Quilled Pipe Tamper Porcupine Quillwork
Porcupine quillwork is one of the earliest forms of decoration used by the North American Indians. Its use was widespread...from the Woodlands peoples of the Northeast, the Plains peoples of the Midwest, and the Plateau peoples of the Northwest. The exact origins of quillwork are unknown but most tribal groups utilizing the technique have a legend which describes how they obtained the knowledge. Among the Plains peoples, the legend generally involves a young woman who was taught how to use porcupine quills in a dream.

Porcupine quillwork significantly predates the use of glass beads. According to some sources, quillworking tools dating to the 6th century have been found on the plains. Because of the delicate nature of porcupine quills, most surviving examples are from the 19th and 20th centuries.

As recently as the 1970's, there was concern that porcupine quillwork was becoming a lost art. Few traditional artists were using the technique. However, with the recent interest in traditional Native American art and skyrocketing prices for antiquities, quillwork is on the rise. Today, you can buy prime examples of quillwork which rival the finest examples from the 19th century. An expertly made fully-quilled pipebag can easily demand $1,000 to $2,500 from a discerning collector.

There are many different methods of using porcupine quills to decorate objects. Here are examples of items decorated with some of the more common techniques:

Quilled Pipe Tamper

The object to the left is a quilled pipe tamper. It utilizes two quillwork techniques. The horsehair dangles are a strip of leather decorated with quills using a quill wrapping technique. The lower portion is decorated using quill plaiting. This particular tamper is sometimes referred to as a "puzzle tamper" because of the intricate carvings. This object is made from one piece of wood and is 17 inches long. Lakota made c. 1994.

Quilled Pouch Quilled Pouch

This small pouch measures about 4 inches by 4 inches and is decorated with red-dyed porcupine quills which are sewn down in a method sometimes referred to as straight quilling. Lakota c.1880-1900.

Quilled Turtle Amulet
Quilled Turtle Amulet

A modern version of an umbilical amulet. When a child was born, the umbilical cord was placed in an amulet. The amulet was often used by the child as a toy and later saved for use as a charm in adulthood. Amulets were typically in shape of a turtle or lizard. This amulet is an art object only and is decorated with dyed porcupine quills attached in the simple straight quilling method. Lakota made c. 1996.

Quilled Pipebag Section

This is the quilled portion of a Plains pipebag. It is decorated using a simple quill wrapping technique around rawhide slats. Lakota c.1880-1900

Quill-Wrapped Hair Locks

This is a close up view of a warshirt with porcupine quill wrapped hair locks. The red wrappings on the black hair is the quillwork. Above the hairlocks is a small view of the beaded shirt strip.

More Information About Quillwork

We offer several books which teach you how to do porcupine quillwork and which illustrate numerous artifacts.

Books on Porcupine Quillwork


Last modified on April 29, 2019
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