Quillwork: An American Indian Heritage

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

| July/August 1983

  • Quillwork Pendant
    Quillwork pendant created by Christy Ann Hensler, Devil Dancer collection, Missoula, Montana.
    PHOTO: J. F. HENSLER
  • Quillwork Basket
    Pine needle basket with quillwork, Christy Ann Hensler, artist's collection. 
    J. F. HENSLER
  • Quillwork Hairpiece
    Quillwork hairpiece with wrapped quill streamers, ermine fluff, and dove feathers, by Christy Ann Hensler, Devil Dancer collection, Missoula, Montana.
    J. F. HENSLER
  • Quillwork Loom
    Homemade loom with woven watchband in progress, Christy Ann Hensler, artist's collection. 
    J. F. HENSLER
  • quillworked moccasin
    Appliquéed quills on a buckskin moccasin, by Christy Ann Hensler, Tamara McKay collection, Almira, Washington.
    J. F. HENSLER
  • Quillwork Watchband
    Porcupine hide with natural and dyed quills and wrapped band. 
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • Traditional Quillwork Designs
    Traditional Blackfoot quillwork designs.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 082-074-08
    Step 2: When the first quill is nearly "wound out," lay a second quill, follicle end up, on top. Then bend the remaining tip of the first spear over the new follicle end to hold it in place.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 082-074-09
    Step 1: Begin with the first quill about 1/4 inch from the bottom of the rawhide. Wrap the quill to the right as shown, making sure each wrap is tight and completely flush with the previous one.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 082-074-03
    Step 3: 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.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 082-074-07
    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. Repeat for every new quill (changing colors where noted) until you're about 1/4 inch from the top of your rawhide.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 082-074-05
    Step 5: 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, bringing it up and out from the final completed wrap. This should position the needle on top of the last quill tip.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 082-074-06
    Step 6: Make a stitch up and over the final spear. Navigate the needle back under the lower quills until it comes out from the place that it originally entered.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 082-074-04
    Step 7: When the needle is all the way out, slide it off the thread. Take both ends of the 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.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

  • Quillwork Pendant
  • Quillwork Basket
  • Quillwork Hairpiece
  • Quillwork Loom
  • quillworked moccasin
  • Quillwork Watchband
  • Traditional Quillwork Designs
  • 082-074-08
  • 082-074-09
  • 082-074-03
  • 082-074-07
  • 082-074-05
  • 082-074-06
  • 082-074-04

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."






Mother Earth News Fair Schedule 2019

MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

Next: February, 16-17 2019
Belton, TX

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!

LEARN MORE








Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

Money-Saving Tips in Every Issue!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).


Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard
Free Product Information Classifieds

}