/ 2 March 2024

The return of ostrich plumes

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File photo: An ostrich looks at a woman wearing a hat decorated with plumes during the first Ukrainian Ostriches Festival some 50 km from Kiev on September 4, 2010. (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

On a farm in the Klein Karoo, hundreds of ostriches stretch their slender necks and shake their black feathers under the setting sun. The birds’ lanky legs raise a cloud of dust in their enclosure, one of dozens dotting the rugged landscape surrounding the Western Cape town of Oudtshoorn. 

“May the feathers be with you,” reads an inscription welcoming visitors to the ostrich capital of the world.

From feather dusters to boa scarves, about 70% of ostrich products globally originate from South Africa. 

Most come from Oudtshoorn, which is situated between two mountain ranges running along South Africa’s southern coast, with a semi-arid climate ideal for big bird farming. 

Since the town’s early days, fashion has been the main market for local farmers, the lush plumes used to decorate luxury hats and eccentric dresses. 

“If you want to see a good exposure of our products, it will be, like, the Met Gala, in New York,” says Peter Liebenberg, who heads the feather division of Cape Karoo International.

New York’s star-studded Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual fundraising ball is renowned for its over-the-top outfits. Yet, local producers say it’s the ostrich’s versatility that has allowed it to survive the whims of fashion. Just like for pigs, all parts are put to use and nothing is wasted, they say. 

A quick stroll into town reveals what they mean.

Restaurants serve ostrich steak. Store windows display ostrich leather bags as well as lamps and other ornaments shaped out of the birds’ giant eggs. 

The flue of the feather can be worked and curled to make brooches, says farmer Saag Jonker. “At the moment it’s really in fashion.”

A mischievous-looking ostrich adorns the logo of the local tourism office. 

As demand for extravagant clothing to show off at fancy parties tanked when the world was forced indoors by the Covid-19 pandemic, it was feather dusters that kept the industry afloat. 

“People were in lockdown, restricted to their homes, and everyone wanted to clean,” says Liebenberg. 

Oudtshoorn has been an ostrich boom town before. 

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, ostrich feathers were a prized designer item and South Africa’s fourth-biggest export. 

Their price by weight rivalled that of gold and the Oudtshoorn farmers’ association once gave Britain’s Queen Mary a dazzling fan made of white plumes as a sign of prosperity.

But the market crashed soon after as World War I disrupted maritime trade and cars became a popular means of transport. 

“You can’t get into a car with a hat with an ostrich feather. So that was a big thing,” says Liebenberg. 

But demand “always comes back”, he adds.

Today about 200 workers sort, cut, wash and dye plumes in several hundred colours at his processing facility in Oudtshoorn.

Seamstresses in pink uniforms sew feather boas in a room adorned by images of Paco Rabanne, Jean Paul Gaultier and Balmain fashion shows. 

Cape Karoo International sells about a hundred tonnes of feathers each year, including more than a million dusters and 130 000 metres of trim, he says.

Not far away in Jonker’s hatchery, the squawking of hundreds of newborns drowns out the soft crackle of hatching eggs. 

With an expert hand, a worker opens a temperature-controlled drawer and removes a few pieces of shell from one of the large eggs, revealing a small beak and a pair of dozing eyes. 

“I became an ostrich feather auctioneer at the age of 22 or 23. So that is how I then landed in the ostrich industry, and I never looked back,” Jonker recalls. 

His firm is now the largest private ostrich breeding, processing and marketing company in the world, with nearly 45  000 birds slaughtered every season. 

After being sterilised and sorted, the black and white plumes of the wings, the most prized ones, are sold at haute couture houses throughout the world. Clients range from Moulin Rouge performers in Paris to the carnival revellers in Rio de Janeiro. 

“It’s really an excellent product,” Jonker says.