What to look for when byuing...
This article series will give some tips on buying tying materials, and go through different groups of common materials like hackle, bucktail and hair.
This article is about buying fly-tying materials. Lately when I have been shopping I have noticed a large difference in quality - even between materials of the same brand and price. Looking thoroughly can make a big difference. The same product from the same manufacturer at the same price can vary, and knowing what to look for can mean getting good and useful, and not the downright lousy.
Another aspect of selecting can be to get what you need. Hackle might be a fine quality, but still the size and softness might differ between each patch, and you want the one that suits your needs.
How to look
When you look at fly tying material in a flyshop, furrier, craft shop or where you are buying, you feel.
...you feel. Literally!
It's very important to get things out of the bag or package and run your fingers through it, bend it, inspect it and check the backside, the texture - even the smell if it's natural materials.
Shops that have things hermetically sealed or won't allow this, aren't worth visiting, and in the best shops, clerks and shopkeepers will actually endorse you to check the materials and even help you find the best.
Because the best might not simply be the best quality, but what is best suited for your needs. Most materials are actually quite good, but you need to check texture, barb length, coarseness of hair or other aspects to get the best for your application.
The method is simple: open the bags and get the material out! Most bags are Ziploc or have an adhesive strip that allows it to be resealed. Do this with care and make sure you don't mess up anything and leave things as you found them, on the right pegs or in the right boxes.
Good and bad
You want clean, even, regular materials.
You don't want grease, dirt or dust.
Generally soft and pliable is good and stiff and dry (like in brittle and fragile) is bad.
Dyed materials need to be evenly and controlled in the color with no pale patches or more densely colored areas. And the color must be permanent and not rub off or come off in water.
Deformed materials is generally bad. Deformity often comes from harsh treatment like bleaching or dying under very hot conditions.
You want whole tips (hair) and unbroken barbs (feathers). See more under each material type.
You don't want hairs or feathers falling off the skin. Look in the bag. The fewer loose parts there's in there, the better.
Strongly smelling is bad. Whether it's a chemical smell or a natural odor it's not wanted. Chemicals indicate a wish to kill something living. Not good! Materials smelling "naturally bad" may have decayed or have smelly dirt in them. Some materials have a slightly soapy smell, which is just a sign that they have been cleaned or washed.
The growing use of online shopping makes the "feeling strategy" rather difficult, and you are fully in the hands of the one who selects and packs your order.
You can call and order or add a note to your order to convey what you will use the material for: hook sizes, tying methods or what type of fly or pattern you will tie. This will help the one who packs the materials select the best. Some shops will take great care in this respect and only send the best while others just pick the first and the best. The only way to find the thorough ones is by trying or by listening to friends and fellow tiers who have had good experiences with certain shops.
You can also read the following articles and use that as an outset to describe in detail what you want - and don't want.