Peacock feather fabric is a rare and alluring material created through true craftsmanship, but its continued existence is hanging by a mere thread.
The beautiful and subtle iridescence of a peacock feather catches the eye with its unique and mesmerizing draw. Found in the tails of male peacocks, these feathers have actually been woven into fabrics by Asian cultures since the 17th century to create brocades that were worthy only of Buddhist lamas and royalty. The sheer splendor and distinctiveness of peacock feather brocade made it a coveted material once trade spread it around the world, although it stills remain one of the most expensive and exclusive fabrics to date. The laborious and almost preposterous process of creating the material is in fact causing its production to become a dying art in our world of insanely rapid and environmentally hazardous textile manufacturing.
The peacock feather is woven deeply into Indian culture, as it represents physical and spiritual protection. Peacocks run wild in their native India, but are highly protected because of their precious status. Therefore, only the feathers that are naturally cast off are sustainably collected for weaving so that the ecosystem of the species is not disturbed.
Peacock feather fabric is made from the side strands of the tail or “eye” feathers, which only the males have. Mature males have about 180-200 tail feathers each, which they begin to shed after breeding season during the monsoons. Rural villagers in Western India gather the tail feathers, hand pluck the side strands and sort them. The 3-4 inch long feathers are then twisted three at a time and knotted by hand into the next three to form a continuous thread.
This meticulous process is followed by weaving to create a satin-woven foundation with a warp of pure silk crossed with a weft of rayon. The peacock feather strand makes up a supplementary weft that captures the gorgeous iridescence of the plumage on the surface pile of the cloth. As if the process weren’t already challenging enough, the weaver must be highly skilled to pass the knots of the peacock feather strand to the back of the cloth base so that the feathers are secured between the rayon weft. An average of 12 inches of fabric are completed per day, and it takes a month to complete a standard 9 yard roll. Time-consuming, laborious and requiring ample handcrafting skills, it is no wonder peacock feather fabrics are rather costly and production is extremely limited.
The first peacock feather brocades date back to the 17th century, when they were used mainly as decorative hangings for the seat backs of esteemed lamas thrones in India, Nepal and Tibet. At the time, the Chinese supplied their neighbors with the thick material, as the country had a particular bureau that oversaw various feather arts, including weaving of fabrics made from the feathers of peacocks and Eurasian kingfishers.
In the 19th century weaving of this luxury material shifted from China to the Indian weaving centers, which were placed around the capitals of kingdoms and holy cities whose royal inhabitants coveted such opulent fabrics. Peacock feather and gold brocades were first brought to Europe in 1884 when presented to Queen Victoria, who commissioned European style designs with the material two years later.
In modern times peacock feather fabric continues to be produced in limited quantities by special order. Currently only one family in Northeastern India weaves peacock feather brocades mainly for their Tibetan clientele. The only U.S. based distributor of the material is THIS Co., a purveyor of rare, natural and sustainable fabrics. The company sells a peacock feather, silk and rayon weave, as well as a wave pattern weave that incorporates the lustrous tail feathers. Dan Nation, owner of THIS Co. believes that the weave will not survive any longer than another 10 years, quite possibly even less. Weavers with the skills to make this rare fabric are becoming far and few between, as this form of artisan work and the patience required to perform it are not highly regarded in India. A dying art, but an absolutely amazing one that produces a stunning and breathtaking material.