How To Make Cruelty-Free Burlesque Feather Fans

Tonya Kay - Pyragraph
Photo by Melissa Schwartz, cruelty-free feather fans and faux pearl corset by Tonya Kay, retouching by Stephen Newell.

My vegan life does not always mesh with the layout of conventional society. Fortunately, I’ve been vegan for 21 years and vegetarian for even longer, so compassionate dead ends aren’t firsts for me and I don’t let living in my world, whether I agree with it or not, get me down…for long.

I remember a nine-year period when I replaced all the leather I owned with “cruelty-free” products. That is, until I realized that man-made plastics manufacturing was destroying potentially more lives of all species through air pollution, water pollution, and manufacturing/landfill-caused habitat destruction than the direct use of animal skin. PLUS the quality of those man-made plastic uppers was so comparatively low, I consumed not one pair of leather tap shoes in 20 years (which is realistic and reasonable), but a new pair of plastic cowgirl boots every six months.

This is one of the most beautiful journeys I’ve ever embarked upon.

Unfortunate. Sad. Trapped by society. But no longer trapped by inner torment.

I’ve learned to stay conscious and awake in every choice in each moment. One of the most important lessons of my vegan journey was surely that any duality-based, black-vs-white, right-vs-wrong thinking—even when it’s with the best of intentions—is closed-minded, limiting and quite useless in a world that requires you interact in real time. The key is to educate yourself and move in real time from there.

Check it out: I’ve learned that bullwhips are available in nylon and are superior to their leather counterparts in almost every way. All ballroom shoes have suede soles/souls, but you can purchase sateen uppers. Car tires contain animal products. Period. Good luck with that, vegan fundamentalists. Which choices are you going to make right here/right now/today? Tomorrow may yield different results. And so on and so forth for the rest of your educated and awake life.

My response-ability (a privilege) is to educate myself and make compassionate choices from there.

Burlesque has its own specific challenges. Said suede-soled ballroom shoes vs. undanceable plastic platform stilettos. Replacing silk, fur and pearl with hard-to-find, but preferable luxury costume replacements. And feather fans…I mean, what burlesque performer doesn’t want the classic feather fans of plush ostrich, pheasant or other bird feathers? But when we see the reality of the torture we initiate by purchasing conventional feathers how beautiful can we really feel on stage after that?

Beauty is not just external. It is visible in the cleanliness of one’s thoughts, choices and spirit as well. To choose to remain uneducated is ignorance—and that is ugliness of the mind. To know and not care is cruel—and that is ugliness of the heart. To know and to care, yet continue while feeling inner shame, is self-loathing—and that is ugliness of the spirit. All this is visible, I assure you, in your performances, in your relationships, in the mirror returning your gaze.

Tonya Kay - Pyragraph
Photo courtesy of Tonya Kay.

Of course, there are no perfect people and no perfect choices. Just honorable, educated, awake journeys towards a personal ideal. I respect you if you are on your journey. I strive to be respectable myself.

So I started with educating myself. The commercial feather industry is cruel in that most feathers are torn from living birds’ bodies, leaving them bloody, in pain and unprotected. As badly as I wanted my own feather fan burlesque, I wanted nothing to do with that process. So I continued my education. Searching and researching faux ostrich feathers. I found faux pheasant feathers, but zero faux feathers of other varieties. I found other vegan performers making their own faux feathers by hand, like Bettina May, burlesque performer from Canada, designing faux ostrich feathers from short hair falls. Or Monica Kay, pole dancer from New Orleans, designing massive black raven wings from finely cut foam rubber. I continued my education.

I learned that ostriches are now “farmed” in over 100 countries for their meat, eggs, skin and feathers. The feathers are plucked from the living birds and the birds after slaughter. I searched and searched cruelty-free (not vegan) feathers and found only two suppliers claiming that standard. I contacted both to ask questions. The first was a large supplier whose products were always available and were of a standard price compared to other conventional commercial ostrich feathers. When I contacted the supplier, he said his feathers were absolutely cruelty-free. When I asked where the farm is, he said South Africa. Eventually in our discourse, he admitted he had never visited the farm himself, but trusts the people he works with implicitly. I have visited South Africa and know first-hand the differences South African society holds when compared to Los Angeles, CA, USA—vegan haven—which is where I live.

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For me, it all didn’t add up, so I continued my search. I found a supplier from Northern California (same progressive vegan-haven state!), Pegasus22 on Etsy. A small supplier, she confirmed that she visits the farm regularly and knows the people who collect the ostrich and peacock feathers after the birds molt (rather than plucking). I needed a large order (85 feathers) and she let me know that collecting this many feathers might take some time, since they wait for the feathers to become loose and that can’t be rushed. Timing is of the essence since the collectors wait for the feathers to become loose, but ideally not be drug around or stepped on by the birds, creating more tedious cleaning and washing.

Her feathers were over twice the price of commercial feathers and I did indeed wait three months for my order to be fulfilled. She invited me to the farm, which I intend to visit in the future. All of this added up and I was confident I could move forward knowing that the spirit of the ostrich, who wears the feathers first, would be alive and radiate beauty in my performance. The ostrich—not my costume—is nature’s true beauty, after all.

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Photo by Bruce Monroe.

Having located my cruelty-free ostrich feathers, I not only had to, but sincerely wanted to make the fans by hand. I wanted to touch the fans and become intimately connected, so I contacted another grassroots business woman on Etsy, Donna Touch Burlesque, from Chicago. I cannot recommend Donna highly enough. She has fine-tuned her own laser-cut, lightweight aluminum stave designs and easily creates custom pieces (which I’ve already commissioned for a second costume!). Donna spent extra time making sure I had all the hints and tips she could give a first-time fan maker. When her staves arrived, they looked shiny and smooth.

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I spray painted the staves with a rustoleum coating to match the feather color.

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I gently laid out every feather. This was my favorite part. The feathers are breathtakingly beautiful and because they are not commercial feathers, the ends are not trimmed. This makes the feathers far more fragile (I’ve had to learn to repair feather tips from use) but also keeps them at their longest and most flowing, since it is the tips of the feathers that taper down to their slimmest and most delicate.

Tonya Kay - Pyragraph
Photo by Marti Matulis with The Lalas.

I laid them out according to height and direction of bend at the tip. I knew three feathers were going to be attached to every stave, so took my time and chose which combination would make the most visually stunning layout for two full fans. There is no right or wrong here. This is the art of the fan building.

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It takes a little practice, considerable patience and a lot of time, but I got quicker and more skilled as I went. With three twists of thin wire, I attached each feather to the stave at two attachment points.

Tonya Kay - Pyragraph

Tonya Kay - Pyragraph

The more feathers used, yes, the more expensive the fan, but also the more responsive the fan’s movement and the most coverage for me to tease from behind. I figured if I was going for quick, cheap fans, I wouldn’t have sourced cruelty-free, I wouldn’t have built them myself, the fans would have ended up looking commercial and thin—and so would my act. Since this process, it is easy to spot the difference between a nice set of feather fans and a cheap pair. Cruelty-free and handmade fans shine like stars!

I designed my fans to remain open, but it can be done either way. Opening and closing the fans places a lot of wear on them and I knew I was going to be using them exclusively in the open position for this act, so I layered all the staves with washers on a bolt, then hard-wired the base together so they remain strongly in an open position.

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Of course open fans need a custom case, which my Lover and friend, Teddy Baum, hand-made for me!

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And of course I spent 12 more days creating a custom pearl corset to compliment the quality and splendor of my stunning cruelty-free feather fans. The end result is nothing less than breathtaking and when I perform the burlesque act live—a classic Peekaboo Feather Fan Dance—I feel confident my choreography and performance combine with magickal results. This is one of the most beautiful journeys I’ve ever embarked upon.

More photos of Tonya Kay’s cruelty-free burlesque feather fans:

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Photo by Melissa Schwartz.
Tonya Kay - Pyragraph
Photo by Greg Autry.
Tonya Kay - Pyragraph
Photo by Sam Fielding.
Tonya Kay - Pyragraph
Photo by Sam Feilding.
Tonya Kay - Pyragraph
Photo by Melissa Schwartz.

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  1. Hi Tonya,

    Thank you so much for this post. It has helped me considerably.

    I’m a milliner (hat maker) based in Glasgow, Scotland. I am vegetarian/eat mostly vegan, and try my best daily to avoid products which are the consequence of animal cruelty. This has unfortunately proved a difficult task within the realms of my profession. Millinery is a very niche market, wearing hats is also not as popular as it once was, and unfortunately the market is over-populated considering how irregularly items are bought. Millinery suppliers are also few and far between, and unfortunately most suppliers do not consider the ethics of the items they sell. I am progressively less comfortable using the supplies available, especially the feathers, which are overused in the millinery business.

    I’m at the beginnings of my research into how I can become an ethical artist/supplier, and as such I thought I would ask you some questions, as a way of obtaining guidance from someone trustworthy, ethical and experienced.

    I distrust many suppliers of “faux feathers”. I have read that many suppliers will attach animal feathers to plastic then brand them synthetic. My eyes widened when I read that you ” found faux pheasant feathers, but zero faux feathers of other varieties.” I was wondering if you are able to provide me with names of the suppliers of the faux pheasant feathers you mention? I am very cynical of such suppliers, but from this article, I consider your opinion trustworthy.

    I was also wondering if you ever visited Pegasus22’s farm? and if you still consider them ethical? It’s apparent from your article you thoroughly researched suppliers. From your article, I value your opinion. I thought it wise to double check.

    I’m sure you are a very busy person, I hope my reply isn’t too much bother.

    Thanks again for your post.


  2. Hi! And thank you for reading. Thank you for directing your work towards cruelty-free options. It is important and not the most obvious path, but the path is there to always do one better. You’re on it.

    I have not yet visited Pegasus22’s farm. Unfortunately, I do not remember the suppliers of the faux pheasant feathers I found. Not much help beyond the writing of the article and creation of the pieces at this point, it seems.

    Also, consider using hair extensions. Yes, I’m serious: you can purchase colorful hair weaves or dye them yourself. They come in almost any length and with your creativity, you can use those weaves to create a cruelty-free and faux version of almost any feather, including ostrich. Hope that gets you brainstorming!

    1. well, that’s what the entire article is about. i hope you read it before posting as it would seem to answer your conundrum. alas, to explain; in the same vein, i also have cruelty-free peacock feathers. i know the man who cares for the birds. every year, each bird naturally molts 100 feathers. he picks them up after molting instead of doing what conventional feather providers do: tear them from the bird’s skin, leaving the animal screaming and bloody. for goodness sake’s even mainstream media has reported on it (in a relatively safe way) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqIL-7njHFY/. so … cruelty-free feathers are feathers collected after molting. that’s what the whole article is about if you read it. i did not call the feathers vegan. again, please read the article for the difference.

      1. I dont get it. Veganism is about not stealing from animals as well. Animals like birds also nest and use their feathers plus whatever else is around. Plus are these birds captive? Or are they wild? Are they rescues that are being cared for? I dont think any ‘farm’ can be a good thing. Consider this i am an ex farmer and i know there is no such thing a a good farmer. When animals are captive and on a farm there is exploitation. The animal is just an object to a farmer. Are these birds when no longer useful being slaughtered or do they get to live out their natural lives in a carefree way? I am unconvinced and never will be. Thats why i stopped using feathers, leather etc in my costumes decades ago and have been vegan 34 years. I know where there are captives theres always an issue

  3. Hello Tonya,I wanted to ask about the idea of keeping the fans open. I intend to construct my own too very soon. I have bought the same staves you sourced. With the open fans, did you use metal washers? and with the case, how are the fans stored inside so that they don’t move around and break, please? what sort of wood did he make the case out of? Thank you!

    1. I’m just seeing this now. The box is made out of large cardboard with a glued fabric protecting the outside! Inside I glued a fabric liner that is somewhat loose. It is attached at the top and sides, then becomes loose at the bottom, where I fit my fans in, then I pull the fabric up over the front and attach to to the back of the box again w magnets. The whole thing acts as an envelope or sleeve. It’s saved my feathers so much wear! Make sure to measure the backseat of your car before designing a continually open set of fans and storage box:-)

  4. Well done you! If wveryone lived with your ability to connect intellect with every day action, the world would be a massively better place!

    1. Right on! I do care and try to stay conscious. My relationship to my own spirit is the guide. Gotta feel good about my actions in the world on stage and off. I hope to keep progressing and growing.

  5. Hello!

    I simply want to say you have relieved me of so much stress on this subject. I am a burlesque performer and ten years ago did not think about how my fans only existed because a beautiful creature unwillingly sacrifices their body for me to perform with feather fans. I am creating news costumes and props and cannot bring myself to purchase and use something that came from horrible pain. Thank you thank you for educating me!

    Also, I am a cancer patient struggling with staying positive. Some of what you said is helping me in other ways. Thank you.

    All my love,

    Shelleen Soltys

    1. Thank you for caring and reading. There are many ways to give the cruelty-free options a go. And I support all of them! My respect to you nurturing your mental health while experiencing the fear and pain that must come with cancer treatment. I don’t know you, but I do know that art has saved my life several times. If even by simply giving me beauty to focus on when I’d otherwise be focused on myself. When I make beautiful things, I am relating to what I know is still beautiful in me, even when I’m down and out. You are celebratable.

  6. Hi Tonya, thanks for sharing with us your experience.

    Have you visited the farm?

    from Italy


    1. Hello and thank you for this tutorial. I found your pist easy to follow and im excited to build my own set of fans. Also, may i take inspiration/design idea from your pearl corset?

      1. Also, may I ask why 85 feathers? If my math is right, you only need 72 for the fan. Are the rest “extras” to make sure you get what you want design wise?

  7. Absolutely beautiful fan and beautiful dancer and human being as well. I have a couple of technical question. I want to make a lamp shade of ostrich feathers as cruelty free as possible. I was inspired by a company called Modernica Props in La. I doubt they are cruelty free but either way I could never afford their lamp. I found a floor lamp with a similar tree trunk like body and now all I need is to make the shade. I want the feathers to droop like palm fonds so your process is very interesting to me. Where else is the feather attached to the staves besides the one we see in in the photo which is directly above the bolt that holds the fan open? Why are there so many holes if you only attach the feathers in 2 places? Is it just to give you choices and to make the metal lighter? And I hope this isn’t a stupid question but, how does the wire manage to hold the quill without it slipping? I have to think this through quite a bit to figure out how many feathers I will need but I imagine it will be about 70-80, but I hope and pray it is less. Thank you for sharing your fan and your artistic process.

  8. Hi, I wondered what the purpose of the ostrich farm where you got the feathers is. Is it an ostrich rescue where the birds are not bred for human purposes, or is it a farm where they are used for meat or other purposes? If the latter, it seems that even if the feathers are collected painlessly, by buying them you would be still funding an animal-exploiting operation — and the feathers wouldn’t be available for your use if these animals weren’t being exploited.

    1. I believe that even if the feathers were obtained in a painless way from rescued ostriches, using them still promotes the use of animals for our own benefit. It doesnt matter if they’re “cruelty free” because people seeing the images or watching you perform just see feathers and think it is OK.

  9. I’m not vegan, but can appreciate not tearing feathers from a poor bird’s body. Thank you! I hope to make a pair of fans very soon.

    1. Hi, Nathalie. Please go to my website themostdangerouswomaninhollywood.com and use the contact form there – looking forward to hearing from you.

  10. Hello!
    Looks like Pegasus22 is on pause for a while. I’m wondering if you have any new leads on ethical or synthetic feathers since you originally wrote the article. Trying to refresh an old samba headdress that looks sad. Seems most ethical to renew an old headdress than create a completely new one. But I felt pretty awful after buying some ostrich feathers and then reading an article about the awfulness of ostrich farming (the article say that ostriches DON’T molt by the way… https://www.collectivefashionjustice.org/ostrich-feathers-and-skin )

    1. I did find another designer in Canada who goes to the farms and collects herself! Check out Little Shop Of Showgirls and say hi from Tonya Kay!

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