Quillwork: An American Indian Heritage

Decorate clothing and other materials with porcupine quills with this American Indian heritage craft technique.

| July/August 1983

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."

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