Why leather quills on revival harpsichords?

Perhaps a silly and trivial history question, but I have been re-quilling a 1967 harpsichord which was done with leather–I am keeping some of the leather and converting other ranks to delrin. (4 ranks).

I was just wondering why I seem to see so much leather in revival instruments–maybe they are the only ones that I encountered. I know delrin was only available around 1950 (it was made in Parkersburg VA, USA where I did some plastics work). Buy well past 1950 I would have expected revival makers to move to some type of plastic.
Just wondering?


Perhaps a better question is why didn’t they move to bird quill? I don’t think those makers had any care for historical principles or good, resonant, sound.

Come to think of it, I have no idea why leather plectra became the norm at that time. It’s an interesting question.

According to this, Delrin became available in 1960, quite latish in terms of the revival period.

The History of Acetal Homopolymer | SpringerLink

Although this article says it was first synthesized in 1952.

| National Museum of American History (si.edu)

Thanks. A lot of plastics are accommodated by the big firms by adding a few extra C and H atoms and renaming them, thus avoiding patents. So there are probably a few manifestations of Delrin like substances out there (POMs) coming from different years.
It is easy to forget that there was very little plastic in our household in the 1950s, (marketeers called it “High Impact” plastic because it always broke). So I suppose the revivalists looked for other materials. I am always amazed how people, including myself, take these things for granted. Crows quills are of course the Rolls Royce of plectra to many, but here in the US you will at least raise a lot of eyebrows if you head out into your backyard with a .410 shotgun.


Re shooting crows:

A couple of things may have worked together to get crows into town (both for nesting and roosting):

  1. The 1972 extension of the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 to cover crows. At this point the hunting of crows became regulated. No longer could anyone anywhere take shots at crows, but had to do so (theoretically) within proscribed guidelines and hunting seasons. It is possible that this change may have resulted in the decrease of shooting pressure on crows, allowing them to become more tolerant of the presence of people.

  2. A prohibition on the discharge of firearms within city/village limits. It is conceivable that crows somehow stumbled across the fact that they could not be shot in cities because of local ordinances against shooting in town. So, in fact crows might have somehow figured out that the best thing to do to live with their enemy was to get as close as possible, not stay away. Many crow hunters do most of their hunting along flight lines of crows moving to roost. These flight lines through urban areas are protected, those in rural areas are not.



Crows are VERY interesting birds.

The best way is to find where the birds you are interested in congregate – in my case, this is swans who live on the banks of the Neue Donau-- and then colelct their feathers during the moulting season (June/July in my case). I doubt that crows are much different.


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Illegal in the US to collect feathers from most species:


There are exceptions such as turkey (possibly useful), parrot (probably not) and sparrow (for the 4’ toy spinet you always wanted to make.)

I am sure the choice for revival makers in the period up to the second world war was between quill and leather; plastic was almost unknown at that time. I think leather was often chosen over quill for three reasons:

  1. It mitigates the acid sound of piano steel wire – then the only ferrous material available for harpsichord strings.
  2. It allows some variation of loudness with touch. It also responds well to ‘half-hitching’ and to crescendos and diminuendos achieved by the foot on the pedal. Thus it enabled the harpsichord to ‘compete’ with the piano in dynamic variation to some extent.
  3. Many of the well preserved and widely known historical harpsichords were English (a factor particularly significant for the English revivalists). One of the two important English makers (Shudi) routinely had one 8-foot in leather; it is true that the other (Kirkman) did not use it, but the presence of original leather plectra on surviving Shudi imnstruments may have encouraged revival makers to feel that its use was ‘authentic’.
    Incidenatlly, I have seen George Malcolm and Jeanne Dolmetsch when playing swelling and diminishing the dynamic of a phrase by the use of a foot on the pedal — a revival technique of harpsichrd playing that is now, presumably, lost.
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That’s why people go for Canada Goose, is it not?

People go for Canada goose because the birds are loud, filthy and aggressive, the opposite of Canadian people. I guess the name is ironic.

Also, collecting their feathers is illegal.

Commercial sales/trade in feathers of most non-domesticated birds is also a big no-no. I’m guessing that would have dampened enthusiasm for use in revival instruments. Although I suspect the biggest reasons for use of leather was availability, cost, consistency, and ease of production. Why mess around with bird quill if leather was readily (and legally) available.

On a side note, the Migratory Bird treaty (and similar laws like the Lacy Act) was originally intended to keep birds from going exintct to make feather hats, coats, and the like. I’m by no means the world’s biggest animal rights activist or environmentalist (I have way too much bacon in my fridge and V8 cars in my garage) but even I am fine with the ban, even if it inconviences one of my favorite instruments, same with tortoise shell guitar pics, ivory keytops, abalone jewelry, Brazil Rosewood anything, and the like. If there is an acceptable non-wild or more environmentally friendly substitute, why not use it?

Le 23/03/2024 16:36, Stuart Frankel via The Jackrail écrit :

People go for Canada goose because the birds are loud, filthy and aggressive,

And plentiful, even in Europe. One can gather enough feathers for
several lifetimes worth of harpsichords in one June afternoon.

Thank you Peter for your (as always) very informed and interesting comments!

I haven’t researched this, but I do not think there were any restrictions on the trade in feathers here in the UK before the second World War. Remember, they were needed for writing, and they were widely used as dress accessories. It is said anecdotally that Arnold Dolmetsch had an arrangement with the Tower of London to collect raven’s feathers at moulting time.

Moreover, I know of no modern UK law that prevents us collecting quills when they are dropped on the ground by moulting birds: indeed, I have done this myself.

Revival makers like Dolmetsch did use quill occasionally.

Then where do people get Canada Goose quills from?

Alberta is more practical. You can get a permit for found dead wildlife, such as roadkill. Canadian federal law can permit possession of feathers from legally possessed game birds.

So I’d still like to know how we can get Canada Goose feathers.

@hpschdNU where do you source yours?

I can see many online resellers of Canada goose feathers.

I am not sure I fully understand the rationale behind the law which forbids collecting molten feathers from the ground when one finds one.
In Italy taking out one of the principal feathers from an alive bird is a criminal act, and of course killing a bird outside the hunting season or without a hunting license is a criminal act as well. On the other hand, if one finds a feather on the ground and collects it, is fully permitted.
Of course not every type of birds is protected.

Yes - how do they obtain them legally? This is what I am asking.

Well, probably they are collecting them from the ground, I assume. If they can legally sell them, they can collect them legally, too. Maybe there is some license only given to selected individuals who only can collect from the ground and can assure no harm is done to the birds. I am saying this because I’ve found the rationale should be if somebody has a bird’s feather, police can’t be sure it was collected from the ground and not directly taken from a bird.

A bitter remark could be: taken the declining state of the harpsichord world, less and less birds will be harmed in the foreseable future.