Ostrich feathers have been given a new role in our lives along with an updated look. Thanks to Pascale Theron we have Feathered Fabrics. The Johannesburg-born designer creates soft, natural and artisanal textiles using ostrich feathers. Pascale who presented her Feathered Fabrics at the 2019 Design Indaba has a studio in Holland, where she graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2018. On Friday, she will launch a collaboration with Johannesburg fashion designer Lezanne Viviers, from Viviers Studio. “We worked on designs using my Feathered Fabrics,” says Pascale.

Pascale sources from Klein Karoo Feathers in Oudtshoorn, an industry organisation that adheres to international standards as prescribed by the industry’s code of conduct and regulations. She buys cleaned-feathers and then processes them into textiles. Eventually she’d like to have her own flock of ostriches that are farmed ethically and sustainably.

When asked about the ethics of plucking ostriches, Piet Kleyn, chief executive officer of the South African Ostrich Business Chamber, says, “We hate the word pluck. We harvest or gather feathers only when they are ripe and ready.” He explains that once the feathers are fully grown and there is no longer any blood flowing into the stems, harvesting the feathers is a painless operation and does the ostrich no harm: it’s the equivalent of cutting fingernails, and the feathers grow back every six months.

Pascale tells us about her work and inspiration below:

I was known as the ‘bird lady’ at school, because they were a recurring theme in my work. I have always loved birds and I have been an avid birder since I was very young. Working with ostriches started from an abstract form of inspiration; using the animals’ shape as inspiration for a new piece of furniture. I then learnt about the history of the ostrich farming industry in South Africa, which was mainly focussed on ostrich feathers.

Oudsthoorn is a peculiar but fascinating place. The people, the landscape and the ostriches have always welcomed me, my questions and my camera. I spent a week living amongst the ostrich farms, talking to the farmers, watching how feathers are processed in the factories, speaking to locals and visiting the museum. The town co-exists with these ostriches that once brought so much wealth, but that now just helps sustain those who do what their grandparents once did. It is very common to see these dinosaur-like beasts as you drive through the dusty landscape. At over 2m tall, these animals really do look pre-historic.

Creating a fabric rather than using the iconic feather in its entirety was difficult. But I found the best way to break from the iconic image, was to physically break up the feather and reconstruct it into thread. I thought of it in the same way as wool.

By removing the central shaft, and only using the soft barbules, the feathers can be made into a yarn, then woven into a fabric. As far as I know, I’m the only one using the ostrich feathers in such a way. Everyone else who uses feathers uses them decoratively.

I am hoping that this new textiles will have a positive impact on Oudsthoorn. This feathered fabric could create more jobs in making the fabric and farming the birds. Instead of slaughtering ostriches for the meat and leather, ostriches can now live for 40 years or more if we farm them for feathers only.

The ostrich feather was a highly valued commodity during the 19th century feather trade, as Victorian and Edwardian women sought out the biggest and the best plumes to decorate their hats. Farming of the ostriches in South African started when the wild population was threatened through over-hunting.

The industry crashed when the motor car was invented. The cars were too small for the hats. Since then, the feather has fallen from grace and now its main use is for dusters or carnival costumes. I want to restore the value of ostrich feather.

We don’t colour the feathers. You don’t often see natural-coloured feathers, mostly they are bleached and dyed. The breathable, washable, soft, warm and incredibly light-weight textural quality of the feathers means they can be used in a variety of practical ways. Some of these are as functional interior textile or as an alternative for fur or wool.

I am creating work that doesn’t waste any of my leftover warp on my loom from bigger projects. Other than wasting less materials, it gives me the creative opportunity to ‘play’ with things I have not had the opportunity to experiment with before.

I enjoy working with soon-to-be-lost handmade crafts. I hope to raise consciousness and focus attention on historical and social situations. I create projects that give objects a life they didn’t have before. I make pieces that acknowledge the past, confront the present, and imagine a brighter future.

The collaboration with Lezanne Viviers using Feathered Fabrics will be launched at Viviers Studio in Johannesburg on 14 September and shown at the Dutch Design Week 2019, from 19-27 October in Eindhoven, The Netherlands
• Feathered Fabrics were included in the Formex fair in Stockholm as part of Lidewij Edlkoorts’ exhibition, Animism
• Pascale was nominated for House and Leisure’s “Next Level Award 2019”