Artefact as Archive: Evidence of ‘Willowing’ on Ostrich Plume

Artefact as Archive

A recent vein of creative historical research has reconsidered ‘the limits and location of any set of materials determined as “archive”’ (Lorimer 2009). Within this body of work, researchers have highlighted that material encounters and material entities can be rich resources for historical recovery (Kurtz 2001; Till 2001; DeSilvey 2006, 2007b; Featherstone 2004; Hill 2006a, 2006b, 2007; Lorimer 2006; Yusoff 2008).

In my own writing (Patchett 2008; Patchett and Foster 2008; Patchett, Foster and Lorimer 2011) I have argued that specimen artefacts can be used as object-based archives. Beneath the skin of form the substances and materials out of which things are made remain active, threatening the very nature of that form. When studied up close, craft-made objects begin to suggest the practices of their making:

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The following close-up photographs of an millinery ostrich plume show evidence of willowing:

Willowing’ consisted of lengthening the short strands, called flues, of inferior feathers by tying on one, two or three flues until the feather has the desired depth and grace.

A poem from the Sorrowful Rhymes of Working Children 1911 underlines the exploitation of children employed in doing “finishing work” for feather manufacturers:

How doth the manufacturer

Improve the ostrich tail?

By willowing the scraggy ends

Until they’re fit for sale.

How cheerfully he sits and smiles

Throughout the livelong day,

While children knot the tiny flues

And make the plumes that pay.


Patchett, M. Foster, K. and Lorimer H. (2011) ‘The ‘Biogeographies’ of a Hollowed-Eyed Harrier’, in Alberti, S. (ed) The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie, Virginia: University of Virginia Press.

Patchett, M. (2010) Putting Animals on Display: Geographies of Taxidermy Practice, University of Glasgow: Enlighten.

Patchett, M. (2008) ‘Tracking Tigers: Recovering the Embodied Practices of Taxidermy‘, Historical Geography36, 17-39. (Invited paper forming part of special issue ‘Historical Geographies of Embodied Practice)

Patchett, M. and Foster, K. (2008) ‘Repair Work: Surfacing the Geographies of Dead Animals‘, Museum and Society 6(2), 98-122. (Invited paper forming part of special issue ‘Constructing Nature Behind Glass’)

Patchett, M. (2007) ‘Animal as Object: Taxidermy and the Charting of Afterlives‘ – web-essay accompanying the Blue Antelope exhibit and website,


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