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How to Care for Your Hackle

Buying a cape or saddle is an investment. And since the good stuff usually costs a fair amount, you need to know how to care for your hackle. Whether you buy from us or someone else, follow these five guidelines and your feathers can, and should, last for many years.

1. Pests

You’re trying to mimic bugs, not get taken advantage by them! Insects cause more damage to feathers than probably any other factor. And they can munch the feathers away very fast. Being critter-free now does not guarantee that the feathers will remain that way in the future.

Denny Conrad gave this advice:

“We strongly recommend that all fly tying material are put in a zip lock bags and placed in a zero degree freezer for at least one week, then remove, allow out for one more week then re-freeze for another week. Do this twice a year. After this freezing treatment you can use the zip lock bags to store them in and add a mothball to each bag or a piece of dog or cat flea collar.”

The first freeze kills the living bugs. Refreezing a week later kills any bugs that hatched after the first freeze. 

Rodents can cause destruction too. Feathers are fantastic insulators, and hold heat very well. As such they are an ideal material for nests.  This may or may not be an issue depending on where you store your supplies.

2. Light and UV Damage

Over time, light can cause significant damage to your feathers. Have you ever pulled a painting off the wall that had hung there for many years, only to find the wall discolored where the painting had been? Sunlight can “bleach” out the colors of the feather, causing them to appear dull. If exposed long enough the UV damage can be bad enough that it even makes the feathers brittle. Small amounts of exposure is fine but prolonged dosages must be avoided.

Another problem is that sunlight and heat can turn feathers brittle. If that happens, the only thing you can do is throw them away and buy new. 

The best prevention is to store your feathers in air-tight containers out of direct light and extreme heats. We even prefer to keep them out of direct artificial light while in storage. 

3. Storage

Proper storage is very important. We recommend using air-tight plastic containers. Some people even suggest avoiding wood containers. Wood typically is not a problem, especially if the feathers do not have direct contact with the wood. While I have personally never had any issues with wood, there is always the chance of the wood or finish staining the feathers.

Birds have natural oil glands. The skin on a cape or saddle can “perspire” oil overtime. The oil could possibly stain lighter colors. A simple prevention is when storing, place the skin-side of two capes together, rather than stack the skin side on top of the feather side of another cape. Or place a sheet or two of white paper underneath the skin side to absorb any oil secretion.

4. Dust Control

A little bit of dust if fine. After all, how many of us have seen chickens take a dust bath? But then doing so also can wear away their feather quality and then they look mangy. One reason is because dust is comprised of miniscule particles that can damage the feather. (Think of small chunks of sandpaper scrubbing away at the feathers.)

There’s another reason to avoid dust. If your feathers are near any place you cook, chances are that grease will collect on the dust. It can be washed but is not fun to remove. If left unattended long enough the dust/grease goo combines to become a sticky glue-like substance that is so difficult to remove it is often just easier to throw the item away and buy new. 

5. Washing and Cleaning

Let’s face it. The chances of spilling something on the feathers is bound to happen at some point. After all does anyone truly obey the no food or drink rule at the bench? The good news is most common household liquids will not stain feathers if rinsed quickly enough, even with the lighter colored feathers. The reason is because a quality feather like we produce has natural oils that aid in repelling stains.

To dye feathers, you use either very hot liquids and/or certain chemicals. It takes several minutes for the dye to set. So again, cleaning the spill quickly is important and in most cases you can prevent staining. 

A lot of our customers ask if it is okay to wash the skins and feathers. And we always answer: Yes! If the feather cannot hold up to water then it is not suitable for fly tying.

Here are cleaning steps from the previous owners of the flock:

What do you do if you spill something on a skin? Is it ruined? Do not despair, just wash the skin! When they are first processed they are washed and dried. Here is how we do it. Fill both kitchen sinks about half full of hot water, as hot as your hands can handle, adding a bit of dish soap (I prefer Dawn because it aids in the removal of greasy fat) to one and about ¾ cup of white vinegar to the other. Immerse the skins into the soapy water, allowing to soak all feathers completely. Then gently wash by hand or use an old toothbrush, to remove any foreign materials. Once cleaned, gently squeeze the excess water out and place into the vinegar rinse. Allow the skin to soak for about 10 minutes or so. Then did it several times to rinse away the soap. Again gently squeeze out excess water. The best way to dry the skin is to pin it to a piece of cardboard. We have found the cardboard to provide a good drying back, as it will absorb the water and any excess oils from the skin. Position the skin, do not stretch to it's normal size and shape, placing as few a number of pins as needed to hold it in place. You may then brush and or comb the feathers into their natural position. Hang the cardboard up in a heated room: it takes 2 to 3 days to dry. If you are doing a freshly skinned bird, one you have done yourself, you will want to allow them to dry for about 7 days

In the unlikely event you loosen feathers from the skin, do not worry. The sole purpose of the skin is to hold the feathers in place. Nothing more. Just simply collect the feathers that come loose and store them in insect-proof containers. They can be used for several years to come if properly cared for.

What We Do

To protect your investment, we follow these same guidelines. All hackle is carefully stored in air-tight containers out of the sun in a climate controlled environment. The feathers that leave our hands are insect-free…what happens once they arrive at your house is up to you.