Quillwork: An American Indian Heritage

Decorate clothing and other materials with porcupine quills with this American Indian heritage craft technique.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
July/August 1983

Quillwork pendant created by Christy Ann Hensler, Devil Dancer collection, Missoula, Montana.
PHOTO: J. F. HENSLER
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The shiny, colorful, grasslike appliqué known as porcupine quillwork is easily recognizable as a superb art form that has been invented and perfected by the North American Indians. Indeed, if you were to look at a finished example of it and to consider that the intricately beautiful piece of work in front of you had, at one time, been merely a handful of stark and colorless porcupine prickles, you couldn't help but be in awe of the incredible ingenuity of the Native American artisans who first developed the techniques involved in quillworking.

Unfortunately, today there is very little easily accessible (and accurate!) information to be found about this ancient skill in libraries, bookstores, craft shops, or museums. Hence, we at MOTHER are especially pleased to be able—thanks to all the help we've received—to introduce you to a seldom seen and rarely written-about part of our North American cultural heritage.

Quillworking Origins

Perfecting the fine techniques required for wrapping and tying animal quills must have been an awesome task, one which undoubtedly required a great deal of trial and error over the centuries. The Indian people experimented with various natural materials and invented, borrowed, or adapted ideas, until they finally discovered both the beauty and versatility of dyed porcupine quills (bird quills were also used for a time) and the best methods of working with them.

Before the white people came to America, there was a vast, friendly sharing of ideas among various Indian families and communities. There was also a less-amicably-rooted sharing that occurred among women (the main artisans) who were captured and adopted into different tribes. As a result of such "trade networks," art styles and concepts flowed freely among the many families, tribes, and nations of Native Americans. It was probably during this era of "open communication" and cultural exchange that quillwork reached the height of its artistic perfection.

When the Europeans arrived on the continent, the American Indians—for many reasons—quickly gave up many of their old ways, in the process switching from quillwork to beadwork (using glass trading beads imported mostly from Venice). It was an understandable if partly regrettable switch. After all, beads were suddenly easy to procure, came in a wide range of vivid colors (quills could be dyed only a few soft shades), were both ready and simple to use (whereas quills had to be plucked, cleaned, dyed, and flattened), and fit easily into the old tribal quillwork designs.

Consequently, from about 1750 to 1800, beads began to take the place of quills in American Indian appliqué work. By around 1900, quillwork had just about disappeared (as had a good number of the American Indian people themselves). Only a few groups—notably the Hidatsas and a couple of Sioux families in the Dakotas—continued to practice the skill in their reservation homes. Even after the turn of the twentieth century, there was a long period of cultural inactivity on the part of most Indian peoples, who—with diminished resources and spirits—had to struggle just to stay alive.

It wasn't until the Indian Awareness Movement started in the latter part of the 1960's that quillwork began to reemerge on a popular scale. During this period, there was a resurgence of interest in Native American heritage, and many of the old art styles were brought back. Today, largely as a result of this cultural reassertion and the efforts of the Blue Legs and New Holy families in South Dakota, many of the traditional quillworking methods are again being practiced.

Quillwork Techniques

Although there are any number of different ways to use dyed porcupine quills in appliqué work, the three main techniques are sewing, weaving, and wrapping. The most common one, sewing, consists of attaching the porcupine quills to the surface of leather clothing by means of entwining them between two parallel rows of sinew (or thread) that have been stitched onto the top layer of hide. Weaving, perhaps the most complicated of the three methods, is basically a process of creating bands (about 3" wide) that can be used as they are or sewn onto clothing or other articles by interspersing the quills with a threaded warp and weft as a cloth strip is being made. (Another type of quill weaving is used in basketry.)

The third and simplest of these processes, wrapping, involves winding the prickles around thin strips of rawhide (or other material) to come up with small pieces of quillwork that can be used in crafts such as jewelry-making.

Now these brief definitions can in no way fully depict all that goes into each one of these methods. But, to judge by the lack of useful literature on the subject, copiously written instructions can hardly teach quillworking, either! According to the experts, to get the real lowdown on quillworking, you either have to go to a Native American museum or trading post and carefully study examples of it firsthand (as did Christy Ann Hensler, the woman featured in the accompanying sidebar),  or you need to find a quillworker who'd be willing to teach you how to do it.

However, don't be overly discouraged if neither of these options is open to you, because MOTHER's staffers have tracked down detailed instructions for the basic wrap technique. And while this method is by no means the fanciest, showiest quillworking skill, it is accessible and easy to do! You can use wrapping to make a couple of small decorative strips that, for instance, could be stitched onto a plain leather watchband to add pizazz and color to a favorite timekeeper. Or you could use the knowledge of this rudimentary style as a jumping off point from which to go out and explore other, more intricate, quillworking procedures on your own.

Just carefully study the following drawings and directions, gather up the proper materials, and start "quilling." Then, with enough time and stick-to-itiveness, you'll find yourself in touch with an esteemed, yet little known, American Indian tradition!

How to Get Porcupine Quills

Naturally, you'll first need the raw materials, namely, porcupine quills! But how do you get them? Well, if you happen to live in "porky country"—which covers most of the forested regions of Canada and the western United States, and includes parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—you can obtain them right from the many-pointed source itself! It's not necessary to kill one of these slow-waddling critters, either. Just take a wet gunnysack or blanket out into the woods, and when you come upon a porcupine (be careful to stay out of range of its fast moving tail) gently whop the animal with it. The quills will come off readily onto the damp material, and later—in the safety of your back yard—you can pluck them off your perforated "hide."

Aside from this idea, many folks who live around these nocturnal bristle-bearers get their supplies of stickers from road kills. (Caution! If you plan to do this, first check with the local authorities to make sure that using the hide of such dead animals is legal in your area.) When you find one of these "highway statistics," haul it home and either skin it, or—neighbors willing—hang the carcass outdoors for a few days to let it ripen before you pluck it.

If you take a moment to examine such a hide, you'll notice that quills come in a variety of sizes—from the short, delicate ones behind the head to the long, fat ones on the tail—and that there's a brambling network of tiny, soft guard hairs surrounding all the stickers. If you grab a handful of these greasy little hair tangles when you're plucking, you'll be able to pull out several of the stiff' prickles at one time. So once the porky skin is soft and its quills are loose, take as many quills as you'll need (or at least pluck for as long as your nose can stand it!). Basically, for the wrap technique, you want the longest and thinnest ones you can gather so that you can get more wraps per inch.

Of course, all this information is useful only for folks who have access to live or dead porcupines. If you don't (or would rather not fool with the real thing), then you can order quills from trading posts or online. They are sold by the ounce, in a natural or dyed state, and come in either assorted or graded sizes (the latter are more expensive).

Quill Preparation

Once you've obtained your stickers, take a very close look at their structure. If you cut one open, you'll see, for instance, that porcupine quills aren't hollow (as they seem to the touch): They're more like a pithy plant stem (which accounts for some of their strength). You'll also notice that these prickles have two very distinct ends: the follicle (which had been next to the animal) and the spear (the part that's wound up in many a poor puppy dog's nose!) Now, take a quill between your forefinger and your thumb and gently rub outward from the follicle end toward the black tip. You'll feel a roughness around the spear. That's because there are tiny barbs surrounding the tip that all point back toward the center of the sticker. It's these "hooks" that help give a quill binding power in a victim's flesh. So be very careful when you handle these potentially harmful needles. (Some folks snip the spear ends off quills before they start working with them, but if you're respectful of the tips, you don't need to do this.)

Now that you have a good idea of the makeup of a porcupine quill, here's how to prepare for use prickles that are fresh from the hide. (Of course, you might not need to follow all of these procedures if you've purchased rather than plucked your quills. In that case, simply employ whatever steps you need and skip the rest.)

[1] Clean: Place your quills in a large pot of soapy water. Heat (but don't boil) the stickers for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring them around with a wooden utensil. Then remove them from the water, drain them, and set them out to dry. Repeat this process two or three times to wash off as much of the lanolin as possible.

[2] Etch: Put the cleaned quills in a pot or pan and cover them with a mild solution of citric acid (such as the concentrated lemon juice available at grocery stores). Stir the quills around a bit and allow the acidic liquid to break up the waxy surface of the prickles (so they can be dyed more easily). Once this is done, rinse the quills off and let them dry again.

[3] Dye: Figure out how many quills you want of a certain color. (Dye them all at once because no two batches "color up" exactly the same.) Next, take out some ordinary Rit dye, a dye pot, and something to stir the quills with. After doubling the usual dosage of dye, add the water and coloring, pour in the quills, heat (but, again, try not to boil) the mixture, and stir the stickers around until they're about one shade darker than the tint you're after. Then carefully remove them from the coloring "broth" and set them someplace to cool for 15 to 20 minutes. When the quills are hard again, run cold water over them until they're colorfast, set them out to dry, and, finally, store the prickles in envelopes until you're ready to use them.

Do keep in mind while you work that there is no set way to do any part of quillwork, so don't be afraid to experiment with these steps to find the methods that work best for you. You might, for example, want to use natural colorants such as blackberry or blueberry.

Quillworking Materials

Along with your quills, you'll have to assemble a few other raw materials and tools. First, you'll need a small strip of rawhide that's about 1/4" wide and 3" to 5" long. If you can't find any locally, rawhide is sold by the sheet from any trading post. But a word about cutting it: Since this leather is practically as tough as tin, sometimes even a sharp knife or razor blade won't slice it. In that case, you may want to cut it with a pair of shears. (And don't try to make the material more pliable by wetting it, or it'll quickly become the consistency of mush!) Next, take out enough quills, in the shades you want, to cover the leather (one quill yields about one 1/4"-long section of wrapped surface), a pencil, a long, sturdy needle and some thread, and perhaps a small dish of warm water.

Make yourself a work area so that you can lay all these materials out. Now, place four or five quills either in the water bowl or, as the Native Americans do, in your mouth (spear end out!) to soften them up so they'll be pliable enough to work with. While they're soaking, sketch a rough diagram of where you want each band of color to go on your piece of rawhide. After that's done, check your quills. If they still crack when you gently crunch them between your teeth, they're not quite ready. Wait till they give freely, and then flatten the quills either by pulling them through your clenched teeth (don't worry, they won't break) or by laying them on a tabletop and squashing them with your thumbnail or with a spoon handle.

Whew! Finally, you're ready to wrap! Pay close attention to each drawing and set of directions. And if at any time you find you're having trouble, put aside your rawhide and quills for a moment, and practice with a 3"-wide piece of cardboard and 2"-wide (or so) ribbons until you master the steps. Then go back to your original materials. Good luck and happy quilling!

Step 1: Begin with the first quill about 1/4 inch from the bottom of your rawhide. Wrap the sticker to the right as shown, making sure each wrap is tight and completely flush with the previous one. Rawhide should never show through your quills on the back or front of your piece.

Step 2: When the first quill is nearly "wound out" (leave a little of the tip to work with!), lay a second quill—follicle end up—on top of it. Then bend the remaining tip of the first spear over the new follicle end to hold it in place.

Step 3: Now, wind the spear end of the second quill over the "wrapped back" quill number one, holding the splice in place with your thumb as needed.

Step 4: Continue to wrap the new quill on around the leather, just as you did the first quill, until it's almost used up. Then go back to Step 2 and add a third quill just as you did the second. Simply repeat this process for every new quill—changing colors where noted—until you're about 1/4 inch from the top of your rawhide. Try to make sure that by the time you reach this spot you have at least 1/8" of the final quill left to work with. You're nearly done!

Step 5: Take out your needle and thread, and insert the needle about three wraps down from the top, moving the needle between the quills and the leather, and slightly to one side of the splices, and bringing it up and out from the final completed wrap. This should position the needle on top of the last quill tip.

Step 6: Make a stitch up and over the final spear. Then navigate the needle back under the lower prickles until it comes out from the place that it originally went in.

Step 7: When the needle is all the way out, slide it off the thread. Now, take both ends of thread and gently tug them until the last quill end disappears beneath the final wraps. Let go of one end of the thread, and lightly pull the other to remove all of it from your quillwork, and you're done!

Wrapped Quillwork Crafts

Once you've finally completed your short section of quillwork, the next question is what to do with it. Well, you could make a mate for the strip and stitch both pieces onto a watchband. You could—now that you know how—wrap another (longer) strip of rawhide for a necklace or a bracelet to give to a friend. Or you could just sit back, take a look at your work, and say, "Finished, at last!"

But, whatever you do with your own quillworked band, the chances are that because you've allowed yourself this hands-on experience (no matter how insignificant the end product may seem to be)—the next time you see an intricate, more complete example of quillwork, you'll have a lot of respect for the vast amount of ingenuity, skill, and time that went into creating that piece. And with this sense of appreciation will come a better understanding of what quillwork is and the heritage it represents. As George Horse Capture has so aptly put it, "If a piece [of quillwork] is truly superb, then it's too expensive and too special to sell for money. So you give it away. Give it to a friend, or to a relative, or to a visitor. And that's an Indian custom. For you see, quillwork is, has been, and always will be Indian." 


From One Culture to Another: A Self-Taught Quillwork Artist

By John Fisher

Several years ago, Christy Ann Hensler, an artist of German-Polish descent (who lives in Spokane, Washington) was working on a painting she'd entitled "The Quillworker." Because she was unable to locate a whole lot of research material on her subject, though, Christy was having a great deal of trouble getting the right feel for her work.

Finally, she decided that the only way she was ever going to understand quillworking was to do it herself. So she located several authentic examples of the American Indian skill in museums near where she lived, and spent several months studying these works and trying to copy them as best she could.

Well, not only was Christy able at last to capture the effect she was after in her painting, but she fell in love with her subject and has been quillworking ever since! Always working with respect for the Native American tradition she was learning, Christy taught herself how to do nine established techniques and even originated a couple of her own. In addition, her completed quillwork pieces have been so well received that she now displays them in the same museums that handle her paintings.

This is truly a case of how one culture can share with another to the benefit of both! 


Although this article is a result of the combined efforts of several different people, we're especially indebted to two. George Horse Capture—who is a member of the Gros Vente tribe of Montana, Curator of the Plains Indian Museum of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, and a quillworking instructor himself—provided MOTHER's staffers with a vast amount of firsthand insight into what this skill is, where it came from, and how to do one basic quillwork technique. In addition, John Fisher supplied us with a report about a non-American Indian quillworker, Christy Ann Hensler, and also provided us with photographs of her stunning work.


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