Caring for your Feathers and Natural Materials


Preserving and Storing Materials

By:   Mike Connor   (AKA: Upstream Spider)

Feathers are composed of about 91% protein, 8% water, and 1% lipids.  The type of protein in feathers is called keratin, a sulphurous, fibrous protein.  Fur and hair have a similar composition so use this information for storing all natural materials.

Importance of pH :  Correct pH environment is absolutely crucial to the preservation of feathers.  pH is an arbitrary measurement of acidity and alkalinity.  Acidic (pH 6 or lower) environments will cause the chemical breakdown of the keratin, leading to weakening of the feather.  Storing your feathers in wooden boxes, or next to paper, exposes them to an acidic environment.  The rate of damage will increase as temperature and relative humidity increase.  So, choose a cool dry place and avoid wood or paper in the packaging.

WASHING :  Alkalis (pH 8 or higher) can also cause feathers to break down.  Alkali will have a greater effect on the keratin structure than acids, which are fairly specific, because they only break down the amino acid tryptophan.  Alkalis are found in many household cleansers, such as soaps and laundry detergents.  If you wash your feathers be sure to rinse them off in very copious quantities of clean water, before drying and storing.

Light Damage :  One common cause of damage is color fading from exposure to light.  Although not as obvious, light may also cause other types of damage.  As the energy contained in light strikes your feathers, it will begin to break molecular bonds.  The breaking of these bonds results in color fading and structural change, yellowing and becoming brittle.  If exposed to direct, intense light, damage occurs very quickly and is immediately obvious.  Just as dangerous is exposure to moderate light levels over extended periods of time.  Light damage is cumulative, and will slowly build up over time.  Although your feathers may have been stored in dim light conditions, in time the regular exposure to even low light levels will add to its gradual deterioration.

Usually the first indication of damage is a littering of small pieces of broken feather barbs in the bottom of the case or box.  By then, it's too late to salvage or repair the feather.  The feather debris is easily distinguishable from beetle and similar insect excreta.  So store your feathers in a dark place.  Avoid buying capes and other feathers from display windows subject to bright sunshine!  Even top class capes will degrade very quickly indeed in strong sunlight, and be more or less useless for tying flies.  Quills split, barbs break, etc etc.  Apparently, not many tiers or tackle shops are aware of this.

One may also wish to "bleach" or otherwise alter feathers by exposure to light. Green peacock herl turns bronze when exposed to sunlight.  I mention this because I've seen people trying to buy bronze peacock herl in shops and being told that it is "Difficult to obtain".  But if you overdo exposure the quill will split when being tied in.  Its structure is materially altered.

Dyed feathers contain the dyes used to color them of course, and may behave oddly when exposed to light, various chemical fumes etc etc.  This is rarely desirable.  Avoid storing dyed materials next to each other because even well dyed materials may "bleed" color, and ruin material.

Various feather colors are dependent on numerous factors that are far too many to list here.  There are many things which will have an adverse effect.  In addition to minimal handling and dust protection are tolerances for other environmental variables.  These are the normal museum standards for the storage of feathers:

Temperature:  60 degrees F to 75 degrees F
Humidity:  45% to 55%
pH:  6.5 to 7.5
Visible light:  50 lux or less (the amount of light in a dim room)
Ultraviolet light:  75 microwatts per lumen or less

INSECT DAMAGE :  Absolute devastation of feathers by insect infestation is quite common.  Because keratin contains sulphur, it is a particular delicacy for some types of insects.  Clothes moths adults have no functional mouth and cannot eat the feathers.  It is normally the larvae, identifiable by the cases they spin, which cause the damage.  Dermestid beetles, including the carpet beetles (pictured right), are small hairy beetles are especially fond of materials which contain keratin.  Feather mites, and a whole variety of other creatures will also readily infest feathers and fur, especially if it is still on the skin.

Pictured above right is from the University of California's article showing a live Carpet Beetle in the larva stage.  It is the larva that feed on your feathers.  The larva hatch into adults and leave the shells behind.  If you find these empty shells near your materials it is a sign they exist and you must take action. (Included by Ed Gallop)

Another sure sign of infestation are powdery deposits in containers.  This is likely insect excreta.

Below information is from the University of Ohio's Entomology website (Included by Ed Gallop).

Black Carpet Beetle: Adult black carpet beetles are oval and shiny-black with brownish legs. They vary in body length from 1/8 to 3/16 inch. Larvae, frequently staying hidden when feeding, are golden to dark brown and about 1/2-inch long. The body resembles an elongated carrot or cigar with a long brush of bristles at the tail end. 




Varied Carpet Beetle: Adult varied carpet beetles are about 1/10 to 1/8-inch long and nearly round. The top body surface is usually gray with a mixture of white, brown and yellow scales and irregular black crossbands. The bottom surface has long, gray-yellow scales. (These scales are 2-1/2 to 4 times as long they are broad.) Larvae are about 1/4-inch and light to dark brown. The body is wide and broader at the rear than the front. 


Common Carpet Beetle: Adult common carpet beetles are about 1/10 to 1/8-inch long, nearly round, and gray to black. They have minute, whitish scales and a band of orange-red scales down the middle of the back and around the eyes. Larvae, frequently moving rapidly, are elongated, oval, reddish-brown, about 1/4-inch long and are covered with many brownish-black hairs. 




Furniture Carpet Beetle: Adult furniture carpet beetles are about 1/16 to 1/8-inch long, nearly round and whitish checkered with black spots, each outlined with yellowish orange scales. These scales are broadly oval and two times or less long as broad. The legs have yellow scales. The bottom surface of the body is white. Color patterns vary. Larvae, frequently crawling rapidly, are about 1/4-inch, elongated, oval and covered thickly with brownish hair. A good quality hand lens or microscope is necessary to see these characters.

PREVENTION - Chemicals :  One´s main aim should be not to get infested in the first place.  The most common substances used for this purpose are paradichlorbenzene, and napthalene.  These are often referred to as "Moth Crystals" or "Mothballs" respectively.

Both of these substances only work properly when the containers in which they are placed are more or less airtight.  This is necessary for a certain "vapour pressure" to develop.  This fairly effectively fumigates materials, and provides an effective deterrent.  There is some contention as to the relative effectiveness of paradichlorbenzene and napthalene, but both do work. 

Most museums use napthalene to preserve their collections.  Putting these substances loose in drawers, cupboards etc, is only a mild deterrent, and causes an uneccessarily strong smell, which may upset other family members, contaminate clothes etc.  Constant exposure to the resulting fumes is also not a good idea.  Both materials sublimate.  This means they turn from the solid state, directly into gas.  This also means that they have to be renewed regularly for ongoing protection.

Both substances are toxic, and are suspected carcinogens, so avoid unnecessary handling of them.  Anything that kills or deters bugs is bound to be unhealthy, so use some common sense when using such substances.

Some woods and herbs, like cedar, sandalwood, lavender, and one or two others are said to be effective deterrents.  Personally I would not rely on this too heavily.  In this case, the chemicals mentioned are better.

For full fumigation, which exterminates more or less all pests, Methyl Bromide is normally used, along with a few other nasties.  I do not recommend using chemicals like these in the home because they are extremely dangerous.

Veterinary certification is required for export and import most things like skins and feathers, and this is usually requires treatment with Methyl Bromide.

Fumigation is usually far more trouble than it is worth for small quantities of material.

PREVENTION - Smoking :  If you want to treat skins and feathers yourself, smoking in a smoking oven, as you would sea-trout or salmon, is an excellent alternative to chemicals and the like.  It seems to work very well indeed on the stuff I have tried.  I don´t think it is an acceptable alternative to fumigation though.

INSECTS :  Most people seem mainly worried about moths, these however are not the only pests which may attack your fly-dressing materials.  Among the most common are Carpet beetles, feather mites, ants, various termites, and there are a whole host of others.  It may be of mild academic interest to determine which bugs are presently chomping their way through your expensive and treasured materials, but it really does not matter much in the final analysis.

The substances mentioned, apart from Methyl Bromide, will not kill many of these pests once they have infected your materials, they simply act as a deterrent. Most especially the eggs of some pests are notoriously hard to remove, and killing the adults, or larva is not a lot of use, as the eggs simply hatch out and you have the whole problem all over again.

If you find anything at all crawling about in your materials, then you must immediately assume the worst, and act accordingly, as you will otherwise most likely lose a good proportion, if not all of your materials.  DO NOT DELAY!  Act immediately.

TREATMENT :  The most effective way of getting rid of most potential or actual pests is washing your materials in warm soapy water.  This will also improve many materials with regard to their appearance, and handling qualities.

Unpack all the material, any bags or boxes etc which are infected, should be discarded.  Anything which may not be washed and subjected to the following procedure, should be discarded, or at least kept in quarantine, well away from any other materials, for at least three months.  If you can, at least deep-freeze it for a while.  If not place it in an airtight polythene bag or container with moth crystals (paradichlorbenzene, or Napthalene).  The bag MUST BE AIRTIGHT, as otherwise the crystals are not able to generate sufficient vapor pressure to fumigate the materials.

This procedure should also be followed when adding materials to your collection. Most especially things like roadkill, but even materials bought from mail order companies, various fly-shops etc, should be very carefully examined, and treated.

Do not forget to treat your tying threads, wools, flosses, and dubbing.  This is often forgotten and the results can be devastating.

Wooden drawers etc , should be washed out carefully and disinfected with spray type bug-killer.  There are several "wide spectrum" bug killers on the market.  It is of course useless to use fly-spray on carpet beetles, they are immune to it, so make sure you use a substance that actually will kill the pests you are trying to get rid of.  Be careful with such substances, they are often highly toxic, and may harm you or your family if used incorrectly.

If you have used such substances on materials, KEEP YOUR FINGERS AWAY FROM YOUR MOUTH WHEN USING SUCH MATERIALS.  Even thorough washing will not entirely remove some substances from feathers, fur, etc., and the consequences may be dire.

Wash all material in a bath of lukewarm water with detergent added.  Use dishwashing liquid, like "Fairy", or pure soap.  Avoid detergents which "wash whiter than white".  They contain a fair quantity of fluorescent dye, which is what makes "white" shirts etc glow under "black" disco lights.  This can have odd effects on some materials.  Swish the capes, and fur materials around so that they are properly washed.  Rinse off thoroughly with copious amounts of cold water.  Spread on clean dry newspaper to dry.  Be careful if you use illustrated magazines etc., as colors from these may run and damage your stuff.  If in doubt, place clean paper between your materials and the other papers.  Materials should be dried feather, or fur side up.

When completely dry, place the stuff in a microwave one small lot at a time, and give it 30 seconds at 600 W.  Be careful here, just do one cape or piece of hide at a time, preferably laid on tissue paper over newspaper, feather side up, to absorb any fat etc which may be melted out.  Things like hare´s ears, starling skins, various other whole skins, may still have quite a lot of "dried" fat or flesh on them.  If you put these in the microwave, even for a short time, they will stink, the flesh or fat will soften, and the result will be an awful mess.

Do not place the materials you have just treated back on the pile of stuff waiting for treatment.  Place it immediately in clean zip-locks or similar bags, and deep freeze it.  Leave it for three days, allow it to thaw, and freeze again.

After this you may place the material in either airtight containers with deterrent crystals added, or in zip lock bags with crystals added.  MAKE SURE THE BAGS ARE SEALED!  This serves the dual purpose of containing the smell, and preventing ingress of pests.

Some pests may even eat through polythene bags.  This has happened to me twice.  In both cases the pests responsible were carpet beetles.  I prefer solid polythene airtight containers.  Glass jars, and similar receptacles are also suitable.  Even tin boxes which close properly are OK.  Wooden boxes and similar are more or less useless usually, even though cigar boxes were traditionally used.  The tobacco smell may keep moths away, but it has no effect on other pests, and may even attract them.

Dubbing materials in open boxes are especially prone to being infested.  When these are not in use, they should also be placed in airtight containers with deterrent crystals added.

Some dyed materials are not particularly prone to attack by pests, as some of the dye ingredients are also toxic, and the pests die fairly quickly after ingesting such stuff.  Nevertheless, it is not a good idea to rely on this, and such materials should be handled, treated and stored just as carefully as any other.

There is an excellent FAQ with more info on this subject at:

Many people may live their whole lives without ever experiencing an attack of pests on their materials.  This is no reason to be complacent.  If your materials ever are attacked you will be very sorry indeed, especially if these are the result of much time and expense.  Some may even be irreplaceable.

I have seen the results of a pest attack on a large box of materials which was sent by post to a friend.  When it arrived, after three days in transit, the box was full of very healthy looking hairy carpet beetles in a variety of sizes, and the sad remains of a fairly magnificent selection of expensive capes, consisting mainly of stalks, various bits and pieces, and a lot of beetle waste.

Take the relevant precautions, it is much better to be safe than sorry, even if such precautions are a nuisance.

One last point.  Nowadays a tier's bench is full of all sorts of chemicals and potions which may be extremely toxic or otherwise dangerous.  Chemicals like Toluene, Acetone, Amyl Acetate, various Ketones, and a host of other stuff, are potentially extremely dangerous, and should be handled with extreme care.  Prolonged exposure to some of the fumes may well cause brain damage, and various other extremely unpleasant symptoms.  Here again, use some common sense, and if you use any of this stuff, then be careful with it.  You have only yourself to blame if something untoward occurs.

Also take extreme care when mixing or thinning such materials.  Careless handling or lack of knowledge in the case of some mixtures may have lethal results.  IF YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN WHEN MIXING ONE LIQUID WITH ANOTHER THEN IT IS BEST NOT TO TRY IT.  It is also best not to smoke when using such stuff.

It behooves everybody to inform themselves of potential dangers before using such stuff.  It's no use complaining afterwards, even assuming that you are in a position to do so.

There are several reasons for this report. Somebody asked about it on the forum, another person was apparently not aware that vapor pressure was necessary for various crystals to be effective, and the last and most important reason occurred some time ago at a friend´s house. 

My friend had mixed potassium permanganate crystals with a solution of picric acid, and added some glycerine.  Don´t ask me why because I have not the slightest idea.  He did mumble something about dyeing some fur before he started, but I was sitting at his bench in his cellar, and more or less ignored him, as I was busy tying some flies.

To cut a long story short, he was in the process of adding some napthalene crystals to the mixture, when he let out a shout, dropped the glass he was holding, the contents of which immediately burst into flames and began emitting a most noxious smelling gas.  Several buckets of water later (he had no fire extinguisher), severely charred linoleum, (which doubtless added considerably to the smell), and half choked, we both emerged from the cellar somewhat relieved, and considerably chastised.

If he had dropped this glass anywhere near the paint, thinners, gas bottles, and various other stuff stored in his cellar, I fear the outcome would have been far more serious.

If you feel inclined to carry out experiments of this nature, (although I would not advise it without at least a basic knowledge of the substances involved and their properties), then do it outside in fresh air, and well away from the house.
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