Oudtshoorn’s ostrich feathers are worth their weight in gold

Henry

Hundreds of ostriches stretch their slender necks and shake their black feathers under the slowly setting sun. The birds’ long legs cause an ocher cloud of dust in the camp, one of dozens on farms in the Oudtshoorn district.

“May the feathers be with you”, reads a sign welcoming visitors to this town known as the ostrich capital of the world. From feather dusters to feather boas – around 70% of the world’s ostrich products come from South Africa.

And most of these come from Oudtshoorn in the Klein-Karoo, an area located between two mountain ranges along the country’s southern coast, with a semi-arid climate ideal for ostrich farming.

Since the town’s early days, fashion accessories have been the main market for local farmers; the fluffy plumes are used to doll up everything from sumptuous hats to exquisite dresses.

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

The star-studded Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual fundraising ball is famous for its extravagant outfits.

Hats, dusters

However, local producers say it is the ostriches’ versatility that has allowed them to survive, despite fads. Nest with pigs, everything is used.

A quick walk through the town demonstrates this well. Restaurants serving ostrich steak. Ostrich leather handbags adorn shop windows, as well as lamps and other ornaments made from the birds’ giant eggs.

The bow of the feather can be worked and curled to make, for example, brooches, says Saag Jonker, an 82-year-old farmer. “At the moment it’s high fashion.”

An ostrich with a mischievous expression on its face adorns the sign of the local tourism office.

While the demand for extravagant clothes for soirées almost completely dried up when containment measures due to the Covid-19 pandemic forced everyone to stay at home, it was again upholsterers who kept the industry going.

“People were in seclusion, confined to their homes – and everyone wanted to clean!” said Liebenberg.

But Oudtshoorn has already walked this path… In the early 1900s, ostrich feathers were a sought-after item on designers’ lists and South Africa’s fourth largest export product.

The price of ostrich feathers was surpassed only by that of gold and the Oudtshoorn farmers’ association once presented a magnificent fan of white feathers to Britain’s late Queen Mary as a sign of the flourishing industry.

But the market plunged shortly after the First World War disrupted maritime trade and cars became a more common form of transport.

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

But the wheel is always turning – and so is the demand for ostrich feathers.

Big birds, big benefit

Today, around 200 workers sort, cut, wash and dye feathers in hundreds of colors at the processing plant in Oudtshoorn.

Seamstresses in pink uniforms work closely together in a room decorated with fashion shows from Paco Rabanne, Jean Paul Gaultier and Balmain.

Cape Karoo International sells around 100 tons of feathers every year, which includes more than a million feather dusters and 130,000 m of bedding.

Not far from here, in Jonker’s brooding chambers, the clucking of hundreds of chicks can be heard. With a skilled hand, a worker opens a temperature-controlled drawer and removes a few pieces of shell from one of the large eggs. Inside is a small beak and a pair of wide eyes.

“I probably became an ostrich feather auctioneer at the age of 22 or 23,” says Jonker.

“This is how I ended up in the ostrich industry – and I have never looked back.”

His company is now the largest privately owned breeding, processing and marketing of ostriches, with nearly 45,000 birds slaughtered each season.

After being sterilized and sorted, the black and white plumes of the wings – the most sought-after feathers – are sold by haute couture houses worldwide.

Customers range from Moulin Rouge performers in Paris to carnival goers in Rio de Janeiro.

“This is a truly exciting product.”