How to Make Cruelty-Free Burlesque Feather Fans


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.  Until I realized that the man-made plastics’ manufacturing was destroying potentially more lives of all species through air pollution, water pollution and manufacture/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 6 months.

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 with it 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 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 it’s own specific challenges.  Said suede-soled ballroom shoes vs. undancable 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 is ugliness of the spirit.   All this is visible, I assure you, in your performances, in your relationships, in the mirror returning your gaze.


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 variety.  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.  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.  She is a small supplier, confirmed that she visits the farm regularly and knows the people whom collect the ostrich and peacock feathers after the bird’s 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 3 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, whom 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.

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 can not recommend Donna highly enough.  She has fine tuned her own laser cut, light-weight 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 like this:


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


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 the slimmest and most delicate.


photo by Marti Matulis w The Lalas, cruelty-free feather fans by Tonya Kay

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.


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.



The more feathers used, yes, the more expensive, but also the more responsive the fans 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 wouln’t have built them myself, the fans would have ended up looking commercial and thin and so would have 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 hand-made 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.


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


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.


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





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




 Originally published in Pyragraph.

  1. Phillipa

    May 6th, 2016 6:01

    where did you get the pearl corset from its amazing?


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