Published Oct 25. 1996 - 27 years ago
Updated or edited Mar 11. 2023

Cleaning fly tying material

Why bother to clean your materials? Bugs, dirt and chemicals are likely on the material.

Why bother to clean your materials?

Bugs, dirt and chemicals are likely on the material

  1. Will remove some eggs larvae/adult insects, spiders etc. in the material.
  2. Dirt on material effects the application of that material to the hook
  3. Who knows what manner of pesticide and/or fumigant residue may have been around or on a given piece of material that the tier or others in turn can be exposed to.
  4. B Clean materials are just nicer to work with. They have a nicer leel, more pleasant smell and function better in the tying process.

Typical tools of the materials cleaning trade

  1. Standard and finetoothed combs
  2. Small and large sieves to remove loose feathers from a bath and/or draining water from materials
  3. Pistol-type blow dryer
  4. Cleaning agent: Ivory Liquid, Dawn dishwashing Liquid, Woolite, Liquid Ammonia
  5. Hair conditioner
  6. Pillow case
  7. Borax - plain, not the soap (salt as a last resort)
  8. Table knife
  9. Sharp pocket knife - to cut hides. This is much easier with wet hides. Dry hides may tear (bird skins) or may be too soft (elk and moose)
  10. Rags, paper towels, newspaper
  11. Teakettle
  12. A sink or bucket to wash the materials in

Cleaning materials

  1. Almost anything can be washed
    1. To be safe, avoid detergents. dishwashing liquids work well as degreasers. The ultimate degreaser is Ammonia. Place approx. one cup into a gallon (3.8 liters) of water. Soak the material in this solution outside for a few hours. Rinse thoroughly, then wash in dishwashing liquid and rinse thoroughly again.
    2. As a final wash, using Woolite seems to add a bit of luster, especially to feathers
    3. Thoroughly rinse after each wash
    4. Avoid washing in hotter water than hot tap water (140 deg. F or 60 deg. C) to avoid skin shrinkage and/or possible feather barb damage

  2. A final rinse ot conditioner may prove helpful on materials such as calf and deer tails

  3. Remove as much residue tissue and oil/fat as possible
    1. This helps keep the material clean
    2. Slows or avoids mildew from forming
    3. Oils will be removed generally by washing alone, but upon drying, may be blotted with a paper towel on the skin side (generally of birds or bucktails).
    4. Fat is best removed by scraping with a dull "table" knife or spoon (generally). Sometimes it's removed easier after washing while the skin is still wet but also try it when dry and cold. Effective cleaning will vary with the type of materiaL A grapefruit knife or spoon or possibly a sharp knife may be more useful at times.


Borax is preferable to salt

  1. It wicks oils, but will not be left behind in the skin like salt, which will dry the skin (especially on hackle capes), possibly to excess.
  2. Borax acts as a bug-proofing agent in feathers and fur. This may be useful on whole bird skins or in the hair of mammal skins.

Drying materials

Blow drying is best on:

  1. Hackle/saddle capes
  2. Fur-bearing animal skins, such as rabbit. muskrat, etc.
  3. Loose, damp (blotted) feathers placed in a pillow case, nozzle of the blow dryer inserted just inside with the pillow case open end wrapped about the nozzle of the dryer, and as the air blows into the ballooning pillow case, "bwnce" the feathers. This process takes about 5 minutes for 1/8 - 1/4 oz (3-7 grams) of feathers.
  4. Air dryng works best on:
    1. Larger bird skins blotted and placed on absorbent paper Every few hours flip sides. (It may be necessary to change the paper if it gets too damp)
    2. Deer, elk. bucktails. etc. - best placed between two 'racks' such as frames of chicken wire or barbecue/oven grates with some weight on top to allow air to reach both surfaces and to avoid curling of the skin. They can be tacked down, but it is better to tack to a frame to allow even drying and to avoid hair mating.

Steaming materials

  1. Be careful not to burn the material or oneself in the steam.
  2. Some clean materials may need steaming to 'fluff' them up due to tight storage, etc,
    1. Peacock herl is dramatically refreshed in steam (NOTE: Ostrich herl is susceptible to become 'fyzzy' in steam. Work carefully with it if at all)
    2. Deer hair
      1. Removes creased marks from drying racks.
      2. Softens and swells it just prior to spinning.
      3. Will straighten bent hair
      4. Makes trimming bugs/irresistible bodies cleaner and easier
    3. Matted feathers or fur
  3. Care should be taken in not only the heat of the steam (the closer to the source, the hotter), but also the quantity of the steam. Some things need a blast and some things a gentle drift of steam
  4. Old flies can be refreshed by washing in Ivory, blotting and air drying, then steaming. Care should be taken to avoid putting damp flies back into storage that would allow the hook to rust

Debugging materials

  1. Until proven otherwise, any new material to a collection is to be considered contaminated - no matter what the source.
  2. Until proven otherwise, a room of tying materials is contaminated by "bugs" - always be on the lookout.
  3. Some bug killers are carciciogenic, so take care in handling and avoid prolonged breathing.
  4. Microwawing cannot be depended on to kill eggs, larvae and/or adults.
  5. Freezing will kill larvae and adults but cannot be depended upon to kill eggs.
  6. To kill, commercial bug sprays can be sprayed/poured onto a rag which is then sealed in a container with buggy materials. Again, this may not kill all eggs. After this process, wash the material to remove the insecticide
  7. If moth crystals are used, seal them with the material
    1. This fumigates the material
    2. It reduces fumes in the storage area.
    3. Reduces waste of crystals (slows evaporation).
    4. Pararadichlorobenzene kills, naphthalene deters.
  8. Specifically for vanegated Carpet Beeles, a way to kill them is to cycle them. Their hatching is cyclic over a period ot about 30-45 days. Place the material into a plastic bag in the freezer for overnight. Then bring the material out and place in a room temperature, dark location for 30-45 days Again place the material back into the freezer. Another solution is to periodically open up the entire room to extremes of hot or cold. For instance during the heat of summer or cold of winter open the window to the room that your tying materials are in. These bugs do not tolerate extremes of hot or cold. Prepare the room accordingly so that nothing is damaged by these extreme climate changes, such as moisture on furniture, etc.

Storage of materials

Use sealable storage jars or plastic bags

  1. When using plastic sealed bags (Zpiock or heat sealed), it can be assumed unlikely that bugs will get into the bag, but may eat their way out of a bag they are in.
  2. Plastic or glass jars may not store as compactly as plastic bags, but are sealable.
  3. It is wise when storing multiple materials in a given space to use multiple sealed bags to compartmentalize materials and reduce crossover problems with bugs.
  4. Make sure the material is completely dry before storing to avoid mildew

Cleaning hackle capes

  1. Wash in hot tap water with plenty of Ivory Liquid. Allow to soak for one hour with periodic agitation
  2. Rinse thoroughly in warm water
  3. If the cape is greasy, the skin will have areas of grease in/on the skin that appear cream to amber when wet, as opposed to the clean skin which will be white or transparent. If grease is present:
    1. Scrape carefully (to avoid disruption of the feather quills from the skin) with a dull table knife or spoon, removing as much as possible. (Note: Some capes will scrape better dry than wet.)
    2. Cover the wet skin with Borax and set aside to air dry.
    3. The next day repeat the process of washing, scraping and boraxing
    4. It maybe necessary to repeat the process a third time.
    5. Rinse the Borax off and wash in hot tap water and Woolite (one cap/gallon of water) as per #I.
  4. It the cape is not greasy, wash in Woolite as per #3-e
  5. After thorough rinsing, blot dry with a towel and blow dry the cape. Be sure to blow down into the teether bases to get the whole of the feathers dry.
  6. Set aside to air dry at least overnight before placing in storage. Be sure the skin is dry.

Cleaning calf tails

  1. Wash in hot tap water and Ivory, as with any other material. Soak and agitate for about one hour then rinse thoroughly.
  2. Repeat #1, but now with Woolite.
  3. It may be advisable to now rinse with hair conditioner followed by a warm water rinse.
  4. Blot dry.
  5. Using a standard pocket comb, comb through the tail in is natural direction to loosen any intertwined hair.
  6. Dry with a blow dryer.
  7. Follow up by combing as per #5
  8. Set aside overnight to dry the skin completely before sealing into storage.

Washing loose fur

  1. Place the fur/hair blend into a jar that has the capacity to seal water-tight Add some Ivory Liquid and fill with warm to hot water about 3/4 full. Close the jar and agitate vigorously.
  2. Let set 5 minutes, then repeat the agitation. The degree ot did in the blend will determine the number ot repetitions ot the agitation.
  3. When thoroughly washed, pour out through a nylon stocking, fine mesh sieve or fine mesh aquarium net.
  4. Return the wet blend to the jar, add fresh warn water. agitate and drain as before. Repeat until agitation produces no soap. (Note: It may be desired at this point to repeat the process with Woolite)
  5. Finally, drain blot with paper towels spread material out a bit and allow to air dry. To return the now possibly clumped blend to a more workable sate, drop it into a coffee mill or blender for a quick 'spin'
  6. Store the blend in a Ziplock bag or other sealable container



Martin Joergensen's picture

Geoff, My guess i...


My guess is that your Metz feathers are fine. Cleaning really only applies to cheaper feathers, Chinese and Indian in particular, which are often greasy and have surplus color in them when dyed. If the feathers feel soft, smooth and "dry" and don't break when you tie, you're fine.

I have washed my cheap capes with great results simply by letting them soak, using hair shampoo and after rinsing them using conditioner. After a final rinse, I have dried them with a blow dryer. Older and brittle capes can also become like new with such a treatment.

But my personal experience is that Metz, Whiting, Chevron and a few other brand name materials are as clean as they come right out of the bag.


I read this article ...

I read this article with interest as I'm just getting into fly-tying and I want to get started on the right track from the beginning. I just bought 3 Metz #1 Premium neck hackles (Grizzly, Brown and Light Blue Dun) at a great closing-out discount. My question is, do I need to go through the cleaning process with these necks, or are they considered to be adequately cleaned during the processing and packaging?

I must wholeheartedl...

I must wholeheartedly agree with Wayne... A couple of years ago I read an article in one of the fly-fishing periodicals about a guy who's specialty was hair-wing patterns... Wullfs, Trudes, Humpy's and the like. He was a FANATIC about material preperation and cleaning, and how it helped his tying. I started going over my own collection, and wound up spending the better part of a year "preening" things.

Of course,when you go through all of that,you start to look more closely at how you store your "newly restored" materials!! It kinda becomes a hobby within a hobby!! But it DOES make a noticable difference in your tying!!

I would only add one more piece of equipment to what Wayne has already mentioned: A small medium-stiff bristled hair brush. I use a bit of a different approach to drying hackle capes, and bucktails... that is, laying them skin side down on a thickness of newsprint, and brushing the feathers/hair into an orderly arrangement, then covering them with another thickness of newspaper,and applying some gentle but firm weight. In the case of the bucktail, uncover it after 8-10 hrs, and flip it over. Brush the hair away from the skin, trying to create and "open" v-shape, rather than just brushing straight back toward the tip. I have saved tails that I thought were unusable this way. (Now I do this to bucktails I buy,as well as the ones I get from hunter friends)

Separate dyed and undyed items...

It seems obvious now, but I made the mistake of washing all of my furs and hair patches together in the same batch. The dyed items leaked dye and it soaked into the lighter colored items. If you have anything dyed, I recommend splitting up your batches like laundry. I will do a light dyed batch, a dark dyed batch, and a undyed batch in the future. If you don't want your white bucktail to turn blue, don't wash it with your blue bucktail, etc.


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