On Wednesday and Thursday I attended a feather conservation workshop delivered by conservator Allyson Rae. The course was held at the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Study Centre. Note that while there is a picture of a bundle of cassowary feathers in this post, we did not work on it- it was merely passed around for viewing along with a bag of Yellow-Shafted-Flicker feathers. No CITES listed species were worked with for the purposes of this workshop.
There were about 12 participants on the course from various backgrounds spanning across natural history and ethnography. Some I was happy to see I had met before. After getting to know each other, we settled down to learn about the properties of feathers, their chemical composition, colour variation in species, function, structure and the importance of bird’s preen oils to the health of a feather.
We then moved on to what can damage feathers. Light damage is quite common, and we were shown some examples in the galleries. Also common is damage from pests and deterioration from keeping the specimen at the wrong levels of humidity.
Light damage. This owl is not supposed to be white!:
Allyson Rae explaining the difference between a contour feather and a filoplume:
We were asked to observe the structure of different feathers under a microscope.
Most birds have various groups of feathers covering their body in patterns of contour feathers, with filoplumes underneath. The expections to this rule are the penguins and ratites. Ratite feathers are very hair-like, as can be seen below with the bundle of cassowary feathers:
On the second day, we were all given a pack containing various feathers conservation tools such as smoke sponge, cotton, Industrial Methylated Spirit, Mowilith 50, webril strips and a chemical sponge.
Our first attempt at the treatment of a feather was to be cleaning with a solvent. I chose a particularly filthy feather as I wanted to be sure of the results. I placed the feather on a bed of absorbant tissue and used cotton wool to apply the IMS over it.
Feather before treatment:
Feather during treatment, with the IMS drawing the dirt out
Feather after treatment:
We were asked to experiment with a variety of dry techniques. There was a cloth called “Dust Bunny” in our pack and I was surprised to see that it was just as effective as the IMS with regards to removing dirt. I also tried the smoke sponge (not terribly effective) and rubber powder (also not terribly effective.) I found the IMS and Dust Bunny to be my favorite cleaning tools, though of course different jobs call for different methods and solutions.
We then moved on to “wet treatments.” We immersed both a filoplume and a contour feather in a tray of water and added a few drops of IMS. Eventually the filoplume looked alarming. It had lost its fluffiness and looked like a strip of drowned…something. However, these type of feathers are remarkably stable. After blowing cool air across it with a hair dryer and reshaping it with my fingers- it looked just as a fluffy (and cleaner!) than before I had soaked it.
Our final challenge was to repair a broken feather. My feather was broken in three places. It looked hopeless.
However, after Allyson showed us her technique for repairing damaged feathers, I quickly set to work using it. First, the feather was soaked in water, which made it return to a smoother shape. I then took a spare feather and sliced through the shaft, carefully removing the hollow white cells within. I then used the Mowilith 50 (a fast drying adhesive) to attach the new shaft to the broken one, using it as a splint to join the 3 breaks together.
I’m very happy with the results of the treatment on my feathers, and can’t wait to use them at work!