Conservation and restoration of feathers

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Peacock tail feather

The conservation and restoration of feathers can be a real challenge for conservators and requires knowledge of specialized care procedures and potential environmental problems like pests.


The anatomy of a contour feather

Basic Overview[edit]

-Feathers are made of a protein commonly found in the bodies of many animals known as keratin [1]

-Feathers take on a protective function

-91% protein, 8% water, and 1% lipids[2]

-The most common types of feathers are contour and down[2]


Although there are many different parts to a feather, all of the parts fall into two subsections of the feather. The two main sections of the feather are the shaft and the vane.


The shaft is composed of the calamus and the rachis. The calamus can also be called the quill and is the hollow portion of the shaft that enters the skin follicle. While the rachis is the solid portion of the shaft where the barbs attach.


The vane extends to either side of the rachis and is made up of interconnecting barbs. This is considered the most substantial portion of the feather.

Conservation care[edit]


Removing debris and organic matter from feathers is a key step in the conservation process. Here are several of the ways that feathers are typically cleaned by conservators:


Using a small vacuum allows conservators to clean off dust and other particulate debris that is not embedded on to the feather. This method cannot be done by conservators when dealing with fragile feathers due to the likelihood of damage.[5]


Certain gentle solvents are typically used to "dry clean" feathers. One such solvent, isopropyl alcohol, is usually diluted to make it less caustic to the specimen. Isopropyl alcohol is also a fast drying solution that will not cause the feathers to remain wet for an extended period of time. Gentle soaps and solvents will often also be used on living specimens when approved by a vet or zoologist.[5]

Feather Basket from the Warkworth Museum


The proper storage of feathers and other organic material is essential for the survival of the object. Relative humidity in the storage area is always kept in the 50% range and the ambient temperature is controlled at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.[6] Relative humidity is monitored with a climate control system or managed in a smaller range using silica gel packets that are added to individual storage boxes. Specially made acid free drawers or boxes are an ideal place for items containing feathers. Some of the best materials for storage of organic materials are made from "metal that is sulfur-free and painted using an electrostatic process to prevent off-gassing".[6] Ideally, conservators would put dust covers over the items to prevent dust from building up on the object while in storage.


A living specimen can sometimes lose some of their vital flight feathers and there are ways of repairing them to restore flight to the bird. Feathers from another source are placed in the hollow portion of the quill and securing them with small splints. In the aviary world this process is called imping. A procedure such as this allows a bird to resume flight until the old quill falls out and a new feather takes its place during molting.[7]

Mounted birds and feathers are repaired with several simple steps. Feathers that are tattered or messy will be moved back into shape with the use of steam.[8] In the case of feathers that are falling out of a mount or broken in two, the pieces are reattached with small amounts of adhesive.[9] Extreme care is always used to not get the adhesive stuck onto the barbs. A wheat starch paste adhesive is utilized in some cases to reattach feathers to skin or to each other.[9]

Special Issues[edit]

In the case of many of the issues contained in this section can be eliminated or reduced through the proper care instructions listed in the previous section.

Dermestid Beetle also known as the Carpet Beetle


Due to the fact that feathers are mainly made of protein, they lend themselves a whole host of insect problems. Insects that like to eat protein based material will often feed on the feather causing serious damage.

Pests While Alive[edit]

While the birds are alive they are susceptible to several different pests including lice and mites. Special sprays and soaps can kill these pests allowing the birds to regain feather growth and become healthy.

Pests In Collections[edit]

Once the feathers make it into a non-living collection atmosphere it is possible for them to fall victim to insects including the carpet beetle and clothing moths.


When feathers are stored in a way that allows dust to accumulate on the object the relative humidity around the feather could rise. This rise in humidity and the addition of moisture accelerates the deterioration of the feather.


There are many different sources both online and in person that can be museum workers use to learn more about feather conservation. The AIC Wiki[10] is a jumping point into a whole host of conservation topics, including the care of feathers. Many museums and conservation organizations are also providing classes in the conservation of feathers.


  1. ^ "Conservation Biologist Explains Why 'Feathers' Matter". Retrieved 2016-04-14. 
  2. ^ a b c "Bishop Museum Art Conservation Handout" (PDF). 1996. Retrieved 4/10/16.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  3. ^ Hudon, Jocelyn (2005). "Considerations in the Conservation of Feathers and Hair, Particularly their Pigments" (PDF). Retrieved 4/10/16.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  4. ^ a b c "Feathers - Wiki". Retrieved 2016-04-14. 
  5. ^ a b Fonicello, Nancy (February 2010). "An Effective Method for Cleaning Feather Bonnets". Retrieved 24 April 2016. 
  6. ^ a b Buck, Rebecca (2010). Museum Registration Methods. The AAM Press. ISBN 978-0838911228. 
  7. ^ Glendell, Greg (2006). "Imping-Repairing-a-Birds-Damaged-or-Clipped-Wings-Greg-Glendell" (PDF). Retrieved April 24, 2016. 
  8. ^ "How to fix a tattered, frayed feather - Featherfolio". Featherfolio. Retrieved 2016-04-24. 
  9. ^ a b Gardens, The Horniman Museum and. "Conserving our taxidermy - Collections - Horniman Museum and Gardens". Retrieved 2016-04-24. 
  10. ^ "AIC WIKI Main Page". Retrieved 2016-04-14.