but this one has been reworked somewhat....
Another crap feather, but this one has been reworked somewhat....

So how do you make a really crap feather look like pretty great?  Well….

Step one: Take off the frizzy-ugly.
Step 1: Take off the frizzy-uglies....

When you look at your crap feather, you’ll see that the bottom-most feathery bits are very short.  High quality, lush feathers have longer feathery bits.  You can strip these off, basically by grabbing and pulling them.  It really is that simple.  Likewise, high quality feathers done have weird stringy bits at the ends.  They are a nice spade-like shape from top top to bottom,

The feather before trimming...
The feather before trimming....
...and after.
...and after.

Now, this is a much better looking feather.  I’ve cut off the stringy bits, and it’s had the same effect as a god hair cut on a human head – suddenly, what’s left looks fuller and oddly more natural.  The feathery-bits (fronds?) look full from the spine to the end, the shape is nice, and the ends aren’t short and frizzy.

You should be aware that I’m ultimately using these feathers in showgirl headdresses for Chicago (the original stage musical version, not like the movie precisely).  So they need to be tarted up.  If you similarly need to tart up a feather, start by really accenting the spine…

silver sharie is great...
Accent the spines with silver... Sharpies are cheap and work well.

If you’re really trying to tart them up, add some glue on rhinestones….  I love that trick.  Now, it’s time to really focus on the Flatland aspect of the feather.

Curl feathers with a 1/2" bore curling iron.
Curl feathers with a 1/2" bore curling iron.

I’ve used a 1/2″ bore curling iron on this feather.  This isn’t a fancy, specialized piece of equipment – I got at at a Walgreens for 7.99$.  It’s meant for human hair.  I use the “high” setting for feathers.  I tried low, but the feathers weren’t impressed.  The curling iron can also be used to curl the tip of the feather spine back smoothly.  If you’re working with a feather or two, and you don’t want to fuss with a curling iron, you can zip the bits of the feather over your thumb nail much as if you were working with curling ribbon.  If you’re working with a bulk of feathers (and I have 6 headdresses, with 6 large feathers each) the iron is faster.  Also, repeated use of the curling ribbon trick tends to thin out the feather as stressed bits fall off.

Bend the the spine into smooth curves, without cracking it....
Bend the the spine into smooth curves, without cracking it....

To make a proper, “so heavy with feathery-ness I’m droopy” feather, you need to bend the feather’s spine a bit.  I normally use both thumb nails for this, but that’s very hard to take photos of when you don’t have the official beautiful assistant.  Here’s the important thing to understand: The spine, or quill, of a feather is hollow.  You’re not trying to break the spine, just to compress it slightly.  If you hear a dry crack, you’ve gone too far.  Ideally, if you bend the feather backwards over your twi thumb nails (back to back) and press the spine down with both index fingers, you’ll feel it bend and give in an elastic sort of way as if there’s a little “squish” involved.  You can also use a butter knife, if your thumbnails are pretty beaten down.  (Even if I gave you a video of this one, it’s a completely tactile sensation so the video wouldn’t help.  Trust me: if you feel the spine compress, stop.  You’re good, and you should stop there.  If you go farther, the spine will snap and you’ll hear a noise.  The feather will be fine for a while, but eventually it will break.

Finished Feathers
Finished feathers, in a headdress.

Here’s several of my crap feathers, used in a headdress for the musical I’m working on.  These have been hair sprayed (so they’ll keep their culr).  still not the perfect, lush 12$-a-pop feathers that I’d really like, don’t get me wrong…. But they’re far closer than they started off.

15 Comments

  1. Hi, I’m doing a play that takes place in Roman times. I purchased 3 cheap Roman helmets online and the red feathers they came with are disappointing…I’d like to revive them. They are very soft and flat and fluffy.
    Is there anything I can do to make them less fluffy and to make them “stand up” more? The costume budget is very small and don’t want to spend the money on ostrich feathers. Thanks, Maria

    1. Hi, MJ,
      It depends on what kind of feather you have. It they’re small ostrich plumes, try a few light coats of hair-spray to give them a little stiffness. They will also look less wispy if you trim the fluffies and give the feather some shape.
      If they’re just little marabou stumpy things, there’s not a lot you can do to make them look like something that wasn’t just plucked off a chicken’s butt and slapped onto a hat. :(
      You said your budget is tight – one feather boa should be under 10$ at a craft store. Cut up, that’s more than enough for three helmets. (Seal the ends with glue so they don’t fall apart. You can wind a pipecleaner or two in so the feathers can stand up like a band hat, or follow the curve of the helmet.) On the total cheap end, if your audience is going to be a little away from your soldiers, you should be able to sneak some red construction paper or crepe paper into the mix behind the feathers to add a little body and weight to their presence. You’ll have to play around a little bit, but I’d start by cutting some feather shapes in the paper – rat up the edges a little so they’re not neat lines.
      Good luck!
      melissa

  2. Hypothetically speaking, will this work on any type of feather? (Fake too

    I’m making a costume, and using real feathers where I can, but some of the ones I need are more than three feet long, and… Well, fake feathers are just better suited.

  3. Erm…. I don’t think so. Mind you, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen fake feathers, outside of rather terrible plastic ones. What I’m doing here is pretty specific to the physical structure of real feathers and how it responds to different handling and products.

  4. Hi, I am hoping you can help me . I bought about 80 ostrich to decorate a wedding reception with and now have no idea what to do with them. Any suggestions? They are very flat and straight.

  5. I bought an ostrich plume and it was too long for my craft so I cut in half. I’m wondering what I should do with the bottom half of the feather. The part where I’ve cut has a V shape now. I was thinking of trimming it so it looks like the top of the feather (I’m sorry I don’t know if there are technical terms for these) sort of more rounded. Also I was thinking of how could I use the individual fringes I’ve cut. Any ideas?
    Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi, Amanda – The bottom half of the feather will never pass as a “real” feather. Pull off the fluffly bits (“fringes”) from the main spine. Bundle these with wire or thread. You will have fluffy little tufts of feather that look like undersea creatures. These are great for brooches, or if you stack enough of them, hats.
      Best of luck!

  6. Hi, I bought some lovely bois goose feathers to add to a hat but once I’ve curled them they are very floppy. What is the best thing to use to stiffen them?
    Thanks

    1. Yes – a light hand with a steamer, a lot of gentle fluffing, and patience. (Or, you can put the steamer on high and violently shake the boa in the steam for a bit. Just make sure none of the feathers get wet. I’ve used both methods, and it’s really a matter of the time-to-boa ratio.)

    1. Hi, Debra – I’m not sure I can give you a solid answer without more information. Generally, when long feathers start to droop something has gone wrong with the spine in the middle of the feather. If the spine has been cracked, the feather has lost structural integrity. If it has been bent, it’s going to be permanently weakened at the site of the bend. In both cases, you can marry the feather with a stronger one behind it (same method as combining multiple feathers to make them look fuller, above). If the feather has merely succumbed to the effects of gravity over time, you can iron the spine back into straightness (carefully, start with medium heat, and try not to iron any fluffy bits your feather may have). I would not try cheating and using a flat-iron meant for hair for this, although you could run a regular curling iron up and down the spine. I’ve done that to curl feathers, so logically you should be able to remove the curl as well. I hope any of that is useful!

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