Fragment from a cloak, made of woven cotton with applied feathers. Peru, c. 900-1476. Fragment from a cloak, made of woven cotton with applied feathers. Peru, c. 900-1476. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, acc. no. T.153-1912.

Feathers are skin growths (similar in idea to human skin hair) that form the outer covering (plumage) on birds. Feathers are made from a protein called keratin. There are normally two layers of feathers, namely the upper layer that is for protection and an under layer used to keep the bird warm.

Feathers from the protection layer are called vaned feathers and these normally consist of a main shaft (rachis) from which comes a series of branches called barbs. Each of the barbs is sub-divided into small branches called barbules. The barbules have very small hooks (barbicels), which catch on each other to create an inter-connecting layer.

The down feathers also have a rachis with barbs and barbicels, but the latter lack the small hooks and as a result the barbules can float around, so creating a series of air pockets that are used to provide thermal insulation and so keep the bird warm.

In both the vaned and down feathers, part of the rachis is hollow, and this part, closest to the skin, is called the calamus (quill), which is without vanes. It is the calamus part of the feather that is used to make short, narrow strips used in various forms of decorative needlework, notably quill embroidery from the Tyrol region of Europe. Feather quills are also occasionally used for applied work by various groups in North America, although quills from the porcupine are more widely used.

In addition, complete vaned feathers have long been used to decorate garments in various parts of the world, some of the most famous feather garments coming from Central and South America, notably the headdress and cloaks of the Incas and Aztecs, and the Pacific region. An example of the latter are the cloaks traditionally worn by Maori chiefs in New Zealand (kakahu cloaks) and by Hawaiian royalty (`ahu`ula` cloaks). Feather work was also popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries among some European and North American urban groups.

A variety of techniques was used to decorate a feather garment or object of some kind. The technique used varied from one culture to another. Sometimes the complete skins of the bird were sewn together (patchwork) until the desired shape and form were created. On other occasions the barbs were removed from the feather vanes and then either glued to a cloth or a paper ground, or they were spun with another fibre (usually cotton) into a thread. Another method uses complete or partial feathers that are sewn down to or inserted into a woven cloth ground.

See also the TRC Needles entry on Native American decorative needlework.

V&A online catalogue (retrieved 27 June 2016).


Last modified on Thursday, 27 April 2017 08:19
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