Designer hopes her idea of weaving ostrich feathers into fabrics takes off

Joburg-born designer Pascale Theron has given ostrich feathers an updated look and, in doing so, wants to positively impact the Oudsthoorn farming industry

27 October 2019 - 00:00 By Jackie May
Designer Pascale Theron with one of her feathered fabrics.
Designer Pascale Theron with one of her feathered fabrics.
Image: Eddie Mol

Ostrich feathers have been given a new role in our lives along with an updated look, thanks to Pascale Theron's 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 The Netherlands, where she graduated from Design Academy Eindhoven in 2018. Now she is launching a collaboration with Joburg fashion designer Lezanne Viviers from Viviers Studio.

Pascale sources from Klein Karoo Feathers in Oudtshoorn, an 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. She'd eventually like to have her own flock of ostriches, which will be farmed ethically and sustainably.

Harvesting feathers is painless and does the ostrich no harm: it's the equivalent of cutting fingernails
Piet Kleyn, CEO of the South African Ostrich Business Chamber

When asked about the ethics of plucking ostriches, Piet Kleyn, CEO 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.

Here, Pascale tells us more about her work and inspiration:

I was known as the 'bird lady' at school, because they were a recurring theme in my work. I've always loved birds and have been an avid birder since I was young. Working with ostriches started from an abstract form of inspiration - using the animal's 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 focused on ostrich feathers.

Pascale Theron aims to restore the value of the ostrich industry through her designs.
Pascale Theron aims to restore the value of the ostrich industry through her designs.
Image: Eddie Mol

Creating a fabric rather than using the 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 ostrich feathers in such a way. Everyone else who uses feathers uses them decoratively.

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 among 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 help sustain those who do what their grandparents once did. It is common to see these dinosaur-like beasts as you drive through the dusty landscape. At over 2m tall, they really do look pre-historic.

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

The ostrich feather was highly valued during the 19th century. Victorian and Edwardian women sought out the biggest and the best plumes to decorate their hats. Ostrich farming in South Africa 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 its value.

We don't colour the feathers. You don't often see feathers in their natural colours, 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 to fur or wool.

Pascale Theron physically breaks up the feather and reconstructs it into thread.
Pascale Theron physically breaks up the feather and reconstructs it into thread.
Image: Eddie Mol

I am creating work that doesn't waste any leftover warp on my loom. 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 Viviers showed at Dutch Design Week 2019 in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. Feathered Fabrics was included in Stockholm's Formex fair as part of Lidewij Edlkoort's exhibition, Animism.


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