Cheap, non-toxic way to dye natural feathers
When I decided to make my own mask for my autumn dryad costume, I decided on a paper mache base with colored feathers. As a vegetarian, it was hard for me to buy standard craft or store feathers, as they involve the killing of the bird. Fortunately, eBay and Etsy had a few folks selling naturally-shed, cruelty-free feathers. Often from pets or egg-laying birds, these feathers are natural in color and vary in size and pattern and are collected when the bird molts. As molting is seasonal, I had to allow some extra time to collect the feathers I wanted as they aren't always available. I did check with local wildlife experts to confirm that it is illegal to collect feathers of wild birds (hawks, owls, songbirds, shore birds, etc) even if you find them on the ground.
So I started out with all sorts of feathers - pigeon, turkey, peacock, guinea fowl, chicken - in various colors (white, cream, brown, black, grey) and patterns (stripes, dots, mottled). I did not wash the feathers before I dyed them. Some feather sellers wash them for you, but I don't think mine were. I found different opinions on the internet about pros and cons of washing the feathers. Some say the natural oils in the feathers are good, some say a wash in a mild detergent helps the dye set. I took the easy way in my test batch and skipped the washing. My feathers turned out fine.
I decided to try the kool-aid and vinegar approach to dyeing the feathers. It's cheaper than the chemical dyes and fabric dyes. I played around with the mixture of kool-aid and water/vinegar mixture to use the least amount possible.
What you'll need:
Shallow microwavable pan or dish (I used a casserole dish)
Kool-aid in your preferred colors
Ground tumeric (if you want yellow)
Chop sticks or other stirring device
Fill the shallow dish about 1/3 full of water and add a splash of vinegar. Stir in the Kool-aid until dissolved. The more Kool-aid you use, the stronger the color will be. You can also mix the colors for different shades.
Add the feathers one at a time into the Kool-aid bath. **If you don't need the fluffy part of the feather, save yourself some time and hassle and cut it off. The color in the fluffy part is more likely to be splotchy** Use the chop sticks to immerse the feather and work in the color. Be sure to get the air bubbles out. Add additional feathers until the surface of the water is covered. You can try to add layers of feathers to save time, just be sure that all the feathers are wet and in contact with the dye.
Microwave the feathers for 2 minutes. Gently aggitate/stir them to make sure they are still in contact with the dye - especially if there are a lot in the pan. Let rest for 2 minutes, then microwave again for 2 minutes. Let the feathers soak until they are the color you want. The longer they soak, the deeper the color. I gently rinsed my feathers in a strainer, but I don't know that you have to do this. The rinse was helpful with the tumeric dye since the tumeric didn't completely dissolve in the water and the rinse helps reduce the strong smell. You can use the dye again, but the color may be lighter unless you add some more Kool-aid. The dye will get lighter with each batch.
Gently pat the feathers to remove excess moisture. Use a hair dryer to dry the feathers completely and re-fluff. If the feather looks like it is separating, gently run your fingers down the spine while using the hair dryer. If you don't need the fluffy part, drying goes much faster without it. I did not need the fluffy part for my mask and could have saved a ton of time if I had cut it off before dyeing.
The very dark parts of the feather will not dye well. I liked the stripes and dots and variation in color with the natural feathers. I had to mix in some black cherry with the green kool-aid to get a somewhat muted color and not the crazy bright color. To make brown, I would mix in a different color with a used batch of dye that was getting too light.