Dyeing your own feathers and fur is often the only way
you have to get the exact colour you want for that special
pattern or even that old traditional that you want to tie.
If you use a well proven dye like Veniards fly tiers dye
it is not difficult or messy and can develop into an
interesting pastime for when you are not at the fly
The old traditional methods while effective were very
complicated. If you have an interest in trying the old
methods then can I suggest as a starter you get hold of
a copy of Irish Trout and Salmon Flies by
E J Malone which has just been republished in paperback.
Not only does the book contain a fabulous array of traditional
fly patterns but has a good chapter on dying by the old
methods. Using modern dyes like Veniards you will find
the process simple and economical.
Veniards Dyes are usually available around the world from
the wide range of fly shops that sell veniards fly tying
products. There is a full range of colours, around forty,
which have been designed to meet the needs of both traditional
and innovative fly tiers. The dyes are very strong so are
very economical to use. Veniards sell them in 15 gm tubes
and a tube will last the average tier years.
The equipment you will need is very simple and can be "stolen"
from the kitchen. Veniards recommend that two aluminium
saucepans are used, a small one which can fit inside one
slightly larger. The smaller one is perforated on the
bottom and sides so it becomes like a colander. An
alternative is a cooks wire mesh sieve or a wire mesh
potato chip (french fry) basket. The colander holds the
material to be dyed and stands inside the larger saucepan
of dye holding the material. It will hold a good amount
of small feathers or larger feathers cut in pieces. The
idea in using the colander or perforated saucepan is that
it allows easy inspection of material which can be lifted
out of the bath inspected and then resubmerged. It also
helps keep you clean as contact with the dye bath is kept
to a minimum but you should wear rubber kitchen gloves
anyway. Veniards recommended colander method is probably
best if you are new to dyeing.
Most of my dyeing is of loose fur and I use a different
method. I have a shallow aluminium pan (it's actually part
of an old egg poacher!) which holds the dye and I put the
material loose in the pan. To separate material from the
dye bath when it's dyed pour the dye and loose fur through
a fine mesh cook's sieve. Alternatively you can put material
like loose fur in a length of nylon stocking tied up at each
end. The dye easily works through the stocking. I find the
large shallow pan easier to dye capes (necks) and saddles
and get a nice even dying of loose furs like seal. It is
more difficult to add extra dye if the strength is wrong
There is no doubt the key to successful results is the proper
treatment of the material before dyeing. This simply means
ensuring that the material is clean and free of grease.
Veniards recommend using a solution of soap powder or any
good detergent to soak the material for a few minutes which
should then be rinsed well. Waterfowl feathers will need a
longer soaking to help remove the natural grease that they
are gifted with. The usual process is quite simple. Using
the larger saucepan, prepare a solution of soap powder or
any good detergent. Place the feathers to be dyed in the smaller
perforated saucepan (colander) and soak for a few minutes.
(Waterfowl feathers must be soaked considerably longer to
allow penetration of the natural oil coating). My preferred
way of preparing loose seal fur dubbing, capes and saddles
is to use a cheap supermarket brand shampoo with a conditioner
in it and work it well into the material. Yes the conditioner
does make a difference!
Once the feathers or fur have been washed in your choice of
soap, detergent or shampoo a thorough rinsing needs to take
place. I do this by placing the material in the wire sieve
or colander and rinsing thoroughly under the tap.
Veniards also market a special super strength detergent
called venpol for extra dirty or greasy materials. I normally
do not need to use Venpol. But if you are dying extra dirty
greasy materials like Buck tails you will find it useful.
It is very concentrated so the amount you need to use is
quite small. Veniards recommend 1 part in 160. Half a fluid
once of venpol is enough for 4 pints of water. Hackles only
require a soaking of a few minutes but buck tails may benefit
from a few hours or an overnight soak.
Once you have prepared your material you can move on to the
dying process which is very easy. Put water in your pan
to a little above the half full mark and gently heat on
the stove. Add dye to the water which should be usually
at the rate of a quarter of a teaspoon of dye to 2 pints
of water for ordinary feathers and furs and double the
amount of dye for waterfowl feathers. Allow the dye solution
to come to the boil stirring the mixture so all the dye is
dissolved. To fix the colour you must add vinegar, one
tablespoon full per quarter teaspoon of dye, to the solution.
If you are dying dark colours you will find you need a stronger
solution of dye and pro rata more vinegar. Black is a very
difficult colour, I use a teaspoon of dye per 2 pints of water.
Put your feathers in the dye bath and bring the solution back
to the boil. Simmer the materials gently keeping the material
moving all the time. You must allow time for the colour to
develop. The dyes are all a mixture of three colours which
do not fix and penetrate at the same rate so if you
remove the material too early you will not get the shade
you want. Feathers, when they are wet, look darker than
they will be dry, so bear that in mind when examining them.
Most shades develop in 3 or 4 minutes.
If you are using a "colander" then inspection is made simple.
You lift out the colander and the dye runs through the holes
back into the pan leaving the material for inspection in the
bottom. Remember when you are looking at your material that
it will dry to a lighter shade. If you are not achieving the
correct shade then it is a simple matter to add more dye and
vinegar to the dye bath if you are using a colander. Try
holding a feather up to the light to get a better idea of
You will find that bright shades like red yellow and green
highlander are achieved very easily. The more subtle colours
can be spoiled by using too much dye, so for delicate olives
and shades of dun start with a little dye and add more if
needed. You will quickly learn, believe me, nothing about
dying with Veniards dye is difficult.
As mentioned above black needs special attention. I use nearly
a full teaspoon of dye and leave the dye bath cooking for as
long as possible at the simmer. Once I have given the material
a good simmering I do not remove the material from the bath
but leave it overnight to go cold before straining the dye
off in the morning. This usually results in a nice rich
When you have reached the shade you want, remove the colander
from the dye bath and put under the cold tap to rinse. Keep
rinsing until the water runs clear. Blot the material to remove
surplus moisture, then place on paper till air dried.
One trick advocated by Veniards is to put partially dried
hackles in a cardboard lid which is then held over a gas
ring and shaken gently until dry. A fierce heat can be used
if the material is kept on the move. I like to use my wife's
You will find there is an infinite range of shades available
to you by varying the strength of dyes and by experimenting
with mixing dyes. Remember that you cannot dye something
lighter you can only dye things darker. So a Red hackle
from say a Rhode Island red chicken will dye Black Claret
and Purple but for the shades of dun and olive you need a
Key Points to Remember
1. Always remove all traces of detergent from material by
2. Keep feathers on the move when the dye bath is at boiling
point or just under.
3. Do not add more dye to a bath when there is material in it.
Use the colander to lift the material out first.
4. Its better to start with a weaker dye bath and add dye to
it if needed.
5. Make sure that material is rinsed properly after it is dyed.
6. Do not dry with fierce heat as it will "kill" the material.
7. You cannot dye a dark material light. Start with white material
for subtle and bright colours. ~ Jim Smith