PREPARING FEATHERS FOR DYEING and USING THE PROPER WETTING AGENT
Success in dyeing requires a bit of careful prior preparation and the use of a proper wetting agent or surfactant (auxiliaries) when applying dyes. It has been my experience that feathers from fly shops are usually clean enough to be dyed without further ado. However, feathers for winging obtained in bulk from feather merchants are another story. Smelling strongly of napthalene and just plain dirty, they must be cleaned up first. The easiest way to accomplish this is to place them in a long, wide, shallow pan such as a roasting pan or similar container and allow them to spread out and soak in a solution of warm water containing a mild liquid detergent such as Dawn. The key here is to not crowd the feathers. Thus a long, wide container is much better than a tall pail for example.
An hour or two of soaking may be all that is required to clean up the feathers. However, if the feathers remain dull and dingy, I add 3% hydrogen peroxide (1 pint per gallon of solution) and allow the feathers to soak overnight. Then I rinse them twice in fresh warm water containing a little of the detergent.
The wet feathers can be transferred directly to your dyepot or you may wish to dry them and dye them later. Mike McCoy taught me a little trick when drying them. Namely, grasp the feather by the stem or rachis, and sweeping it under water, bring the body of the feather up against the side of the container. When you do this, the barbs will flatten out and adhere to the side of the container. This allows the barbs to line up and adhere to one another in much the same way when still on the bird. Now draw the feather up the side and out of the liquid. When the barbs resist alignment (as they may when feather quality is poor) it will help to give the feathers a quick up and down jerking motion as you remove them. Also, be sure to add just a little detergent to the rinse water in the container you're using. Then place the feathers on paper toweling to dry.
One of the keys to any successful dyeing session is the use of the proper wetting agent. Such an agent is Sythrapol. It is used almost exclusively for dyeing in the fiber arts (dyeing wool and silk fleece, fabrics and furs), and just possibly may be the best wetting agent available to the do-it-yourself dyer. It has the ability to cut through oils and greases in seconds, it provides excellent contact between dyes and fibers, wetting the latter immediately on contact with the dyebath and it is economical to use because you use so little each time. Sythrapol is added to the dyebath at the rate of 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon per quart of dyebath. Then, when you're all through dyeing, remove the feathers from the rinse water containing a few drops of Sythrapol using the sweeping method described above. Synthrapol is available from artist's supply stores, fiber arts and weaver's supply shops and from stores selling dyes and dyeing supplies.
Another key to successful dyeing is to select and use the right class of dye for the job. There are a great many dyes to choose from and use successfully in fly tying. In fact dyes, dyeing and bleaching are the subject of a chapter by myself to appear in a forthcoming book by your editor, Mike Radencich. In the chapter we will cover in detail the properties and use of leveling, milling, supermilling and premetallized acid dyes, fiber reactive dyes, some of the old dyes (including picric acid) used in a bygone era, natural product colorants (natural dyes), free radical bleaching and the sources of dyes, bleach chemicals and the many auxiliaries that are used. Keep tuned in on this. This will be the most comprehensive coverage of dyes and dyeing yet to appear in a publication dealing with fly tying.