Turning Porcupine Quills into Beads

Reader Contribution by Nicole Caldwell
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This week an old friend visited my farm in Northern New York from his home in Klamath, Calif. A pure-blooded Yurok Indian, Arnie is well-versed in the traditions of his ancestors and knows much about fishing, edible wild plants, and various Native American crafts  While here, he made use of a dead porcupine from the yard, teaching me how to turn the quills into beads that can be incorporated into homemade earrings, necklaces, bracelets, or other arts ‘n’ crafts projects.

While many of us living a rural lifestyle have horror stories of dogs being quilled by porcupines, these spiky protuberances can also be plucked from roadkill–or, if you’ve got a brave heart, you can throw a blanket or towel over a living porcupine. The quills will stick to the cloth. Always remove quills carefully! The backward-facing barbs will pierce your skin easily and stay there.

Once you have a collection of quills, turn them into beads by following these simple instructions.

Trim the Quills

Clip each end of every quill with scissors. Take care to ensure the clipped ends land in a trash can so your pet — or your child — doesn’t get quilled after your arts and crafts session is over. Cats especially love to eat quills! With both ends cut, the quill should resemble a tube-shaped or bugle bead.

Wash and dry your beads-to-be

Porcupine quills have a very soft, delicate interior. Make sure you don’t do anything that will damage them. After clipping the ends, wash the quills in warm water with a mild, grease-fighting soap. If they are especially dirty, leave them to soak. Then rinse them off and lay them out to dry.

Dye the Beads

Quills soak up color easily, so any dye recipe you’d like to use is sure to work great. If you’ve never made homemade dye before, here’s a simple recipe:

  • One cup blackberries
  • Two cups water to start (add more as needed)
  • One teaspoon lemon
  • Two teaspoons vinegar

Combine ingredients, bring to boil, add quills to solution, and boil for 30 minutes over low heat. Add water as needed. Remove from heat and rinse quills well in cold water. Vinegar is needed to help set the color and the lemon juice works as a natural softener. Some other wild ingredients to try for other color variations include wild plum bark, blueberries, and dandelion greens.

Bead Storage

Keep your beads in a small, lidded container or baggy. If you choose to mix your quills with beads, they work well with seed beads in a wide range of sizes, from a tiny size 15 to a larger size 5.

Image Caption: Porcupine beads adorn traditional Yurok Tribe jewelry. Photo/Nicole Caldwell

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