Published on February 8, 2013 by Amy
A technique practiced for centuries in many parts of North America, quillwork was the primary form of decoration for the majority of tribes living in areas where the porcupine (the second largest rodent in North America) could be found. Colored, geometric bands of quills were folded and twisted to make complex patters on baskets, in jewellery or on gloves. Around 1840, quillworking began to decline when native women started using beads to decorate garments.
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A healthy adult porcupine will have approximately 30,000 off-white quills. It is best to use a porcupine caught at the time of year when it is relatively lean. To collect the quills, women would approach a porcupine and throw a blanket over it. As a defence mechanism, the porcupine would raise its quills into the blanket. The quills would get caught on the blanket and the women could then pull them off of the porcupine. The women would then remove the blanket and pick the quills out. Four sizes of quills are found on the porcupine. The large, coarse quills from the tail are best for filling in large areas, wrapping handles, pipe stems or fringes. Quills from the porcupine’s back are good for loom work. The fine quills from the neck are ideal for embroidery. The thinnest quills found near the belly are used for delicate lines.
The quills were dyed and sorted before work began. The colours were often bright but reflected the tones of the Earth and their true vegetable origin: plants and berries in mauves and purples, engorged reds and lichen-pale yellows.
A natural dye for red included the following ingredients: Choke cherry or wild plum, Tamarack bark, Spruce cones, Sumac berries, Alder and Hemlock inner bark, Poke berry, Bloodroot, Sassafras, Red Bed straw, Buffalo-berry (Lepargyrea), Currants, Red Osier Dogwood and Red cedar. The quills are added to a prepared dye in a large pot and simmered for 1/2 to 3 hours.
The quills must not be boiled or they will become soft and can often turn to glue. After dying, the quills are spread out to air dry. Once dry, they were rubbed with animal oils to keep them from drying out and becoming brittle. After contact with Europeans, colours were often obtained by boiling quills with woollen trade cloth. Later, tar-coal dyes became available and a wider range of colours was possible.
Quillwork is usually done on a backing of hide or birch bark. Once the design is marked, the blunt end of the quill is carefully clipped so the air inside can escape. Quills are made pliable by soaking but this method also weakens the quill allowing it to stretch and break during the work. The old method of holding the quills in the mouth is still the best as the natural action of saliva on the quills allows them to become pliable without stretching. The quill is then flattened either against a hard surface, or the barbed end is held in one’s teeth and the quill pinched flat.
The quills were traditionally sewn with sinew stripped from tendons on each side of the backbone of the buffalo or deer. Today, the quills are stitched in place with thread or dental floss and the quill is folded over to hide the thread. A new quill is placed under the old one at the place where the thread crosses it. The black barbed tip of the old quill is cut off and hidden under the folded quill. Quilling stitches include: straight, overhand, line, straight double, checkerboard, shadow, sawtooth, diamond, rick rack, and circles.