The Porcupine & Porcupine Quillwork
by Pat Hartless
publication date unknown
The North American porcupine is a rodent
Genus Erethizon that spends a good deal of its life in trees stripping off
the outer bark to expose the cambrium layer which he eats. Many trees are
killed outright each year due to the amount of bark removed and from insects
and disease attacking the wound made by the porcupine.
The range of the porcupine is from Alaska
south through Canada, the Great Lakes region, parts of the Northeastern
United States, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast states. In
California, the porcupine is found in the higher mountains as far south as
the southern extreme of the Sierra Nevadas.
The quill of the porcupine is white with a
dark tip, upwards of five inches in length and one-eighth inch in diameter.
The quill is found among the long guard hair and the shorter under-fur. The
size of the quills varies with their location in the porcupine’s body, the
longer thicker quills being found on the tail, with the quills becoming more
delicate toward the head and under-belly.
Long before the white man came to this
country, porcupine quills were used as a decorating material, but the white
man brought the glass bead with him which was quickly adopted for decorating
leather articles, alone or in conjunction with porcupine quills.
At the present time, porcupine quillwork is
almost, but not quite, a lost art whereas beadwork is still being made for
sale or for personal use by many Indians, beads being easier to work with at
the sacrifice of the unmatchable beauty of quillwork.
Porcupine quills were removed from the
porcupine and sorted as to size and dyed various colors before being used.
Pre white man colors used by the Sioux to dye quills were limited to red,
yellow, black and shades thereof. These colors were obtained from various
plants and boiled in water with the quills. The length of time the quills
were left in the boiling solution determined the shade of color obtained.
The dye present in the first cloth traded to the Indian was not as stable as
dye found in cloth today, and the Indian found that by backing this cloth
with porcupine quills, the quills would become the same color as the cloth.
In later years the traders supplied aniline dyes which took the place of the
materials formerly used as aniline dyes are easier to use and offer a wider
selection of brighter colors.
Before being used, the quills were washed
well as they were generally held in the worker’s mouth as they were being
used. The warmth and moisture of saliva would soften the quills and make
them more pliable than if they were soaked in water. When dry, the quills
become hard and firm.
The basic techniques used in fastening the
quills to the article to be decorated are sewing, wrapping and plaiting. In
sewing the quills are fastened to the object to be decorated by commercial
threads or formerly by threads of sinew. Two threads are used, which are
fastened down in narrow parallel rows, the quills passing over the tops and
under the bottom of the threads in a manner which will allow the sides of
the quill to touch, but not overlap, with additional quills being laid in
place as needed. The base of the new quill is laid under the tip of the old
Wrapping is the method commonly employed in
applying quills to the quilled section of fringe on Sioux pipe bags,
breastplates and wherever a decoration is wanted on free-hanging fringe such
as on shirts or leggings. With this technique, the base of the quill is laid
parallel to the fringe on the back side of the fringe and wrapped around the
fringe in a spiraling manner from top to bottom, with the sides of the quill
touching but not overlapping. Additional quills are added by twisting the
tip of the old quill and the bottom of the new quill together against the
fringe pointing toward the bottom of the fringe. A turn of the new quill a
round the joined portion of quills will hold them securely in place. This
quilling technique is repeated until the fringe is covered to the length
desired, at which time the tip of the last quill is bent up and tucked under
a couple of wraps of quills.
in plaiting quills, two threads are
suspended horizontally in a parallel position. The quill is wrapped around
the threads in a figure 8 pattern progressing from one end of the threads
toward the other end, with the threads being the center of the 0’s in the
figure eight. The ends of the quills, both and old ones and the ones being
added, are tucked inside of wrappings of quills and against the threads. If
care is taken, it is not readily apparent where the new quills are added.
After the entire piece of plaiting is finished, it is then wrapped around
the article to be decorated. Plaiting is used on pipestems, quirt handles,
horn spoon handles and other round or oval objects.
With all methods of quilling, the color of
the quill used will determine the design form.
A technique often employed by the white
novice aspiring to become a craftsman is to cut the base of the quill off
and insert the tip of one quill into the base of another, creating a
continuous column of quills of any length desired. This column is wrapped
around the strips of rawhide needed in constructing breastplates, armbands,
etc. Although this is the easiest and fastest method of connecting quills,
it is also a method that is incorrect because it was never used by the
- The base of a quill layed on a fringe of
leather or strip of rawhide, the method of anchoring the base of the quill
with several wraps of the body of the quill, and the base of the second
quill layed over the tip of the first quill prior to twisting the two
- Shows the quills twisted together and
the tip of the second quill as it is to be wrapped over the twisted
section of both quills to anchor them to the strip being quilled. This
technique is continued, additional quills being added as needed until the
strip is covered with quills, at which time the top of the last quill is
pointed toward the top of the strip and passed under several wraps of
quills which will hold the tip in place. Quills should always be added on
the back side of the strip which will cause the quilling on the front side
of the strip to be smooth.