Feath­ered trends

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Don’t throw away those pheas­ant feath­ers, says Char­lotte Mack­aness

For all its ex­otic ori­gins, the pheas­ant is some­thing of a Bri­tish icon. It may be an ev­ery­day sight in many parts of the coun­try but there is noth­ing re­motely mun­dane about even the “com­mon” pheas­ant. Its spec­tac­u­lar plumage is a thing of great beauty that also has sur­pris­ing and di­verse uses. The feath­ers have long been ap­pre­ci­ated by fly ty­ers for their va­ri­ety, ver­sa­til­ity and move­ment. “They are used for lots of dif­fer­ent flies but per­haps the most fa­mous is the late Frank Sawyer’s Pheas­ant Tail Nymph,” says Mike Swan at the Game and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust. “Frank was a river-keeper on the Hamp­shire Avon and noted au­thor. It’s a sim­ple but ex­tremely ef­fec­tive fly tied with just fi­bres from a cock’s tail feather and cop­per wire.”

Gil­lian Painter makes pheas­ant-feather wreaths and nap­kin rings that she sells on­line through Gilinix. “I sim­ply wire the feath­ers and al­low them to plume nat­u­rally to cre­ate a wa­ter­fall ef­fect,” she ex­plains. “To me, there is no such thing as a bog-stan­dard pheas­ant. They are the most ex­tra­or­di­nary birds. Ini­tially, I was drawn to the tail but as you start ex­am­in­ing them care­fully you re­alise the feath­ers have so many dif­fer­ent colours and tex­tures. You ex­pect the rus­sets and or­anges but not king­fisher blue.

“For me, the pheas­ant rep­re­sents Bri­tish­ness. The feather wreaths I make are bought by peo­ple from all walks of life, not just coun­try and shoot­ing folk. I think pheas­ants tran­scend stereo­types and back­ground and have a univer­sal ap­peal,” be­lieves Painter.

Artist Kay Doble from Game In A Frame agrees: “The pheas­ant is a strong sym­bol. It’s quintessen­tially Bri­tish and as­so­ci­ated with her­itage, the good life and of­ten ex­cel­lence. I use en­tire pheas­ant pelts in some pieces and just the feath­ers in oth­ers. They are ex­tremely beau­ti­ful, with won­der­ful iri­des­cent and holo­graphic qual­i­ties. No two are ever the same and each bird has such a di­verse ar­ray of feath­ers in terms of pat­tern, form and colours, which be­come even brighter on the male dur­ing mat­ing sea­son.”

Doble lives in North Glouces­ter­shire and sources most of her feath­ers from driven shoots within an eight-mile ra­dius of her home. “Given there are nearly 50 species of

From art and fash­ion to flies and home­ware, pheas­ants of­fer so much more than a roast din­ner,

says Char­lotte Mack­aness

pheas­ant, oc­ca­sion­ally I have to source feath­ers from far­ther afield but I like the fact I’m us­ing a nat­u­ral ma­te­rial that comes from es­tates where prac­tices are car­ried out eth­i­cally and re­spon­si­bly. I also pick up birds that I find dead on the roads.”

This waste-not-want-not at­ti­tude mo­ti­vates much of the work of Katie Kirby. “I shoot it, pluck it, cook it and then make some­thing with the feath­ers,” ex­plains Kirby, a farmer’s daugh­ter from East York­shire who cre­ates be­spoke home­wares and ac­ces­sories un­der the la­bel Feath­ers & Fluff. “We have a small shoot here and my busi­ness started when I be­gan mak­ing feather dec­o­ra­tions for the ta­ble at shoot lunches. Next, I did some feather bow ties for my broth­ers. These re­ally cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion and helped things take off. They are hugely pop­u­lar with the young set go­ing off to univer­sity or Young Farm­ers’ balls, par­tic­u­larly the ones with a car­tridge in the mid­dle. They are novel and strik­ing. The cock­bird bow tie makes quite a state­ment, al­though I pre­fer the one made from hen feath­ers; there is some­thing del­i­cate and beau­ti­ful about the colour­ing, which makes it easy to wear.

“Vir­tu­ally all my feath­ers come from birds we’ve shot here at home or that my fa­ther, broth­ers or part­ner give me. Dad has a good re­la­tion­ship with lots of lo­cal keep­ers, who of­ten let him take a load of tail feath­ers. If I buy-in feath­ers, such as those from the Lady Amherst’s pheas­ant, I go to fly-ty­ing sup­pli­ers. When we shoot here, I get first dibs when the trailer comes back. I did get in touch with a game dealer but me­chan­i­cal pluck­ing left many of the feath­ers use­less,” she re­veals.

Ben Jaffe of Jaffe et Fils, a spe­cial­ist sup­plier of feath­ers to the world of fash­ion, theatre and the mil­i­tary, con­firms the dif­fi­culty of sourc­ing feath­ers in great num­bers from shoots. “Al­though most of our Ring­neck pheas­ant plumage comes from English birds, we do not buy di­rectly from shoots be­cause they tend to

‘Pheas­ant feath­ers are strong but aes­thet­i­cally beau­ti­ful and very adapt­able’

con­tract out the pro­cess­ing of the birds. Other va­ri­eties, such as Lady Amherst’s, Golden Pheas­ant and Ven­ery, come from farmed birds be­cause it isn’t pos­si­ble to find these in any num­bers in the UK. Struc­turally, pheas­ant feath­ers are strong but aes­thet­i­cally beau­ti­ful and very adapt­able. They are stuck to­gether with tiny mi­cro hooks. By re­mov­ing these you can curl and ma­nip­u­late the feather. We can also bleach and dye them but it is al­ways a bal­anc­ing act – too many pro­cesses and you risk de­stroy­ing the nat­u­ral struc­ture and the feath­ers are stun­ning in their own right, so we sell a good many undyed.”

Tail feath­ers are di­vided into sides and cen­tres, the lat­ter of which are most sought af­ter for their even band­ing (stripes) and size. “Length is ev­ery­thing in the feather world,” says Jaffe.

“This is achieved

through a com­bi­na­tion of age and ge­net­ics. A Ring­neck pheas­ant’s tail feath­ers would prob­a­bly never grow much more than 80cm, how­ever long it lived, whereas Lady Amherst’s tail feath­ers can be well over a me­tre.”

Ac­cord­ing to Tina Fox-ed­wards from on­line gift em­po­rium Coun­try & Home, pheas­ant feath­ers have a tac­tile at­trac­tion as well as an aes­thetic one. “Our pieces come into their own when you see them in the flesh,” she says. “We do the odd gift fair and cus­tomers are re­ally drawn to the feather pieces. They seem to en­gage all the senses – you don’t want to merely ad­mire them but touch, too.”

New to the com­pany’s range are desk ac­ces­sories: feather-cov­ered pen pots and tele­phone pads. “Pheas­ants have a very broad ap­peal. The lovely thing about the desk items is that they are mas­cu­line enough to make good presents for dif­fi­cult-to-buy-for men but I’d be very happy to have them in my home,” de­clares Fox-ed­wards, whose fam­ily owns the Arun­dell Arms in Devon; many of the pheas­ant-feather pieces are used in the dé­cor.

“Al­though it is bold, feather pat­terns fit in most homes. Our pheas­ant-feather lamp­shades look in­cred­i­bly con­tem­po­rary. The colours are so vivid and beau­ti­ful to look at, just as a work of art, but they change again when the lamp is switched on,” she says.

The shades are cre­ated by Lau­ren Deaker of Posh Bird De­signs, a pas­try chef from Bris­tol who be­came fas­ci­nated by the pheas­ants brought into the restau­rant where she works by her shoot­ing boss. “I was al­most hyp­no­tised by the beauty of the feath­ers. When you look at each, in­di­vid­ual one the colours and pat­terns are ex­quis­ite. The birds would be py­jama cut and most would end up in the bin. It seemed such a waste so I started ex­per­i­ment­ing. To be­gin with I made Christ­mas baubles and wreaths that we sold in the restau­rant and at lo­cal mar­kets,” she ex­plains. “Ev­ery piece is unique be­cause of the feath­ers. Of­ten I’ll make ‘male’ and ‘fe­male’ pieces. I try to do as lit­tle to them as pos­si­ble in terms of treat­ing them be­cause I don’t like

to lose the nat­u­ral wa­ter­proof­ing or the vi­brancy of the colours. How­ever, I do have to warn cus­tomers that their dogs might be at­tracted to them,” Deaker ad­mits. “I of­ten see dogs sniff­ing around my stall and then look­ing up. They must think the baubles and lamps are the strangest birds they’ve ever seen.”

Con­fu­sion isn’t re­stricted to cu­ri­ous ca­nines. “While the re­ac­tion of most peo­ple is ‘Wow’, I do get the odd com­ment along the lines of: ‘I’d rather see the feath­ers on the bird.’ Per­haps they think there are a lot of bald pheas­ants roam­ing the West­coun­try,” she muses. “I’m proud to be up­cy­cling feath­ers that would be oth­er­wise dis­carded and have made a sign that ex­plains this for my stall.”

For artist Clare Brown­low, pheas­ant feath­ers are her creative tool. “My back­ground had al­ways been big, moody art­works un­til I was stay­ing with par­ents in Nor­folk with­out any of my kit. I picked up a pheas­ant feather, cut a sort of nib and started ex­per­i­ment­ing with some of Dad’s inks,” she ex­plains. Her most pop­u­lar sub­jects are bees and, fit­tingly, pheas­ants. The re­sults have been ex­hib­ited across the globe, from Lon­don and Los An­ge­les to Sin­ga­pore, and Brown­low was short­listed for Wildlife Artist Of The Year in 2014.

“The feather sucks up the ink and as it goes over the pa­per it has quite a scratchy feel. This cre­ates the ink splat­ters that give the pieces their en­ergy,” she re­veals. “Gen­er­ally, older feath­ers tend to be the most ro­bust and last the long­est so it is those wily birds who have man­aged to evade the guns for a good while that I’m drawn to when I get feath­ers from shoots.”

For those whose creative juices start flow­ing at the thought of feath­ers, it’s best to find them as close to the field as pos­si­ble. “If you don’t shoot your­self, get in touch with a lo­cal keeper,” sug­gests Swan. Al­ter­na­tively, or­der game from a dealer in feather. Artis­tic in­ven­tive­ness will work up a hunger, then “up­cy­cle” the rest of the bird in the oven.

Feath­ers & Fluff feather pins adorn a fe­dora (above) and bag (be­low left); pheas­ant feather nap­kin rings by Coun­try & Home (be­low)

Clock­wise from top left: feather hang­ing by Posh Bird De­signs; nap­kin rings by Gilinix; pan­els and framed pic­ture by Game In A Frame

Beau­ti­fully pat­terned and ir­rides­cent, it is no won­der pheas­ant feath­ers fea­ture in fash­ion

Frame left is from Game in a frame as is two pics above it. Above is from Gilinix. Right is from Posh Bird De­signs. and be­low right is from Coun­try and Home Clare Brown­low at work (above); let­ter rack and pen pot from Coun­try & Home (be­low left)

IN FINE FEATHER It is best to treat feath­ers with in­sec­ti­cide to kill any creepy crawlies, es­pe­cially if any creations are set for the head or the ta­ble. Dy­ing feath­ers also helps re­move un­wanted ex­tras. The small, fluffy feath­ers are eas­i­est to dye....

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