About Quill Basketry Information
The art of decorating boxes and other garments with porcupine quills is unique to North America. Indians living in the Great Lakes area were doing quill work long before the first European contact in 1615. With the encouragement of French traders, a number of Great Lakes Indians -- principally Ottawa and Chippewa -- began to place quill decorations on birch bark boxes. Today over 200 years later, quill work on birch bark boxes is well known and highly prized Native American art.
Making quill baskets and boxes is a time consuming and meticulous process. Quills are collected in January and February when their natural color is the strongest and they are not oily. Birch bark is cut from trees in May and June, when sap is abundant and removal of the first layer of bark will not harm the tree. Sweet grass is pulled in June and July before insects have devoured the long broad leaves. It is rinsed in hot water and hung to dry.
One porcupine can provide thirty to forty thousand quills, ranging in length up to five inches. Quills can be plucked from porcupines killed for food or obtained from slow-moving live animals that are trapped by skillfully thrown blankets. Quills are washed and sorted according to length and thickness.
Quilling is not difficult, but demands care and patience. When softened in the mouth or soaked in water, quills become very pliable and can be flattened, bent, and twisted. A pliable quill is inserted into a hole pierced along a predetermined design line. A second hole is pierced within the design and the other end of the quill is inserted and pulled tight with tweezers. The quill is held snugly because the bark tends to expand slightly after the quill is inserted, shrinking the size of the hole. This process is repeated until the design is complete.
The History of Porcupine Quillwork ( Embroidery)
The origins of Quillwork are buried in history, however archeological evidence does suggest the porcupine Quillwork has been long practiced in North America. Quillwork ( Embroidery) precedes the coming of glass beads in the mid 1800's to the natives by the Europeans.
Examples of the earliest Quillwork came from the Woodlands rather then the Plains. By the sixteenth century many of the ideas were taken to the plains by natives who became the Plains Indians from the eighteenth century onward. So universally, it was an art practiced by the natives in Canada, the Northeastern and Central sections of the United States and also in the wooded sections of the south where porcupines were abundant during the summer months. In regions where the porcupine was not found, quills generally became a significant trade item.
Although it was the practice to use the quills from porcupines, it was not an uncommon practice to use bird quills. In later years, the shiny side of colored grasses were used to get the same effect as Quillwork. When sewing threads were introduced, it was used to do fine embroidery patterns similar to the early quill decorations.
For many years many quilled artifacts have been placed in museums in Europe and in the United States. Today to purchase an old piece is priceless. However, if you want to buy a piece being made today, be ready to pay a large amount . . . anywhere from $1,000.00 and up.
Quillwork is an art done by using the white, stiff, hollow tubes with black or brown barbed tips. They are found on the head, back , tail and underside of the porcupine. They range in length from 2-5 inches and are about 1-2mm in diameter.
How Quills are Obtained
Since porcupine are a very slow traveling animal, they were not hard to catch by hunters. When the automobile came along it was not hard to hit one if it was in the road, therefore they became road kill. In some states it is illegal to pick up anything on the road, but in some states, if you call the animal control and ask them if it is alright for you to pick up the animal off the road some will let you. Sometimes the animal may need to be tagged first, such as deer, before they will let you take it.
Today you do not have to look for road kills to obtain quills. Many American Indian Craft catalogs carry them. They come in 1/4 to 1 ounce bags.
How to Remove the Quills from Roadside Kills
The rule of thumb is to put gloves on and pull the quills out of the skin. You can pull them out using your hands but be careful when pulling them out because if that little barb gets in your finger it hurts. Using pliers can either flatten them beyond use for dyeing them or break them. Many a time when I have removed quills my fingers often looked like a pin cushion.
Once you have them pulled out you want to clean them from any fur or skin around the shaft. To do this place them in a tub of hot soapy water and lightly scrape away the fur or skin with your fingernails. If you use a knife you may cut them.
In the past quills were placed in animal bladders such as buffalo and deer, however today you can keep them in storage containers by classification.
Classification of Quills
The size quill you use will depend on your project. Below are the classifications for the part of the body from which the quills came from and what project they are best for.
Underside - Delicate quills used for fine work
Back - Long slim quills used for loom work
Neck - Diaphanous quills used for embroidery
Tail - Large rough-hewn quills for wrapping
Preparation of the Quills
There are two steps in preparing quills for a project. The first is to make the quills pliable and the second is to flatten them.
If you want to be traditional you would do this by placing them in your mouth to soften them. The mouth's saliva moistens them. The other way is to place them in a bowl of hot water to soften them. But do not soak them for too long because this will cause them to break and stretch when you are working on your project. I had this happen to me once and I had to order more quills before I could finish the project.
If you want to do this traditionally, once you have the quill moistened in your mouth you would draw them between your teeth or you could use your fingernails. They would also use flat tools of antler or bone on a hard surface such as a stone or log. This removes the air from the shaft of the quill.
Today there are a variety of household tools you can use, a small metal ruler, a butter knife without a serrated edge, a spoon, anything with a flat side to it. My aunt even used a small rolling pin. Just be careful not to press down too hard; you do not want to break or rip the quill.
Dyeing the Quills
When you look at pieces of Quillwork from the past and present you will not only see natural quills but also dyed quills. The most popular colors are: red, yellow, green, purple and orange.
To get these colors, the quills are soaked in mosses, roots, berries, herbs and other plants. Today when using things from nature you may often be asked to use a mordant. This helps to set and preserve the color. Without the mordant fading and bleeding of colors occurs. There are some herbs with natural mordents so you do not have to add any more.
Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry
A few additional references to quill baskets, quill boxes and quillwork by the Native American Indians follows:
Porcupine quilling is an ancient Native American art used particularly among East Coast and Plains tribes. Indian quillwork involved softening and dying stiff porcupine quills and weaving them onto leather or birchbark. The most stunning examples of porcupine quill artistry were the Plains Indian ... http://www.native-languages.org/quillwork.htm
The art of decorating boxes and other garments with porcupine quills is unique to North America. Indians living in the Great Lakes area were doing quill work long before the first European contact in 1615. With the encouragement of French traders, a number of Great Lakes Indians -- principally the Ottawa and Chippewa -- began to place quill decorations on birch bark boxes. Today over 200 years later, quill work on birch bark boxes is well known and highly prized Native American art.
Patience is also the key to making the baskets and boxes. The quills, which are oily, have to be washed and dried, before they can be woven. Weaving them into something beautiful is detailed, painstaking work and the greatest hazard, according to Patricia, is ending up with sore fingers and an aching back.
New one-of-a-kind handwoven and artist signed collectible baskets are added regularly to Simply Baskets. Since these are one-of-a-kind baskets, when they're sold, they're gone forever. Don't wait to purchase the unique basket you love - buy it today before someone else does!