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When Featherwork Was King

Learn the history of bird feathers that were utilized worldwide to create garments.

By Dick Schroeder
Posted: July 3, 2008, 5 a.m. EDT

Excerpt from BIRD TALK Magazine, July 2004 issue, with permission from its publisher, BowTie Magazines, a division of BowTie Inc. To purchase digital back issues of BIRD TALK Magazine, click here.

Man has interacted with birds in a variety of ways for centuries. Birds have been food, pets, alarm systems, decoys and objects of art, just to name a few roles. One of the most amazing ways birds have been incorporated into a culture is in featherwork – the weaving of feathers into garments. Purchase BIRD TALK Digital Back Issues

King Kamehameha I’s alu’ula (feathered cape) is probably the most famous example of featherwork in existence. Known as the Golden Cloak, it contains 450,000 feathers of the black honeycreeper bird (Drepanis pacifica). It has been calculated to have required 80,000 birds to fabricate, as each bird only had six or seven suitable feathers.

Hawai'i
The  feathers of black honeycreeper bird (Drepanis pacifica) were used to create the feathered cloak for Hawaiian royalty. 

No wonder the black honeycreeper is extinct (the last sighting was in 1898, and King Kamehameha I died in 1819). Actually, the collecting for feathers played a minor role in its disappearance; the main reason was deforestation and introduced predators.

Bird collecting was an esteemed profession in old Hawaii. Gathered feathers were used to pay taxes and used in place of gold and gems, as there are none of these in the Pacific Islands.

The most prized feathers were yellow, obtained from the upper and under tail coverts of the mamo bird, as well as from the under wings of the black honeyeater. The mamo, too, is extinct, but this also occurred in recent history, not from feather collecting.

Red feathers were also in great demand with these coming from the scarlet honeycreeper and the crimson-and-black honeycreeper.

The cloaks were made by weaving a net of olonaa (Touchardia latifolia), a native vegetation, and covering it with bundles of feathers in overlapping rows, like shingles on a roof. It was not just cloaks that received the feather treatment. The battle helmets of the highest ranking leaders were also covered in yellow or red feathers. The lesser leaders wore similar headgear, but without the prized feathers.

High-ranking women were also adorned with feathers in the form of feathered wreaths. These were worn around the neck or the head, again, yellow being the most valuable.

New Zealand
It was not just the early Hawaiians who practiced the art of featherwork. The Maori of New Zealand were also accomplished weavers and featherworkers. Like the Hawaiians, the Maori arrived in New Zealand in their dugout canoes from various South Pacific Islands before the Europeans arrived.

The feathered cloak is the most highly prized family heirloom to the Maori people. It is made from a base of muka, or flax fibers, that are washed and bleached to soften and whiten them. The fibers are rolled into long yarn, which is then woven into large rectangles, shaped at the hips and shoulders. Feathers are woven in at the same time, and it can take an experienced weaver several months to prepare the materials and weave the cloak.

The most prized feathers are from the huia, a starling-sized bird last seen in 1907. Mainly black, it was the long black tail feathers with the white tips that were used in the weavings. The huia became extinct due to the European demand for these very same tail feathers. They were already under great duress from the clearing of forests and the introduced predators brought from Europe, including rats and dogs.

Other species’ feathers were used, like the kiwi — which still exists today (but despite conservation attempts, their numbers continue to decline) — as well as the wood pigeon that provided white feathers from its breast and green from its back. Red feathers were obtained from the kaka parrot. While basically brown, the kaka have scarlet feathers on the under tail and under wings as well as a crimson band on the hind neck. The kaka bird is locally common today; however, a subspecies, the Norfolk Island kaka, had the last specimen die in a cage in London in 1851.

The Americas
It wasn’t just in the Pacific that featherwork was employed, but right here in the Americas as well. Feather weaving is known to have existed in several native tribes in Peru: the Nascas, who lived on the southern coast from 100 BC to 700 AD, the Waris, who lived in south central Peru from 700 AD to 1000 AD, and the Chimus, who lived on the north coast from 1100 AD to 1500 AD.

Pieces of their featherwork have been found in burial sites and in funeral bundles or offerings. The weavings are made from natural cotton or wool on which small, brightly colored feathers are sewn. They are placed in tight rows until the entire surface is covered, often in a pattern with a geometric or animal motif. Colors range from green, turquoise, yellow, reds, oranges, black and white. Some Aztec featherwork contains the iridescent feathers from hummingbirds. That is some mighty fine needlework!

In the Amazon basin featherwork is quite complex, with certain feathers representing the relationship between cultural characteristics and the environment. The trees in the Amazon grow to tremendous heights in their fight for sunlight. Birds inhabit several different layers or strata in this environment. A bird living in the upper reaches has a higher status than a bird of the forest floor.

Men, with their hunting prowess, are associated with birds of the upper canopy, while women, with their gathering and gardening, are associated with birds of the lower levels. Males wear feathers from the middle region birds, such as macaws, egrets and toucans. The most highly prized feathers for males are those of the harpy eagle, the birds that live at the very top of the rain forest canopy. Seldom are feathers used in women’s garments, but when they are, they are generally from the curassow because it is close to the rain forest floor.

Here in the U.S., our own native Americans also were involved in featherwork. Probably the “war bonnet” is the most obvious rendition, but Indians of the southwest traded with tribes in Mexico for parrot and macaw feathers. These were crafted into fans as well as used in religious ceremonies.

So we see, feathers have been utilized by people for as long as they and birds have been together, and we never touched on the egret plumes or the ostrich feathers that were all the rage in the early part of the 20th century. But that’s another story.

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When Featherwork Was King

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Reader Comments
a very interesting article
joan, franklin square, NY
Posted: 7/7/2008 8:57:29 AM
Quite a rundown!
Taddy, Rock Island, IL
Posted: 7/6/2008 9:05:11 PM
Thank goodness that people don't do that nowadays! We have enough endangered species as is.
JoJo, Cedar Falls, IA
Posted: 7/6/2008 6:00:55 PM
Very interesting article!
Heather, Enid, OK
Posted: 7/6/2008 12:02:14 PM
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