A Dictionary of Arts: Feathers.

A Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines; containing A Clear Exposition of Their Principles and Practice

by Andrew Ure, M. D.;
F. R. S. M. G. S. Lond.: M. Acad. M. S. Philad.; S. PH. DOC. N. GERM. Ranow.; Mulh. Etc. Etc.

Illustrated with nearly fifteen hundred engravings on wood
Eleventh American, From The Last London Edition.
To which is appended, a Supplement of Recent Improvements to The Present Time.

New York: D Appleton & company, 200 Broadway. Philadelphia: George S. Appleton, 148 Chestnut St.


FEATHERS (Plumes, Fr.; Federn, Germ.) constitute the subject of the manufacture of the Plumassier, a name given by the French (and also the English) to the artisan who prepares the feathers of certain birds for ornaments to the toilet of ladies and for military men, and to him also who combines the feathers in various forms. We shall content ourselves with describing the method of preparing ostrich feathers, as most others are prepared in the same way.

Several qualities are distinguished in the feathers of the ostrich; those of the male, in particular, are whiter and more beautiful. Those upon the back and above the wings are preferred; next, those of the wings, and lastly, of the tail. The down is merely the feathers of the other parts of the body, which vary in length from 4 to 14 inches. This down is black in the males, and gray in the females. The finest white feathers of the female have always their ends a little grayish, which lessens their lustre, and lowers their price. These feathers are imported from Algiers, Tunis, Alexandria, Madagascar, and Senegal; this being the order of their value.

The scouring process is thus performed: - 4 ounces of white soap, cut small, are dissolved in 4 pounds of water, moderately hot, in a large basin; and the solution is made into a lather by beating with rods. Two bundles of the feathers, tied with packthread, are then introduced, and are rubbed well with the hands for five or six minutes. After this soaping they are washed n clear water, as hot as the hand can bear.

The whitening or bleaching is performed by three successive operations.

1. They are immersed in hot water mixed with Spanish white, and well agitated in it; after which they are washed in three waters in succession.

2. The feathers are azured in cold water containing a little indigo tied p in a fine cloth. They should be passed quickly through this bath.

3. They are sulphured in the same way as straw hats are (See SULPHURING); they are then dried by hanging upon cords, when they must be well shaken from time to time to open the fibres.

The ribs are scraped with a bit of glass cut circularly, in order to render them very pliant. By drawing the edge of a blunt knife over the filaments they assume the curly form so much admired. The hairs of a dingy colour are dyed black. For 20 pounds of feathers, a strong decoction is made of 25 pounds of logwood in a proper quantity of water. After boiling it for 6 hours, the wood is taken out, 3 pounds of copperas are thrown in; and, after continuing the ebullition for 15 or 20 minutes, the copper is taken from the fire. The feathers are then immersed by handfuls, thoroughly soaked, and worked about; and left in for two or three days. They are next cleansed in a very weak alkaline ley, and soaped three several times. When they feel very soft to the touch, they must be rinsed in cold water, and afterwards dried. White feathers are very difficult to dye a beautiful black. The acetate of iron is said to answer better than the sulphate, as a mordant.

For dying other colours, the heathers should be previously well bleached by the action of the sun and the dew; the end of the tube being cut sharp like a toothpick, and the feathers being planted singly in the grass. After fifteen days' exposure, they are cleared with soap as above described.

Rose color or pink, is given with safflower and lemon juice.

Deep red, by a boiling hot bath of Brazil wood, after aluming.

Crimson. The above deep red feathers are passed through a bath of cudbear,

Prune de Monsieur. The deep red is passed through a bath of cudbear.

Blues of every shade, are dyed with the indigo vat.

Yellow; after aluming, with a bath of turmeric or weld.

Other tints may be obtained by a mixture of the above dyes.

Feathers have some more useful employments than the decoration of the heads of women and soldiers. In one case, they supply us with a soft elastic down on which we can repose our wearied frames, and enjoy sweet slumbers. Such are called bed feathers. Others are employed for writing, and these are called quills.

Goose feathers are most esteemed for beds, and they are best when plucked from the living bird, which is done thrice a year, in spring, midsummer, and the beginning of harvest. The qualities sought for in bed feathers, are softness, elasticity, lightness, and warmth. Their only preparation when cleanly gathered is a slight beating to clear away the loose matter, but for this purpose they must be first well dried either by the sun or a stove. Bleaching with lime water is a bad thing, as they never can be freed from white dust afterwards.

The feathers of the elder duck, anas mollissima, called cider down, possess in a superior degree all the good qualities of goose down. It is used only as a covering to beds, and never should be slept upon, as it thereby loses its elasticity.

Quills for writing. These consist usually of the feathers plucked out of the wings of a geese. Dutch quills have been highly esteemed, as the Dutch were the first who hit upon the art of preparing them well, by clearing them both inside and outside from a fatty humor with which they are naturally impregnated, and which prevents the ink from flowing freely along the pens made with them. The Dutch for a long time employed hot cinders or ashes to attain this end; and their secret was preserved very carefully, but it at length transpired, and the process was then improved. A bath of very fine sand must be kept constantly at a suitable temperature, which is about 140°F.; into this, the quill end of the feather must be plunged, and left in it a few instants. On taking them out they must be strongly rubbed with a piece of flannel, after which they are found to be white and transparent. Both carbonate of potash in solution and dilute sulphuric acid have been tried to effect the same end, but without success. The yellow tint which gives quills the air of age, is produced by dipping them for a little in dilute muriatic acid, and then making them perfectly dry. But this process must be preceded by the sand-bath operation. The above is the French process.

Quills are dressed by the London dealers in two ways; by the one, they remain of their natural color; by the other, they acquire yellow tint. The former is called the Dutch method, and the principal workman is called Dutcher. He sits before a small stove fire into which he thrusts the barrel of the quill for about a second, then lays its root quickly below his blunt-edged knife called a hook, and, pressing this firmly with the left hand draws the quill briskly through with his right. The bed on which the quill is laid to receive this pressure is called the plate. It is a rectangular smooth lump of iron, about 3 inches long, 1½ broad, and 2½ thick, which is heated on his stove to about the 350th degree Fahr. The hook is a ruler of about 15 inches in length, somewhat like the pattern maker's knife, its fulcrum being formed at the one end by a hook and staple, and the power of pressure being applied by the hand at the other end. The quill, rendered soft and elastic by the heat, endures the strong scraping action of the tool, and thus gets stripped of its opaque outer membrane, without hazard of being split. A skilful work man can pass 2000 quills through his hands in a day of 10 hours.

They are next cleaned by being scrubbed by a woman with a piece of rough dog-fish skin, and finally tied up by a man in one quarter of a hundred bundles.

In another mode of dressing quills, they are steeped a night in decoction of turmeric, to stain them yellow; taken out and dried in warm sand contained in a pot, then scraped by the Dutcher as above described. The first are reckoned to make the best pens, though the second may appear more beautiful.

Crow quills for draughtsmen, as well as swan quills, are prepared in the same way. The quills plucked from well-fed living birds have most elasticity, and are least subject to be moth-eaten. The best are those plucked, or which are spontaneously cast in the month of May or June, because they are then fully ripe. In the goose's wing the five exterior feathers only are valuable for writing. The first is the hardest and roundest of all, but the shortest. The next two are the best of the five. They are sorted into those of the right and the left wing, which are differently bent. The heaviest quills are, generally speaking, the best. Lately, steaming for four hours has been proposed as a good preparation.

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