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Stripping Peacock Quills

Producer: Tim Flagler  |  Tightline Productions

Tim Flagler notes that there are several techniques for stripping peacock quills, but by far the most efficient involves the use of common household chemicals.  He demonstrates the procedure and provides several other useful tips for handling, coloring and using quills in your patterns.

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  • Pizza gent

    Only yesterday I started messing around with peacock, erasers, razors, and bleach. With many things I am a visual learner, and this great little video filled in a lot of gaps in what I had read. Wonderfully instructive as always, and for me, very timely.

  • Dapperfly

    Although I am not a chemist, I know that using baking soda to neutralize bleach is dead wrong. On the pH scale, base substances have levels above 7. Levels below 7 are characteristic of acidic substances. Halfway in between basic and acidic, a pH value of 7 is considered neutral. Bleach is basic, having a pH of 13.5. Bleach is good at removing stains because it dissolves protein. It’s also good for removing the barbules on peacock herl for the same reason. Feathers are made of keratin, a form of protein. The finer barbules dissolve more readily than the stem. By immersing peacock herl in a solution of bleach, the thinner barbules begin to dissolve first. The key, as mentioned in the video, is to stop the process before it goes too far and eats into the stem. But in order to stop, or neutralize, a base, you need to use a chemical substance that brings the pH level down quickly. Baking soda has a pH value of 9, which is still considerably higher than neutral. Therefore, immersing bleached herl in a solution of baking soda may reduce the pH level, but it does not neutralize the bleach. Using a mild solution of vinegar, which has a pH of 2 is much more effective at neutralizing bleach. Of course, washing with a vinegar-water solution should be followed by a good soaking in plain water. Peacock feathers “neutralized” with baking soda become brittle when they dry. If you don’t believe me, try the two methods for yourself and see which is better.

    • Jeff H.

      pH for acids go from 1 (strong) on up (weaker).Vinegar can’t possibly have a pH of 2. A pH of 2 would be a very potent acid.Best to hit the ol’ chemistry books on this one!

    • Tightline

      I apologize for not completely researching the chemistry here. The bleach and baking soda method of stripping is certainly not my idea and has been used with success for a very long time. As stated in the video, it is not a fool proof process. Although I’ve not experienced the baking soda making the quills brittle, I just tried your vinegar method and ended up over bleaching as if it didn’t stop the bleaching process at all. Can you be more specific in terms of the “mild solution of vinegar,” in other words, what ratio of vinegar to water?

      • Dapperfly

        As I said before, I’m not a chemist, but I have used the bleach-vinegar method successfully for many years. It’s a great way of using commonly available ingredients to strip peacock quills. However, it’s really important to soak the feathers in several changes of plain water after using the vinegar solution to stop bleach action. Let me be clear: vinegar stops the active ingredient in bleach (sodium hypochlorite), but, as Jim in Houston observes, it may have other negative effects. Indeed, it does if it isn’t removed through rinsing. Proper chemical neutralization of bleach can be done with sodium thiosulphate, a chemical used in photo development, or with hydrogen peroxide. But both these are less available — at least in my house they’re rarely around. Your observation about overbleaching is interesting. Not all peacock quills have a strongly marked dark edge — in fact most don’t. When I buy quills for stripping, I look at the backside of the eyes. The good quills are readily evident, presenting a distinguishable dark edge that remains through the bleaching process. I use an open white Pyrex dish to do my bleaching so I can agitate and watch the process carefully. Next to it I have a dish with a 1:4 ratio of vinegar and water to stop the bleach action. Then I go to several rinses. Hope this helps!

        • Tightline

          Thanks for the vinegar to water ratio, I will give it a try when I can. Not surprisingly, I currently find myself out of peacock eyes. I, like you, have been stripping quills for more years than I care to mention and used the “two pan” method for most of those years. Once I started using the single bottle method outlined in the video I will never go back to the pans. I firmly believe the increased agitation afforded by the bottle allows the barbules to break down and be knocked from the quills faster resulting in the quills being exposed to the bleach for a shorter period of time (to me the most important part of the entire procedure). The same applies to stopping the bleaching process whether you use just plain water, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide or vinegar. To each his own I guess.

          • Dapperfly

            Yes, whatever works for you is right. I had to smile when I read that you started out using two pans. My first attempts were with a Mason jar (similar to your Nalgene bottle). Using a Pyrex dish was better for me because I could take the quill out at any time and examine it up close. And my bleach-water ratio can be as high as 1:2 depending on the strength of the bleach. Chacun à son goût!

  • Jim in Houston

    The pH of baking soda is 8; the pH of vinegar is 2.4 to 3.4 (varies by type). Vinegar would therefore appear to be a better neutralizing agent, but it may have other, undesirable effects on the quills. When I get my hands on some quills, I will try both.
    This is a great video and a most appropriate subject. I don’t use quills because I have always had to strip them by hand, which is tedious at best. With this stripping technique, I will be using more of them. Better living through chemistry!