This is the documentation for my Meridian Kingdom Arts and Sciences Competition in May 2016. I’ve added another section based on feedback I received and further experimentation. Plumes AND gold… win/win!!
These are examples of decorated ostrich plumes/feathers as illustrated and described in “The First Book of Fashion: The Books of Clothes of Matthaus and Viet Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg”. The first book was started by Matthaus Schwarz in 1520 as a way of showcasing his favorite outfits and accessories. Upon its completion in 1541, Matthaus convinced his second son, Viet Konrad, to create his own (the second book) which ends in 1561. Hereafter, “The First Book of Fashion: The Books of Clothes of Matthaus and Viet Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg” will be referred to as “The First Book of Fashion”. In addition to the illustrations, the gilded feathers are described in the commentaries of the 2015 publishing by Ulinka Rublack and Maria Hayward. Here are the excerpts from the commentary on the feathers featured in “The First Book of Fashion”, followed by their corresponding illustrations.
“… he wears a bright red bonnet … It is decorated with very large, alternating red and white ostrich feathers, which radiate out from the brim. The shafts of the feather have been gilded…” Pgs. 99, 264-265 (Plume #1, Image 1)
“His is wearing a dark gray bonnet… It is decorated with lots of big, black ostrich feathers with gilded quills.” Pgs. 123, 284-285 (Plume #1, Image 2)
“He is wearing a large brimmed dark brown bonnet…The brim is decorated with lots of black ostrich feathers. The veins of the feathers are gilded.” Pgs. 125, 286 (Plumes #2, 3, 4, Image 3)
“He has a red bonnet… The crown has been trimmed with several large, white ostrich feathers, which have been dyed black at the ends and augmented with gilt aglets.” Pgs. 134, 293 (Plumes #5, 6, Image 4)
“He has a black bonnet … The brim is decorated with lots of black ostrich feathers, which have been gilded.” Pgs. 146, 303 (Plumes #2, 3, 4, Image 5)
Plumes/Items #1, 2, 3, and 4 are gilded using different techniques and materials. Plumes/Items #5, 6 are not gilded, but decorated using two styles of period aglets. These plumes would have been used to decorate the hats of fashionable, middle to upper-class 16th century German men and women.
In the 16th century, these feathers would have been made using two different techniques. The first is gold leaf, attached to the plumes with animal glue, or an adhesive made of linseed oil and pigments. This was mentioned in “The Craftsman’s Handbook”, but it did not specify what exact pigments were used. The second technique that may also have been employed used liquid gilding/”shell gold”, which is made by grinding gold leaf and adding mordents, such as gum Arabic. The adhesives and liquid gilding would both be applied using brushes. The curving of the plume is done by hand and before any gilding. The curling of the veins would have been done using either the flat of a sharp knife, or a dull one. The pointy aglets would have been made of brass and sewn onto the feathers with linen thread. The ball-style aglets would’ve been gilded beads that were also attached to the feathers with linen thread.
Plume #1 was curved, then gilded using a gold leaf pen. Plume #2 was gilded using gold leaf and Elmer’s glue, then curled. Plume #3 was gilded using Liquid Leaf, curled, then decorated with an aglet consisting of beads that were also gilded with Liquid Leaf. Plume #4 was also gilded using Liquid Leaf, but applied to a different part of the feather (the vein), using a different painting technique. Plume #5 was not gilded, but was curled, then decorated with five handmade brass aglets. Plume #6 was not gilded, but curved and decorated with three aglets made of beads gilded with Liquid Leaf. All of the aglets attached to Plumes #5 and 6 were sewn on using linen thread.
To recreate the plumes, I used a number of materials. For the gilding, I applied gold leaf with Elmer’s white glue; Liquid Leaf; and a gold leaf pen. I was unsure what to use to apply the gold leaf, so an Illumination Laurel friend of mine suggested Elmer’s white glue. Upon further research, I should have used animal glue, but was unable to obtain any at the time. Before application, I lightly brushed over the quills with sand paper to help the gold adhere to the feather. The gold leaf and Liquid Leaf were both applied using a standard, small-tipped, paintbrush (Image 6). For the aglets, I used pre-made beads (which I gilded with Liquid Leaf); pre-made head pins; and jump rings; and attached them using linen thread. To curl Plumes # 2 and 3 I used a butter knife and scissors.
I tried to make period liquid gilding, but the attempt was unsuccessful. The gold leaf available to me was of lesser quality, so it would not turn to dust when ground. After 30 minutes of me attempting to grind the leaf, and an additional 30 minutes attempted by my husband, I moved on. (Images 7, 8)
“…take a number of leaves of fine gold according to the work which you want to do… say ten to twenty leaves. Put them on your porphyry slab, and work this gold up well with some well beaten white of egg; and then put it into a little glazed dish. Put in enough tempera to make it flow from the quill or the brush; and you may do any work you want with it. You may likewise grind it with gum Arabic, for use on parchment.”
Due to the lack of success in making “shell gold/period liquid gilding, I had to resort to the use of commercially available “Liquid Leaf”. I feel that this is a comparable, and acceptable modern alternative to the period liquid gilding.
I was unable to obtain or make period adhesives, such as animal glue, or thickened linseed oil mixed with various pigments (The Craftsman’s Handbook, 1960). For lack of a better alternative, and at the suggestion of an Illumination Laurel friend of mine, I used Elmer’s white glue as an adhesive to attach the gold leaf to the plume’s veins and quill. References for panels, statues, etc. show that bole should be used to attach the gold leaf to the object – bole is a type of soft, red clay that is mixed with animal glue and composes the base layer for the gilding (Sandu, Afonso, Murta, De Sa 49). In order to gild the item, you would
“…burnish the bole briskly…using the brush with your right hand, wet down as much of
the bole as is to receive the leaf of gold which you have in your hand… Then carefully
bring the gold up to the water on the bole… Now, as soon as you have brought the gold
into contact with the water, instantly and quickly draw your hand… toward you… And
lay some more leaves in the same way…” (Thompson Jr. 80-81).
If I had unlimited funds, I would have ordered expensive gold leaf and bole just to see if it could be used on feathers!
To curve the plume, you take the quill between your thumb, forefinger and middle finger. Begin at the middle of the feather and pull it towards the top, curving it while you go. Each feather will naturally begin to curve to either the right, or left. Continue working your fingers, following the feather’s natural leaning, until you have the desired curve to your plume (Ahlen-Cordero).
To curl the quills, I used a butter knife, and a pair of scissors (Ahlen-Cordero). In period they would have used a knife. I was unsure which would work better, but in head-to-head competition, the butter knife wins. I began with the base of the vein pressed to the flat of the knife and pull the feather – like curling a ribbon for a package. The scissors were too sharp and cut too many of the veins, but the dull knife (or back-side) curled just as well and cut off less veins (Image 9).
I used Liquid Leaf to gild the pre-made beads and purchased the head pins and jump rings to attach them to (Images 10, 11). Ideally, I would prefer to lamp-work the beads, but at the current time, do not have the space to set up my torch. The pointy, brass aglets were handmade by my husband, Gunnar Jorgenson.
One of the illustrations specifically shows red and white feathers, and another lists white plumes which had been dyed black at the ends. My teacher, Malin-Ahlen Cordero has attempted to dye feathers using period techniques, but has had very limited success. Dying plumes is definitely something I would like to try in the future. The feathers I used were ones that I had on hand, and their colors do not exactly match those shown in the book.
When I first found the description of the decorated feathers, I attempted to recreate one using a gold leaf pen on just the quill (Plume #1). I felt that it was a pretty good result for something “quick and dirty”. Upon further discussion with Mistress Whilja de Gothia (Ahlen-Cordero) we attempted together via Skype to use gold leaf on just the quill of the plume… and failed miserably (Image 12). It was at this point I decided that I needed to do some experimenting. For me, the next logical step was to use Liquid Leaf… then try the gold leaf again… then try to make “shell”/liquid gilding with the period recipe. I did all of these things, as you can see in finished Items #1-6, here in the documentation, and my “in progress” examples.
Through the trial and error process, I discovered that the different methods brought about different looks and, I surmise, were probably used by people with different budgets. Throughout the Renaissance, the purity of gold leaf fluctuated (Sandu, Afonso, Murta, De Sa 52). Also, gold leaf was made by specially trained artisans who would literally beat the gold (and alloys) into sheets. The thickness of today’s gold leaf at .5 microns is substantially thinner than period gold leaf which was 2-4 microns (Sandu, Afonso, Murta, De Sa 53). I speculate that because of the labor and varying purity, the liquid form of gilding may have been cheaper. Personally, I chose to primarily use the gold leaf and Liquid Leaf because those were the most successful in application and final appearance.
Throughout this process I have learned several things. The most personally fulfilling thing is that I was the person who found the reference to the feathers – not my friends; the four 16th Century German Costuming Laurels, or the professional Milliner! I learned that gold leaf is a pain in the behind and needs a much steadier hand than I am often capable of (Image 13). I learned that while gold leaf shines like nothing else, but for ease of use, Liquid Leaf wins. I learned that it is not possible for me to make “shell” gold/liquid gilding using a period recipe and cheap gold leaf. To be honest, even if I could afford the real stuff, I’m not sure that I could physically grind it. And lastly, I learned not to use scissors to curl feathers, because I try to rush and end up cutting off too many veins.
After fairly extensive experimentation, I do not think that there is much that I would do differently. I feel that I have come upon a good method and unless I find additional documentation, I will continue as is. I am pleased with the finished products, especially #2 (black curled with gold leaf) and #3 (white curled with Liquid Leaf) and see myself making many more in the future. I would like to try attaching the aglets with silk thread, rather than linen and possibly sewing them to silk ribbons before attaching them to the plumes. I would also like to do some more experimenting with animal glue and gold leaf. For a project based upon only five examples, found listed in one book, I feel that I was able to recreate a reasonable facsimile. Based upon the small size of the paintings and the brief descriptions, I think that I have come as close as anyone could.
Addendum: Several months after this project, I was gifted with some real gold leaf to gild a white ostrich plume for a friend. At the suggestion of one of my judges, Master Baron Thomas Paumer, I used hide glue to adhere the leaf to the plume. He had warned me that humidity may affect the bonding of the leaf to the plume, but I have not had any problems. I did warn the recipient of the plume to keep it dry and not wear it during humid or rainy weather, so hopefully it will have a long and shiny life ahead. Before gilding the white plume, I thought it best to practice on a black plume that I had lying around the house. The process I used was the same as the white glue and faux gold leaf (Image 14). I applied the hide glue with a fan brush, allowed it a minute to become tacky, then applied the leaf using tweezers. I gave the plume 24 hours for the glue to dry, then I used a soft cloth to attempt to burnish/polish the leafing. It did give it a bit more shine. After polishing, I separated the veins using and x-acto knife and my thumbnail, just as with the earlier plumes (Item 7).
In the end, I did not find a noticeable, visual difference between the plume that was recreated with the white glue and faux gold leaf sheets (similar to Item 2) and the one done with hide glue and actual gold leaf sheets (Image 15). In some ways, it was a bit disappointing. However, it does make me happy to now know for sure that I can recreate the same look and feel using less expensive, and more durable modern materials.
Rublack, Ulinka, Maria Hayward and Jenny Tiramani (2015) The First Book of Fashion: The Book of Clothes of Matthaus and Viet Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg pgs: 99, 123, 125, 134, 146, 264-265, 284-285, 286, 293, 303
Sandu, Irina Criana Anca, Luis Urbano Afonso, Elsa Murta and Maria Helena De Sa (2010) Gilding Techniques in Religious Art Between East and West, 14th – 18th Centuries: International Journal of Conservation Science, Volume 1, Issue 1 pgs: 49, 52
Cennini, Cennino d’Andrea (1960) The Craftsman’s Handbook
(D. Thompson, Jr., Trans.) pgs.: 80-81, 102
Additional assistance provided by:
Malin Ahlen-Cordero (Viscountess Mistress Whilja de Gothia, OL), Lalena Hutton (Mistress Adelheit Schwarzenkatze, OL), Brad Moore (Freiherr Nicolas L’Anguille, OL), James Supp (Master Sir Roland Ansbacher, OL, KSCA), Meg Vaughan (Mistress Allisandra Fiore, OL), Tom Saucer (Baron Master Thomas Paumer, OL) and Victoria Ruhl (THL Madelena da Firenze)
3 thoughts on “Pimped Out Plumes!!!! (AKA: Decorated Ostrich Plumes as Illustrated in “The First Book of Fashion: The Books of Clothes of Matthaus and Viet Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg”)”
Thank you for sharing this information. A few weeks ago the BBC published an article about a reproduction of this hat done by University of Cambridge for an exhibition in Germany this summer. Their article did not mention the gold leaf.
I saw the article you referenced and was a bit disappointed that they didn’t gild the feathers 😦 Oh, well – maybe on the next hat!