Travellers to South America in the 1800s brought flowers made from feathers home to Europe or the USA. Feather flowers were displayed in the London Great Exhibition of 1851, and over the next few years instructions for making your own appeared in various ladies' magazines. The Victorians had a taste for novelty crafts that ornamented the home.
White poultry feather, dyed or painted, were substitutes for bright, exotic feathers from tropical birds. Subtly shaded “petals” were treated with watercolours, made more lasting by mixing with lemon juice, gum etc. Dye recipes for single-colour feathers included blues based on indigo, yellows and oranges using turmeric, pinks and lilacs concocted from cochineal or cudbear lichen. Green “leaves” or “sepals” used mixed indigo and turmeric.
Materials needed were:
- White feathers – from geese or swans if possible – in good condition
- Fine wire
- Silk thread
- Cotton wool or wadding
- Cotton thread
- Dyes and paints
- “Paste” – starch and gum, coloured and mixed to a thick, treacly consistency
- “Farina” – ground rice, wetted with dye, then dried and powdered.
Next step was to make a tissue paper pattern for the petal shape(s) required, then cut and bend feathers to match, while leaving an extra inch of shaft/stem.
Construction began with a few inches of wire. One end was wrapped round wadding until it reached the right size for the centre of the flower. Coloured paste went over this, then stamens of fine silk or tiny feathers were tied or stuck on.
The petal feathers were attached one by one with cotton thread wound round the wire. After that, the silk stamens were dipped in gum, followed by farina, to stiffen and colour them.
After trimming the stems a green calyx of feathers (or paste for tiny flowers) was added. Wire was then disguised by winding silk thread or paper strips round it.
An alternative approach was to use natural browns, creams, beiges etc., striped or speckled, for a different colour scheme.
With plenty of flowers, patience, and more wire, you could create an impressive work of floral art. A classic Victorian glass dome covered the arrangement to keep flowers free of dust. Colour fading was discouraged by the dim parlours and drawing-rooms of that era – with windows generously draped and curtained.
It all sounds a bit messier than the usual crafts kept in a lady's needlework table. I don't know how many feather flowers were actually made by amateur hobbyists. Some were created by professional milliners who regularly used feathers and dyes in their work of making and trimming hats and bonnets. These also appeared on accessories like feather fans.
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