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.

13 thoughts on “How to Make Crap Feathers Look Great

  1. How to Make a Show Girl Headdress | Sempstress says:

    […] You might also like:How to Make Crap Feathers Look Great […]

    8 years ago | Reply

    • missa says:

      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!

      7 years ago | Reply

  2. missa says:

    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.

    7 years ago | Reply

  3. angie says:

    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 years ago | Reply

  4. Gayla says:

    I bought a lot of feathers for a party now how do I keep for another time. Possibly 2 years away till next use?

    2 years ago | Reply

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