Lakota Quillwork

Published on January 14, 2013 by Amy

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Lakota Quillwork
Lakota Quillwork

Quillwork has long been a significant part of the Lakota heritage, as well as being the forerunner of beadwork. Quillwork was developed to a high degree of artistic perfection long before European traders brought the now-used glass beads into America.

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Pieces of quillwork dated over 200 years old have been found in the Plains area. The introduction of beads in the early 1800s supplemented and tended to replace quills.

The quill of a porcupine is a round, hollow tube which has a barbed point at one end. Quills were used both for trade and for decorative purposes.

Quills were flattened and dyed with various vegetable dyes previous to the aniline dyes carried west by traders. Each region had its own distinctive dyes that were used to color quills.

The western Sioux were known for colors like:

Red: Buffalo berry was used to produce red dye. The red could be brightened by adding dock root which must be from the “Mother” plant, recognizable by its flowers.

Yellow: Wild sunflower or cone flower petals were boiled with pieces of decayed oak bark or with the roots of cattail.

Black: Wild grapes were used to obtain a black color. When these grapes were not available, hickory nuts or black walnuts were used to produce a deep brown. Nuts were gathered while the shell was soft, spread out in the sun and occasionally sprinkled with water to obtain the darkest color.

The origin of traditional quillwork is explained by a legend of the Oglala Sioux in which a mythical “double woman” (twins) came in a woman’s dream to teach her the use of quills.

The dreamer, in turn, taught other women how to use quills and associations of quillworkers/quilling societies were formed. They met at regular intervals to exhibit and discuss their work. During these exhibitions, there were feasts, and gifts were given away. Each women’s quill designs were considered her personal property and were not copied for her designs were those which she was supposed to have dreamed and therefore could claim ownership over.

Tribal elders value quill weaving and embroidery more highly than beadwork. There is only a handful of individuals on the Sioux reservations who carry on this tradition today. These women have taught their children the art of quilling, in hopes of continuing this beautiful and historic tradition of creating masterpieces.

Source: aktalakota Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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