Victorian Feather Work

Feather Work became popular among the Victorians due to the ease of procuring all types of feathers. Usually the feather came from the fowl raised by the family or from game hunting, making this craft inexpensive. If they could not be obtained the feathers needed in that manner, they could easily be purchased from stores.

A number of the feather work projects below are included only for interest. Currently clothes are not decorated with feathers (thought who knows what the clothing designers will bring out tomorrow!), muffs are no longer used, nor are bonnets. Those of you who are making period clothes may find the information on those articles useful. The screen and the butterfly pin are interesting though. See what you think!

What is Victorian Feather Work?

Feather work consists of covering buckram or other stiff foundations with birds’ feathers, arranged in designs, and sewn entirely over the foundation. The work is very handsome, and is used for valances, picture frames, chairs, brackets, fire screens, muffs, bonnets, and for dress trimmings. Large articles are covered with Alesbury duck or white poultry feathers, dyed in various colours, and small with peacock, pheasant, parrot, ostrich, marabou, pigeon, Guinea fowl, and black-cock feathers used in their natural shades.

Preparing the Feathers

Please note: These instructions are from the 1880’s. The dyes mentioned below, to the best of my knowledge, are no longer available.

The feathers are prepared as follows, if white, and obtained from domestic poultry:

First, gently wash the bird in soapsuds and lukewarm water to which a little whisky has been added, and let it dry in a clean, warm place; after it has been killed, pick off the feathers, enclose them in a strong bag, and bake in a moderate oven. Shake each feather separately, cut off the fluff and the little hard piece at the top of the quill, and keep them where they are not likely to be crushed.

To dye: Pour into two quarts of boiling water a table or teaspoonful of Judson’s dye, according to the depth of shade required, and steep the feathers in this for five minutes; take them out one by one with a pair of pincers, so as not to touch them, then add more dye to the water, and thoroughly stir the mixture; throw the feathers in, stir all up together, and take out the feathers separately, without touching them, when they are sufficiently coloured. Crawshaw’s dyes may also be used.

Feather Work Dress Trimming

To work for Dress Trimmings, a large quantity of these dyed feathers, and strips of webbing, or Petersham, are required. Fasten the foundation of webbing to a weight cushion, and sew the feathers, one by one, on in lines across the width; slope their ends inwards and to make the center, and conceal the edge of the foundation by making the feathers overlap, laying the second line of feathers over the first, to thoroughly hid the securing stitches. Stitch each feather four times with a waxed thread. Put these stitches close to the end of the quill, two upon each side of it, and crossing each other.

Trimming Bonnets

To work for Bonnets – Procure a black bonnet shape, bind the edges, and sew the feathers on singly, on the brim as straight lines, on the crown as circles.

Feather Work for Muffs

To work for Muffs – Make the shape in buckram, and sew the feathers on singly, and in upward lines.

Valences and Brackets

To Work Valances and Brackets. – Cut a buckram foundation the size of the article, rub it over wit a little carbolic acid, and arrange well-marked natural feathers in straight lines along the foundation, taking care that they thoroughly overlap each other. Begin at the lower end of the material, graduate the colours, put in all one colour birds’ feathers in a line, and follow by a contrasting line; sew each feather on separately with a waxed thread.

Feather Work Screen

To Make A Screen. – These are usually made with peacocks’ feathers. Cut out an oval or round shape, and sew on as the fist round the largest eyed peacocks’ feathers; for the second round, the smaller size; for the third round, the dark blue neck feathers; for the fourth, the breast feathers; and finish with the head feathers and crest. Should the screen be a large one, sew on two lines of each kind of feather, but keep the same order.

Feather Work Fan
Click on picture to see more detail.

To work Fig. 1: Cut out the shape on buckram, and sew round it, so that the edge is thoroughly concealed, the fine filaments of peacocks’ feathers; make the next round with parrots or pheasants’ feathers, then fill in the centre with white poultry feathers, and over them arrange a large tuft of peacocks’ filaments as a finish. Conceal the back of the buckram with a cardboard foundation, covered with fluted silk, which gum on to the buckram; or simply cover the buckram with black paper.

Butterfly Ornament

Feather Work Butterfly
Click on picture to see more detail.

Cut out the shape in buckram, allow for each wing 1 ½ inches in depth, and 1 1/8 inches in width, and for the body 1 /28 inches in length, and ¼ inch in width. Shape the wings like the pattern, and round the lower extremity of the body. To cover the two upper wings, sew on large and strong pheasant feathers; Shape these by cutting them with scissors, so that they slope to meet the under winds, and notch their edges. Make the under wings of the neck feathers of the peacock, and let these slightly overlap the upper wings, and notch their edges. Paint the edge of all the wings with lampback in oil colour, and make the white spots with Chinese white. Upon the upper end of the body sew down two fine peacocks’ filaments, 1 ¾ inches in length, to form the antennae, and then cover over the foundation with black velvet; shape the head, and make the eyes with two black beads; bar the velvet body across with gold thread, and finish it off with a line of gold thread, where it joins the wings. Cover the back of the buckram wit black velvet, and sew a loop of wire into the velvet, through which to pass a hairpin.

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