Preserving materials – by Mike Connor

We have managed to collect and prepare a range of items for our fly-dressing requirements. How do we store them properly and safely?

Preserving materials is a vast subject. For our purposes, we must ensure that our collections are stored airtight and secure, preferably with chemical pest inhibitors. For this purpose “tupperware” or “rubber maid” and similar plastic containers are best.

Zip-loc bags may also be used for some stuff, but some tenacious pests can penetrate these, so it is best to store these also in a suitable container.

Feathers are composed of about 91% protein, 8% water, and 1% lipids. The type of protein in feathers is called keratin, a sulphurous, fibrous protein. Fur and hair is similar in construction. There are a number of pests extant which feed avidly on this material.

pH is an arbitrary measurement of acidity and alkalinity. Correct pH environment is absolutely crucial to the preservation of feathers. Acidic (pH 6 or lower) environments will cause the chemical breakdown of the keratin, leading to weakening of the feather. Storing your feathers in wooden boxes or next to paper exposes them to an acidic environment. The rate of damage will increase as temperature and relative humidity increase. So, a cool dry place, and no wood or paper in the packaging. 

Alkalis (pH 8 or higher) can also cause feathers to break down. Alkali will have a greater effect on the keratin structure than acids, which are fairly specific, as they only break down the amino acid tryptophan. Alkalis are found in many household cleansers, such as soaps and laundry detergents. If you wash your feathers, then rinse them off in very copious quantities of water, before drying and storing.

One common cause of damage is colour fading from exposure to light. Although not as obvious, light may also cause other types of damage. As the energy contained in light strikes your feathers, it will begin to break molecular bonds. The breaking of these bonds results in colour fading and structural change, yellowing, and embrittlement of the feathers. If exposed to direct, intense light, damage occurs very quickly and is immediately obvious. Just as dangerous is exposure to moderate light levels over extended periods of time. Light damage is cumulative, and will slowly build up over time. Although your feathers may have been stored in dim light conditions, in time the regular exposure to even low light levels will add to their gradual deterioration. 

Usually the first indication of damage is a littering of small pieces of broken feather barbs in the bottom of the case or box. By then, it is too late to salvage or repair the feather. (This is easily distinguishable from beetle excreta, and similar insect causes like “frass”). So store your feathers in a dark place. Avoid buying capes and other feathers from display windows subject to bright sunshine! Even top class capes will degrade very quickly indeed in strong sunlight, and be more or less useless for tying flies. Quills split, barbs break, etc etc. Apparently, not many dressers (and practically no tackle shops!!!) are aware of this. 

One may also wish to “bleach” or otherwise alter feathers by exposure to light. Green peacock herl turns bronze when exposed to sunlight. (I mention this, as I have seen people trying to buy bronze peacock herl in shops, and being told that it is “Difficult to obtain”). But if you overdo it, the quill will split when being tied in. Its structure is materially altered.

Dyed feathers contain the dyes used to colour them of course, and may behave oddly when exposed to light, various chemical fumes etc etc. This is rarely desirable. Many dyes are toxic, and even most pests will avoid materials dyed with such, but one may not rely on this. Take the same precautions for dyed material.

Various feather colours are dependent on numerous factors (I will go into this in a later article) and there are any number of things which will have adverse effects on them. These are the normal museum standards for the storage of feathers; minimal handling and dust protection are essential. The following are tolerances for other environmental variables. 

Temperature: 60 degrees F to 75 degrees F 
Humidity: 45% to 55% 
pH: 6.5 to 7.5 
Visible light: 50 lux or less (the amount of light in a dim room) 
Ultraviolet light: 75 microwatts per lumen or less 

Absolute devastation of feathers by insect infestation is quite common. Because keratin contains sulphur, it is a particular delicacy for some types of insects. Clothes moths (Adults have no functional mouth and cannot eat the feathers; it is normally the larvae, identifiable by the cases they spin, which cause the damage), and dermestid beetles (“Carpet” beetles), which are small hairy beetles, are especially fond of materials which contain keratin. Feather mites, and a whole variety of other creatures will also readily infest feathers and fur, especially if it is still on the skin.

A sure sign of infestation are powdery deposits in one’s containers. This is insect excreta, and remains of the feathers themselves.

One’s main aim should be not to get infested in the first place. The most common substances used for this purpose are paradichlorbenzene, and napthalene. These are often referred to as “Moth Crystals”, or “Mothballs” respectively.

Both of these substances only work properly when the containers in which they are placed are more or less airtight. This is necessary for a certain “vapour pressure” to develop. This fairly effectively fumigates materials, and provides an effective deterrent. There is some contention as to the relative effectiveness of paradichlorbenzene and napthalene, but both do work. Most museums use napthalene to preserve their collections. Putting these substances loose in drawers, cupboards etc, is only a mild deterrent, and causes an unnecessarily strong smell, which may upset other family members, contaminate clothes etc. Constant exposure to the resulting fumes is also not a good idea. Both materials sublimate. This means they turn from the solid state, directly into gas. This also means that they have to be renewed regularly for ongoing protection.

Both substances are toxic, and are suspected carcinogens, so avoid unnecessary handling of them. Anything that kills or deters bugs is bound to be unhealthy, so use some common sense when using such substances.


Some woods and herbs, like cedar, sandalwood, lavender, and one or two others are said to be effective deterrents. Personally I would not rely on this too heavily. In this case, the chemicals mentioned are better. For full fumigation, which exterminates more or less all pests, Methyl Bromide is normally used, along with a few other nasties. I do not recommend using chemicals like these in the home; they are extremely dangerous. (Veterinary certification is required for export (and import) of most things like skins and feathers, and this is usually done with Methyl Bromide)

Fumigation is usually far more trouble than it is worth for small quantities of material.

If you want to treat skins and feathers yourself, smoking (in a smoking oven, as you would sea-trout or salmon) is an excellent alternative to chemicals and the like. It seems to work very well indeed on the stuff I have tried. I don’t think it is an acceptable alternative to fumigation though.

The attackers

Most people seem mainly worried about moths, these however are not the only pests which may attack your fly-dressing materials. Among the most common are Carpet beetles, feather mites, ants, various termites, and there are a whole host of others. It may be of mild academic interest to determine which bugs are presently chomping their way through your expensive and treasured materials, but it really does not matter much in the final analysis.

The substances mentioned (apart from Methyl Bromide), will not kill many of these pests once they have infected your materials, they simply act as a deterrent. Most especially the eggs of some pests are notoriously hard to remove, and killing the adults, or larva is not a lot of use, as the eggs simply hatch out and you have the whole problem all over again.

If you find anything at all crawling about in your materials, then you must immediately assume the worst, and act accordingly, as you will otherwise most likely lose a good proportion, if not all of your materials. DO NOT DELAY!!!!!! Act immediately.

Infestation

The most effective way of getting rid of most potential or actual pests is washing your materials in warm soapy water. This will also improve many materials with regard to their appearance, and handling qualities.

Unpack all the material, any bags or boxes etc which are infected, should be discarded. Anything which may not be washed and subjected to the following procedure, should be discarded, or at least kept in quarantine, well away from any other materials, for at least three months. If you can, at least deep-freeze it for a while. If not place it in an airtight polythene bag, or container containing moth crystals (paradichlorbenzene, or Napthalene). The bag MUST BE AIRTIGHT, as otherwise the crystals are not able to generate sufficient vapour pressure to fumigate the materials.

This procedure should also be followed when adding materials to your collection. Most especially things like roadkill, but even materials bought from mail order companies, various fly-shops etc, should be very carefully examined and treated. Do not forget to treat your tying threads, wools, flosses, and dubbing. !!!!! This is often forgotten, and the results can be devastating.

Wooden drawers etc, should be washed out carefully and disinfected with spray type bug-killer. There are several “wide spectrum” bug killers on the market. It is of course useless to use fly-spray on carpet beetles, they are immune to it, and so make sure you use a substance that actually will kill the pests you are trying to get rid of. Be careful with such substances, they are often highly toxic, and may harm you or your family if used incorrectly.

If you have used such substances on materials, KEEP YOUR FINGERS AWAY FROM YOUR MOUTH WHEN USING SUCH MATERIALS. Even thorough washing will not entirely remove some substances from feathers, fur etc, and the consequences may be dire.

Wash them…

Wash all material in a bath of lukewarm water with detergent added. Use dishwashing liquid, like “Fairy”, or pure soap. Avoid detergents which “wash whiter than white”, they contain a fair quantity of fluorescent dye (which is what makes “white” shirts glow under “black” disco lights). This can have odd effects on some materials. Swish the capes, and fur materials around so that they are properly washed. Rinse off thoroughly with copious amounts of cold water. Spread on clean dry newspaper to dry, be careful if you use illustrated magazines etc for this, as colours from these may run and damage your stuff. If in doubt, place clean paper between your materials and the other papers. Materials should be dried feather, or fur, side up.

Zap them…

When completely dry, place the stuff in a microwave one small lot at a time, and give it 30 seconds at 600 W. Be careful here, just do one cape or piece of hide at a time, preferably laid on tissue paper over newspaper, feather side up, to absorb any fat etc which may be melted out. Things like hare’s ears, starling skins, various other whole skins, may still have quite a lot of “dried” fat or flesh on them. If you put these in the microwave, even for a short time, they will stink, the flesh or fat will soften, and the result will be an awful mess. 

Freeze them.

Do not place the materials you have just treated back on the pile of stuff waiting for treatment, place it immediately in clean zip-lock or similar bags, and deep-freeze it. Leave it for three days, allow it to thaw, and freeze again. 

After this you may place the material in either airtight containers with deterrent crystals added, or in zip lock bags with crystals added. MAKE SURE THE BAGS ARE SEALED!!!!! This serves the dual purpose of containing the smell, and preventing ingress of pests.

Some pests may even eat through polythene bags. This has happened to me twice. In both cases the pests responsible were carpet beetles. I prefer solid polythene airtight containers. Glass jars, and similar receptacles are also suitable. Even tin boxes, which close properly, are OK. Wooden boxes and similar are more or less useless usually, even though cigar boxes were traditionally used. The tobacco smell may keep moths away, but it has no effect on other pests, and may even attract them.

Dubbing materials in open boxes are especially prone to being infested. When these are not in use, they should also be placed in airtight containers with deterrent crystals added.

Some dyed materials are not particularly prone to attack by pests, as some of the dye ingredients are also toxic, and the pests die fairly quickly after ingesting such stuff. Nevertheless, it is not a good idea to rely on this, and such materials should be handled, treated and stored just as carefully as any others. 

There is an excellent FAQ with more info on this subject at: 
http://www.uky.edu/~agrdanny/flyfish/petti.htm

Bug-free

Many people may live their whole lives without ever experiencing an attack of pests on their materials. This is no reason to be complacent. If your materials ever are attacked you will be very sorry indeed, especially if these are the result of much time and expense. Some may even be irreplaceable.

I have seen the results of a pest attack on a large box of materials which was sent by post to a friend. When it arrived, after three days in transit, the box was full of very healthy looking hairy beetles in a variety of sizes, (carpet beetles), and the sad remains of a fairly magnificent selection of expensive capes, consisting mainly of stalks, various bits and pieces, and a lot of beetle shit.

Take the relevant precautions, it is much better to be safe than sorry, even if such precautions are a nuisance.

Regards and tight lines!
Mike Connor


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