TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Our Feathered Friends: Wear Them or Free Them?

It all started with Charlie (named after my brother who is a pilot), my little one-legged, parakeet. I had no control over the heat in my apartment in Chicago, so even on the coldest days, I had a couple of windows cracked open a bit. Charlie flew in through the kitchen window on a frigid winter day. Mitchie, my dog, cornered him. I knew nothing about caring for birds, so I got Charlie a cage, bought him some food, went online and read about parakeets. I took him to the gallery. Soon, one of our customers who knew a lot about birds, brought Charlie a companion. Then she brought two more. I got a bigger cage. She brought a box and told me to put it in the cage. Babies came. Another customer was moving and had a cockatiel with a broken wing, Pecky. She couldn't take him. Did I want him? Pecky was 14 years old at the time. Sure, why not? So, Pecky came. The bird lady felt sorry for him and brought a young female. The female turned out to be a male, Sebastian. Without ever intending to, I now have 9 parakeets (I took the box out. Enough is enough!) and two cockatiels. Although I feel a bit weird about having birds in captivity, none of these would survive in the wild. And, it seems like we will have to put most Nature behind bars to keep it alive.

The birds molt and drop feathers, which got me to thinking about how feathers have been used throughout history in adornments, clothing, and art. Feathers have had a central place in native ceremonial costumes and ornaments for centuries. Theresa Mitopoulou has a good article on The Decoration of the Head with Feathers that illustrates how feathers have been used throughout history and in different cultures. The photo at the left, for example, is from the Mexico City Museum of Anthropology of an Aztec head gear for emperors and priests. It was made with tail feathers of one hundred male quetzal birds, the national bird of Guatemala. She states, "The arrangement of the colored feathers had astronomic and calendar meaning." I found a traveler who photographed a Hawaiian cape he saw at a museum:

He said that it took five years to gather the feathers and another seven to sew them into the cape. He didn't state where he took this photo, but Sothebys has a similar one from the collection of the Niagara Falls Museum, estimated in worth at over $250,000.

The British Museum states that capes were made for Hawaiian and Polynesian nobility. They were used in ceremonies and in battle and many were gifted in the early 1800's to sea captains and their crews, the earliest outside explorers to the region.

James W. Reid wrote a book, Magic Feathers, Textile Art from Ancient Peru, which is illustrated with beautiful Nazca capes and details on the feathers and techniques used in the region.

Pathways to the Sun
Nazca culture, south coast of Peru, c. 400-800 AD
97 x 76 cm, cotton with applied feathers

The famous photographer, Edward Curtis, was the first to comprehensively document the life of Native Americans in the late 1800's. This photo of a Nez Pierce man with his head dress was exhibited at the Hall of American Indian Collection in the Hotel Astor.
Curtis and other photographers captured the public's imagination. The Bald Eagle had been chosen as the symbol of freedom and became the national bird in 1782. To Native Americans, the eagle is a messenger to the creator and represents endurance. In all of the United States, the eagle and its feathers were treasured. As the media developed, it made its way into books, magazines, then later in movies.

Bird Lady by Cristina Mittermeir
Highlands performer wearing a headdress made with the feathers of the superb bird of paradise. Highlands sing-sing, Papua New Guinea.

To this day, native people around the world continue to use feathers in ceremonies and dress. The Huli warriors of Papua New Guinea are often photographed for their bright face paint and costumes, feathers topping off their beautiful ensemble. Struggling to maintain identity in the face of a globalized world, these groups often are reduced to objects of tourism, but other efforts also seek to both honor and protect them. The above photo, for example, is available for purchase through Art for Conservation, an organization promoting grassroots conservation initiatives.

The fashion industry, of course, also has had a long history with feathers.

Marlene Dietrich wearing a feathered hat.

Victorian hats sported huge ostrich feathers and other exotic feathers continued to adorn hats and clothing through the 1950's. The following catalog is from a 1901 New York Millinery supply company, Fancy Feathers.

Smithsonian Institution Libraries

At some point, demand for all these feathers started creating shortages. Think of the demise of the passenger pigeon. Once the most populous bird in North America, five BILLION birds were killed off between 1870 and 1890. (Wikipedia) They had a high fat content that was used for cooking oil and to light Eastern street lamps. The last passenger pigeon died in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1914. Demand for bird feathers is not only ornamental, but also functional. Down feathers were and are still used for pillows and bedding. People started to worry and speaking up. Societies and organizations were formed. The National Audubon Society started publishing their Audubon Magazine in the 1880's, about the same time the passenger pigeon was getting killed off.

But, the attraction for feathers is powerful and we still continue to use them in our art and in our fashion. Handbags by Daphne offers this peacock feather bag for $85:

Jean Paul Gautier's wild feather dress was dubbed "Miss Turkey" by fellow blogger, Chanteuse. It's something else, isn't it?

So, there is that famous saying that "birds of a feather flock together"... Actually, we are destroying these feathered friends habitats all over the world. More and more, the chance for their survival will be as pets. Some African Grey parrots have become famous for how much they can learn, how cute they are and for their performance abilities. Here is Einstein performing on a TV show:

Menino, a Brazilian parrot, sings opera. My dogs came to watch him when I was playing his video:

And, Cody, a beautiful macaw, likes to be blow dried after his shower:

As with all of our natural resources, animal and plant life, care for these creatures and their feathers is in order. However, feathers are a renewable material. They do fall off naturally and birds do die. There is at least one organization that distributes molted feathers. Wingwise works specifically with Pueblo Indians and donates collected feathers for ceremonial purposes. Unfotunately, they have such a huge backlog of requests, that no new requests are taken at this time. The San Ildefonso girl at the left is wearing donated macaw feathers in her head dress.

It seems to me that this is really the solution for those of us who would like to continue to use feathers in art or garments. Bird sanctuaries, zoos, and pet owners should come together in some kind of a distribution system.

I also found some interesting trends in the green textile industry which is working on a fabric they are calling "chicken wool". The Independent reported that millions of tons of chicken feathers from chickens who are processed for the food market are disposed of yearly. They are working on a fabric which they consider will be superior to wool. Who knows what the next new trends will bring? We can only hope that they will address the needs of our fair feathered friends. Should we continue to wear them? Should they be freed from their cages and returned to the wild? Each of us has to answer these questions for ourselves. I know that my little companions wouldn't have a chance out there, so they are going to stay here. And, if any of you out there want some little parakeet feathers saved up for you, let me know and I'll start an envelope for you!

History repeats itself, but the special call of an art which has
passed away is never reproduced. It is as utterly gone out of the
world as the song of a destroyed wild bird.

-Joseph Conrad



  1. One of the reasons that those Hawaiian feather capes are so valuable is that the birds from which the feathers were collected [the red were two feathers per bird] are now extinct. They are beautiful, though.

  2. Those videos really cheered up an otherwise tedious Monday morning!idwexpm

  3. Hi, Rachel - I received my ralli quilt today and I LOVE it. So does Doug. What a great etsy shop you have! Thank you! - Morna (sorry - I haven't quite figured out etsy convos all that well yet - that's why I'm writing this here).

  4. My mother gave me feather earrings, back in the 70's or 80's. I never wore them, but I've passed them on to my daughter. I think she may have worn them once or twice. That dress in your post is really a knock-out. Wow. Well, probably any dress fitted to that body would be a knock-out! :)


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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