Feather, feathers and plumes!

How do I decorate my 16th century hat?

The ostrich feather, big voluminous plumes, in a hat is what catch your eye when you see the 16th century Germany dresses, even though many hats during that period didn’t have any feathers, or maybe only one single one. The feather comes from the ostrich, who derives from Africa, but now has spread all over the world via farms due to their adaptations to the climate. The feathers of adult males are mostly black, with white feathers on the tip of the wings and a white tail. Females and young males are greyish-brown and white.

The ostrich gives you a couple of different kind of feathers, depending on where on the body it was located, long, short, stiff, soft etc. The wing feathers provides the big fluffy and soft plumes.

The plumes has a very nice and soft tip that ‘bobble’ when you wear it, in contrary to feathers which have a stiff tip …but plumes are also more expensive then the regular feathers, so choose what you want to spend.

Wing feather/plume (left) and feather (right)

How many feathers should I use?
The feathers are important for the impression the hat is going to make, a hat without feathers can still be a beautiful piece of handicraft, but adding feathers always gets the ooooh and aaaah. Feathers also provides stiffening to the brim …as well as extra sail for the wind. How many feathers depends on how you planning to show them and depending on the purpose of your hat; is it going to become an art and science piece competing in period accuracy? Then you should choose feathers appropriate to your outfit, the feathers was expensive back in the days, and even today the feathers cost a lot (Plumes/wing feathers are more expensive then ordinary feathers, the one I use cost around $6-7 (45-50 SEK) per plume, and can be found at Pimp Your Garb or Kapitelhusgarden).

My small hats has a tendency to have around 7 feathers, that gives me the look I want too have (I loose some, I add some…).

To give you an indication of how feathers was used, study woodcuts and paintings of different classes and sexes and areas of what we usually define as the 16th century of Germany. There is woodcuts with Landsknechts, paintings with Saxon princess, religious paintings and portrait, you can study, depending what area you are interested in.

Here is some example:

You can spread the feathers evenly all around the brim like this:
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You can have one or two feathers, straight up or hanging down, or one point forward or both pointing backwards or evenly resting on the brim on both side of your head:
1eb18c98805cce811fbc56649a39c5d9 31f078860de87e7d95503744fc05b8d0 48419fc660f518f63e185b47f7392fb1 aa70b59b773b422a2eb40db9243353b4 20b7c332a7a7231d050cbbc7e40ab2fb 954b64610bcc73999a96b9f7eb53ece8 043588d0380473131d10e812df8e5b2b 3a6c41560e379f19b1bc11912b49d950 86adf443496d39995c8f7582f3332075 878914f7b1aec33daf957ecc2c56474c

You can choose an amount of feathers somewhere in between, and have them point straight up, or spread evenly on both sides, or all to the front, or all hanging in the back:
0da67f16fa11683a60fe96d4b6d7b095 5f8df91f5819b850965d99f7c6356043 82ff4f5764d902de2d5f9a354cbc1f22 a5876ccc40392befe4fa165b0199416b beb9d19a8c3dbb2a1f8686c98393236b ecd0214a2ec6107fa8c74e28e92a4a9f

Strictly speaking, the amount of feathers depends on your status: an officer has probably more feathers then a simple drummer, a Saxon princess has probably higher quality feathers then a trossfrau etc. An officers female follower has probably more feathers then a follower to a foot soldier, a middle class women has probably fewer then a general etc. There is probably even a different depending where in Germany you live, so there is all kind of different variable that needs to be taken in consideration when making a hat proper to your dress …or just choose to add the amount of feathers you wish to have, and be satisfied with your ooooh’s and the aaaah’s as you walk by.

Most of the woodcuts and paintings are portraits, often made to make the motif look their best, or sometimes a generalization of how a group is presented. The feather was probably not part of the everyday dress, especially for the lower classes, but more often used when posing, processing etc, and they could also been added as a symbol of power, purity or flamboyant. I’ll talk more about symbolism in renaissance paintings and woodcuts in the next blog.

If we then study paintings of camp scenes or painted groups of people, we will probably get a more appropriate window into the every day life:


Detail of painting of Karl V camp, 1546
You see around 50 people in the painting, and still nobody is wearing any feathers among the landsknechts and camp follower, even though almost every single one is wearing same style hat as above (one guy in a red hat has something that might be interpreted as feathers laying on his brim)

Feathers seem to be more common among the nobles (especially women …and men dressed in armour)…and landsknechts. The middle class seem to have a more humble approach and maybe only wear one feather, if they have any at all. The trossfraus, the camp followers of the landsknechts (which I’m specifically interested in), seem to wear feathers more often when posing; alone or in the company of a landsknecht, rather then during a march, cooking, or any other everyday chores (which makes sense of course).


One exception is the picture “La Lansquenette” (pic no 7) which shows a fully dressed trossfrau loaded with things and obviously on the march.

More woodcuts and paintings from the 16th century, Germany, can also be found at my Pinterest

How do I attach the feathers?
First you have choose the amount of feathers you wish to have on your hat, then you want to attach them in some way to prevent them from falling off. Some people stitch them to the hat, I prefer to use pins, sturdy pins around 2″ (7-10 cm) so I can re-arrange them if I want, but it’s also easier to get them to stick where I want them to be. I prefer this type of hat pins: http://shop.kapitelhusgarden.se/draktdetaljer/hattar-och-hattnalar

Before I attach them, I always curl them to give them that perky look, there is several ways to curl a feather, but I’m usually just start at the top of the feather, grabbing it carefully between my thumb and fingers and pull it towards the tip …working my way down the stim until I have reached the curl I want.
Normal feather and slightly curled feather …and curled feather and really, really curled feather that takes the shape of a spiral

Spiral curled feahter

Some feathers might have a thick vane, so you need to soften it: boil a pan of water and hold the feather over the steam to soften the stim before curling.

It becomes very obvious when you curl the feather from which side of the bird the feather comes from, use the natural right or left feather when decorating the hat.20130927-175641.jpg Left and right curl

Don’t rush this part of attaching feathers, it takes me around an 30-40 min to attach feathers to a new hat. Do it in steps: curled the feather, attach it, take a look, attach another two, take a look of the result etc. After you’re finished with the placement, then use the pins to be secure them in place.

20131016-151046.jpg 20131016-151055.jpg
Slightly curled feathers attached to a Saxon hat

Spiral curled feathers attached to the same hat

20131016-151220.jpg 20131105-145027.jpg
The hat to the left has 22 curled feathers, the hat to the right has 29 spiral curled feathers
Same hat, with spiral curled feathers, where the feathers are pointing upwards instead of resting on the brim.

Don’t forget to attach the pins to secure the feathers from not falling off in the wind.

How many feathers, how you curl them, depends on what kind of hat you have and what kind of result you are after:


1) My small hat: where my feathers points straight up (the surrounding people are very happy about that) and I use on top of my wulsthaube.
2) The easy one: that I can just slip on top of a simple headpiece
3) The Saxon hat that gives great protection from the Californian sun (and Swedish rain): The last hat should be used to a Saxon dress, but apparently I can’t find any picture of myself in one… I apologies for the slightly anachronistic way I wear it. But it was a GREAT sun protection! …note that I basically just added some feathers on one side on the last one.

How do I transport and storage the hat?
The feather is pretty strong, I usually just roll it into my veil, mostly because the feathers has a tendency to get stuck in the zipper… I rarely remove the feathers from the hat, but I also have soft hats with no wire nor buckram or anything that stiffen it. Just plain old double layer of wool. Well, except for my Saxon court hat, that one actually has a layer of plastic inside, and the size is perfect fit to my bag, but with out the feathers…

My feathers has been through rain and has always regain their fluffiness after they dried, but if the feathers starts to look a bit sad, then remove them from the hat and use a mild shampoo and rinse them in luke warm water, dry them with the tip down, or if you are in a hurry, blow dry them on cool settings, smooth the vane with your fingers during the time your air blow them and redo the curls if necessary to make them fluffy again.

Heat, sun, dust, soap etc can damage the feathers in the same way as your skin and hair, becoming dry and fragile. My feathers seem to have about 2-3 lifespan before they become dry and brakes when I curl them. (It doesn’t stop me from using them as filling between other more fresher feathers) The feathers can be attacked by insects and mites so storage your feather (and hat if they are still attached) the same way you storage your wool dresses, cedar has a natural repellent to insects, and you can buy cedar balls to put into your hat box, the box will keep the feathers away from direct sun light when your are not using it. Avoid storage the feathers in plastic bags, since that will prevent them from breathing.

(If you choose to use dyed feathers, then be sure that they won’t bleed in the rain, otherwise it may discolour your hemd.)

Lucas Cranach Digital Archive
– M. McDonald, Ferdinand Columbus: Renaissance (London, British Museum Press, 2005)
– Wikipedia
– Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce
– Bishop Museum, The care of feathers, 1996
– Pinterest


3 comments on “Feather, feathers and plumes!

  1. […] vägen runt om. För mer bra tankar om hur fjädrar kan bäras kan du kolla in den här informativa bloggen som också innehåller tips på hur du lockar och sköter dina […]

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