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.
Beautifully patterned and irridescent, it is no wonder pheasant feathers feature in fashion
Clockwise from top left: feather hanging by Posh Bird Designs; napkin rings by Gilinix; panels and framed picture by Game In A Frame
Feathers & Fluff feather pins adorn a fedora (above) and bag (below left); pheasant feather napkin rings by Country & Home (below)
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. Larger feathers with bigger spines might have to be dyed separately.
Store feathers in a dry place with lots of space as once they have been bent into a shape they are hard to straighten. Revive tired-looking feathers by gently steaming them over a kettle.
WHERE TO BUY
www.clarebrownlow.co.uk www.countryandhome.co.uk www.feathersandfluff.co.uk www.gameinaframe.co.uk www.gilinix.co.uk www.jaffefeathers.co.uk www.poshbirddesigns.com