With my love of 16th-century German costume, I find myself attaching many feathers to hats and shaping them. After years of trial and error, I have fine tuned methods for stitching/tieing feathers that works fabulously for multi-feather designs. Using this method my hats don’t lose any feathers and can take some fairly high winds!
This blog article will describe the methods I use to attach feathers to hats and covers some techniques for shaping ostrich feathers. There are many more ways to attach feathers and obtain the desired look. For the sake of this presentation, I will just be discussing attaching feathers to wool or other cloth hats. I do not have extant examples or a list of historical sources for these methods; however, it employs methods and materials available in most periods.
For this article, I have created a simplified drawing with some feather terminology; in avian biology, the terms are much more involved and vary by type of feather, e.g., primary flight, contour, tail, etc. Additionally, I will refer to ostrich drab or wing feathers. I use W.W. Swalef & Son as my feather supplier, and you can find more information about types of ostrich feathers available to purchase there if interested. They are a wholesaler, so you either have to buy a ton of feathers, or go in with several people.
Plan the Arrangement
- Start by placing the feathers in the hat on a form or model. Figure out the preferred spots for the feathers and directions they will need to point based on the style you wish to achieve. Planning the feather placement is especially important for complex arrangements like 16th-century German hats. I generally will take a picture and, if possible, have the person try the hat on to check the placement.
- Order the feathers of complex arrangements and keep track of the sequence.
- When stitching/tieing feathers in, I will use a loopy bow for the first pass before finalizing with double knots. With feathers set in tape, I will pin then stitch them into the hat.
For attaching less than 3 feathers or felt prep’d feathers pinning is a reasonable method. I have seen complex arrangements that are pinned. A hat pin or large veil pin works well for attaching feathers to hats.
The feathers can be quickly attached to the hat. They are easily removed and replaced as desired. However: some drawbacks include losing pins; challenges with seating large feathers; or the brim or crown may bend or do not take the pin well.
“What is poking me in the head?!?”…
Due to the above I usually use stitch/tie methods for attaching more than a couple feathers to a hat.
Stitch / Tie Method
The stitching/Tieing method is the primary way I attach more than 3 feather arrangements. It is very secure and straight forward.
Prepare the Feathers
I use several methods to prepare the feathers to attach onto the hat.
Tie Thread Attachment Points on the Feather
I stitch thread directly into the feather for this method and create tie points to sew into the hat. It works well for medium to large feathers, such as long peacock feathers, turkey, and longer ostrich drabs and wing feathers.
Materials – Feathers, heavy and medium needles, heavy upholstery or leather thread, wool felt, rabbit pelt glue (or modern alternative) (optional)
- Trim the quill end as needed. Some feathers for narrow hat brims or very long thick feathers (ostrich wing feathers) may need to have the quill trimmed shorter for the feathers to sit correctly.
- The size of the feather dictates the size of the needle used. Use care; if the sewing needle is too large, the feather may split along the rachis (shaft). Larger feathers will need a heavy needle, while smaller delicate feathers will need smaller needles.
- Thread the needle with upholstery or leather thread. Loop and tie a long length of the thread; more enormous hats and feathers need longer threads. Err on the side of longer thread.
- Puncture the feather quill approximately 1/2 inch up from the end. Use a thimble or other hard surface to push the needle through the feather and pull the thread through it. Referred to as attachment point 1. Be careful not to poke yourself; I have questioned my logic on this step many times. Err on the side of caution.
- Leave approximately 6 inches or more of the two threads as trailing end. Tie the long end with the needle, looping it around the feather, and securing with a double or triple knot. The thread and knots should be tight and secure; these will serve as the attachment points to the hat.
- The remaining length and needle, move out along the feathers rachis away from the quill end to secure another tie point. The length of the feather will determine how far you want to move out along the feather. For longer feathers, I will jump 2-3 inches along the feather’s rachis, then create another tie point repeating the puncture and tie off again. Leave long tails, 6-8 inches, and cut the thread. Referred to as attachment point 2.
- For really long feathers and complicated round arrangements, you may want a 3rd tie point. To achieve this, I will thread a smaller needle with a loop of 12 or more inches (or use the remaining thread from the other ties), then puncture and create a tie point about 1/2 way down the feather. Referred to as attachment point 3.
Attaching Feathers to Wool Felt
The other way I prepare feathers is using wool felt. This method works well for small to medium feathers, like ostrich drabs. I use this technique if I am filling in spaces in an existing composition or if the feathers are smaller. These area easy to pin as well. If you are attaching a lot of smaller feathers you may want to use the tape method described below.
- Instead of piercing and tieing the feather directly, place a small rectangle of wool felt around it.
- Then I stitch the felt tightly around the quill and sew through the lower rachis or the feather quill if the feathers are large enough. If the feathers are tiny, I secure with glue instead of stitching.
- Alternatively, you can use rabbit pelt glue (or modern alternatives) and glue the felt to the feather. When using glue, test the amount to use; you can create hard spots in the wool that can be hard to pierce with a needle when attaching to the hat.
Attaching Feathers to Tape
Using a tape works great when attaching a ton of poofs, or clumps of smaller drab ostrich feathers, and tons of rooster feathers, those with small flexible shafts. Individual feathers can be stitched or glued into bias tape or ribbon.
Materials – Feathers, heavy and medium needles, heavy upholstery or leather thread, bias tape or twill tape, rabbit skin glue (or craft glue) (optional)
- Plan out the length of tape needed and the feather spacing.
- The tape can be folded in half along the width or doubled up.
- Then attach the feathers sandwiched inside using stitches. Pierce the feather quill on each pass of stitch lines. The stitches can be done by hand or with a machine (CAUTION – make sure your machine can handle the feather quill or rachis without cracking them or breaking a needle).
- Alternatively, the feathers can be glued into the tape with period-appropriate rabbit skin glue or craft glue. Go easy on the glue; otherwise, you can end up with hard spots.
- Once all feathers are attached to the tape, they can be attached to a hat using pins or stitching.
Attaching the Feathers to the Hat
Once all the feathers are prepared, they can be stitched/tied or pinned into the hat. This section depends on the style of hat and the number of feathers you are arranging, and the below directions should be adjusted accordingly. If doing feather arrangement all the way around a hat, evenly space feathers all the way around using the tie in method or tape depending on the size. You can fill in any gaps with smaller feathers.
It is also useful to test the feather placement initially using loopy bows instead of knotting the feathers into place or pinning.
I generally put the lining in the hat then attach the feathers. The drawback of doing it in this order is the threads will be visible. However, the benefit is the feathers are easy to remove and replace because you can see and clip the threads holding the feathers.
Stitching the Tied Feathers to the Hat
- To start, thread one of the two threads at the lower quill tie-off point on the feather and pass it through the crown’s base at the brim’s articulation—basically, the area where a hat band would occur on a modern hat style; from now on, I will call it “band”.
- Then thread and pull the second thread through within a 1/4 inch radius to the first thread insertion. You don’t want the insertion too close for both threads. There needs to be a good amount of the hat in the tied stitch to support the feather.
- On the inside of the hat, tie the two threads together, use a bow knot, or for a more permanent setting a couple of double knots. You can stitch a tape of bound feathers or individual felt feathers in too.
- Pull the attached feather in as tight as desired into the band area. Sometimes I leave this loose depending on how much movement I want in the next tie point.
- The direction you desire the feathers to point significantly affects the attachment point 2 on the hat.
For example, if an upward-pointing composition is desired, stitch the 2nd attachment point, so the feather is perpendicular to the band, pointing up in the desired direction.
If an angled arrangement is desired, stitch the 2nd attachment point, so the feather is at an angle (like 30 degrees) or parallel to the band, pointing in the desired direction.
If attaching enormous ostrich wing feathers to a flat large 16th-century German-style hat, they could be attached perpendicular to the brim. They can be attached to themselves and supporting the brim. Then it can be covered with a crown topper, which could be stitched.
- When stitching in attachment point 2 and/or 3, you can stitch it to the crown or the brim, depending on the desired shape; if you are trying to achieve a broader floppy look, tie attachment point 2 into the brim dip down points of the hat.
Attaching the Felt or Tape Feathers
Felt and tape attached feathers can both be pinned or sewn directly into the hat. I prefer to stitch them in. Where to stitch will depend significantly on the arrangement and style.
Notes on Feather Styling
Now you have all your feathers in the hat and look like a ruffed up ostrich… “what now!”? Style those feathers! There are many ways to style feathers for finished hat compositions.
In general, I shape the feathers when I am stitching them into the hat. I will shape the rachis in the desired direction. When I first started attaching feathers, I was super careful with each feather; now, I really “get ahold” of the rachis and barbs of ostrich feathers. Manual shaping works with most feathers, such as rooster, ostrich, pheasant, peacock, etc. Generally, it will work to achieve the desired shape for more straightforward arrangements.
For complex ostrich feather arrangements and when I desire more curl, I use a low heat curling iron. Just pretend you are curling really bleached hair, so keep the temperature low.
Another styling technique is to individually curl the barbs 2-3 at a time like ribbon on a present using the edge of a pair of scissors.
I highly recommend testing each of these out on test feathers before trying it on your arrangement. Additionally, it can be done before attaching the feathers if you already have the styling sorted out.
Another shaping technique I utilize is tying together individual feathers that are already attached to the hat. This method further shapes and stabilizes the arrangement. They do come loose over time. I generally catch loose tie points as I go and repair as needed.
Hopefully this article will give you some awesome ideas!
If you have questions or need more info, feel free to contact me. I am not a feather styling expert, and there are excellent articles out on the internets. I suggest visiting the links below and checking out some more in-depth tutorials before starting.